Welcome to the 2015 edition of Top Shelf Prospects. As the summer progresses, I will be featuring each NHL team’s top prospects, following the order of the first round of the 2015 NHL draft (as if there were no traded draft picks) —you can find all the articles here.
Because we already published an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in 2015, as my reports on them will not have changed — I will, however, link you to those articles. Instead I will focus on prospects that were acquired in past drafts, examining their progress and their chances of making the 2015-16 roster of their respective NHL team. I will also choose one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the fourth round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as a darkhorse to make the NHL.
For those wondering, the determining factors for defining who is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not set in stone, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
Its official, we have a dynasty. With their third Stanley Cup Championship in just six years, the Chicago Blackhawks cemented their place as a modern day NHL dynasty. The fact that they did so in an era with liberal free agency rules and a salary cap makes what general manager Stan Bowman has been able to build in Chicago even more impressive.
The champagne had not even finished flowing though when the Hawks had to start making moves to get under the salary cap. Gone are Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya, Brad Richards, Antoine Vermette, Antti Raanta, and Kimmo Timonen. The Hawks did add Artem Anisimov, Trevor Daley, Marko Dano, Artem Panarin and Viktor Tikhonov Jr.; and hope that they will make up for the players lost.
The losses may not be over though, as Patrick Kane is under a grand jury investigation after a woman in Hamburg, New York alleged that he raped her. His future is very much up in the air as this investigation proceeds.
Chicago Blackhawks Prospects
Top Prospect: Marko Dano, Right Wing/Centre
Born Nov 30 1994 — Eisenstadt, Austria
Height 5.11 — Weight 183 [180 cm/83 kg] — Shoots Left
Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in round 1, 27th overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Traded to the Blackhawks in June 2015
In his first full season in North America, Dano spent about equal time in the NHL and AHL. In his time with the Blue Jackets, he was very impressive, putting up eight goals and 21 points in 35 games. Dano was the centre piece of the package that the Blue Jackets gave the Hawks in order to acquire Brandon Saad, and as such there will be big expectations on the youngster.
Dano is a very good skater. His top end speed is good, and his acceleration is excellent. His stride is powerful, and his edge work crisp. He has the balance to fight through checks and to play the game in the dirty areas of the ice, and he has the agility to weave his way through defenders in the offensive zone. Dano’s quickness allows him to be first on the forecheck where he loves to get into the zone and create havoc for opposing defenders.
Dano’s game is a great combination of skill and grit. As mentioned he loves to hit and involve himself physically in the play. He plays a much bigger game than his size would indicate, battling in the corners and in front of the net. He is in the middle of every scrum, playing the agitator role and just loving to get under the skin of his opponents. He marries this with good instincts, an ability to find holes in the opposing defence, strong passing and playmaking skill, and a good shot and release. Dano’s best offensive attribute though are his soft hands which he can use to stick handle and protect the puck from defenders and to score goals in tight.
Dano also plays a strong defensive game, bringing his brand of phyiscal hockey to his own end of the rink. He is involved in all aspects of the backcheck, but is especially adept at creating turnovers and starting the transition game. He is not afraid to get his nose dirty, and seems to play with reckless abandon on every shift. In fact if there is a criticism its that he may need to reign his game in slightly to avoid costly penalties at bad times.
Dano should be part of the Hawks lineup to start the season, and he will likely play a major role on the team.
#2 Prospect: Artemi Panarin, Left Wing
Born Oct 30 1991 — Korkino, Russia
Height 5.11 — Weight 170 [180 cm/77 kg] — Shoots Right
Signed by the Chicago Blackhawks as an undrafted free agent, July 2015
With 62 points in 54 games, Artemi Panarin was the leading scorer on SKA St. Petersburg, ahead of former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk, and tied for 4th overall in the KHL. He added 20 points in 20 playoff games in helping SKA to the Gagarin Cup. He then joined Team Russia for the IIHF World Championships, scoring 10 points in 10 games and winning a silver medal and being named at top 3 player on the team. All this made the 23 year old one of the hottest free agents in hockey and he signed an entry-level deal with the Blackhawks.
Panarin is an excellent skater. He has very good top end speed and acceleration. He also has excellent agility and edgework. Panarin’s ability to change speeds, and change directions quickly makes him a nightmare to try and defend against off the rush. He also has surprisingly good balance and power in his stride given that he is listed at just 170 pounds. Obviously he has trouble in the corners with huge defensemen, but he does well with those who may be bigger, but are not a huge mismatch.
Added to Panarin’s outstanding skating, are a pair of tremendous hands. He can stickhandle in a phone both, and his ability to protect the puck benefits as a result. He can use his skating and his hands to open up passing and shooting lanes, and then take advantage with a quick wrist shot, or a tape-to-tape pass. Panarin has the vision and passing skill to be a playmaker off the wing. He can also score with quick hands in tight, and an excellent release on his shot from further out. His shot may not be the heaviest around, but the quickness of his release, and his accuracy both make up for any deficiencies in power. He could improve that aspect with a bit more upper body strength as well.
Panarin works hard on the back check, though this is the main area he struggles due to the size concern. He really is not effective in support down low against the cycle, though this can be minimized due to the fact he plays left wing. While we haven’t seen him much on the smaller ice, some transition is to be expected and the coaches will have to work on his positioning.
Panarin is a dynamic offensive talent that the Hawks should be able to slot into their top 9 forwards right away in September. I consider him a dark horse pick for the Calder Trophy come the spring.
#3 Prospect: Ville Pokka, Defence
Born Jun 3 1994 — Tornio, Finland
Height 5.11 — Weight 200 [180 cm/91 kg] — Shoots Right
Drafted by New York Islanders in round 2, 34th overall at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft
Traded to the Blackhawks in September 2014
Acquired in the cost-cutting trade of Nick Leddy to the New York Islanders, Ville Pokka had a solid first season in North America, putting up 8 goals and 30 points in 68 games for the Rockford IceHogs. He was also named to the AHL all-rookie team.
Pokka has proven to be a generaly solid defender. He is very difficult to beat off the rush as he uses excellent positioning and good quickness to always keep the forward in front of him. He has a quick stick and is good at pokechecking opponents. Pokka has shown that he can be physical and throw a hard hit if he catches a forward in a vulnerable position. He is also willing to battle hard in the corners and in front of the net, however Pokka is sometimes overwhelmed by a big, physical forward. He could use a bit more work on getting better at getting leverage, and strengthening his lower body for these battles.
Offensively Pokka plays a simple, but very effective game. He has great vision and hockey IQ which help him to quarterback the powerplay. A very good passer, Pokka can make effective tape to tape passes to teammates both from the blue line in the offensive zone and in his own zone to start the breakout. Pokka’s slapshot has gotten harder since being drafted, but he still needs a little work on the accuracy and getting it through traffic. He does possess a good wrist shot, and can often be seen sneaking in from the point on the power play in an attempt to recieve a pass and unleash it.
Pokka is a decent skater, but not great. His top end speed is good, and his balance is also adequate. He does however need to work on his pivots, agility and changes of direction before he will be ready for the next level.
Pokka can be an effective 2nd pairing defender in the NHL. There are some aspects of his game that need work before he reaches the pros, but the potential is certainly there. I’d expect to see him spend another year in the AHL this season.
Super Sleeper: Vince Hinostroza, Centre
Born Apr 3 1994 — Bartlett, IL
Height 5.09 — Weight 175
Drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in round 6, 169th overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft
Since being a sixth round pick in 2012, Vince Hinostroza has done nothing but score. In 2012-13 he put up 60 points in 46 games for Waterloo in the USHL. He followed that up with a great freshman season for a low scoring, defense first Notre Dame squad putting up 32 points in 34 games. He also made Team USA for the World Juniors and had 5 points in 5 games. Last season he put up 44 points in 42 games for Notre Dame, before turning pro and signing an ELC with the Hawks. He’d start his pro career in the AHL and had a pair of assists in five games with Rockford.
Just a reminder that this is the sleeper pick according to the 4th round or later criteria, and not the fourth best prospect in the system. While we like Hinostroza, he just doesn’t surpass a number of the players the Hawks drafted higher.
Hinostroza is a high-energy player who is always moving his feet and always involved in the play. Despite his small size, he is not afraid to get his nose dirty on the forecheck, or to battle for pucks on the boards or in front of the net. Once he gets the puck, Hinostroza, has shown slick stickhandling and the ability to extend plays allowing his linemates the time to get open. He has excellent vision and can make strong passes through very small openings to create plays. Hinostroza has shown an ability to score goals with his quick hands on rebounds, tip-ins, and dekes in close, but isn’t really known as a sniper from further out, as his wrist shot lacks power.
Hinostroza is a very good skater with good top end speed and acceleration. He can beat defenders to the outside on the rush and gets in very quickly on the forecheck. He has the agility to be very shifty and avoid defensders in the offensive zone. He also has the balance and low centre of gravity necessary to play his gritty game.
Hinostroza’s defensive game has developed at Notre Dame as he backchecks well and is not afraid to block shots to help the team. His biggest detriment though is his size, as he simply can’t contain bigger forwards in the cycle.
Hinostroza has the natural talent to make the NHL, but must overcome his small size. He needs to bulk up to play his game at the pro level, and needs to continually improve even the strengths of his game like his playmaking ability and skating. To make the NHL at 5’9″ you really have to have a skill set apart from the average player, but Hinostroza has shown the ability to be a dominant player at the World Junior and NCAA level despite that size. Don’t count out this 6th rounders ability to overcome this obstacle. He should spend a full season in the AHL this year.
The Hawks continue to build through the draft and have great depth in their system. Up front they have Nick Schmaltz and Ryan Hartman who are just on the outside of the top three in this report. Philip Danault, Mark McNeil, Tyler Motte and John Hayden provide depth and Graham Knott was a good pickup in the draft. While not a prospect as he’s over the 50 NHL game limit, the addition of Viktor Tikhonov Jr. was also a good one and he has instant chemistry with Artemi Panarin. He is a much better player now, than when he left the Coyotes organization. On defence the Hawks will see Trevor van Riemsdyk battling for a spot in the lineup this year. They also have Dillon Fournier, Luc Snuggerud and Gustav Forsling and added Denis Gilbert at the draft. The only issue with this prospect group is in goal, where there is a lack of a high end prospect.