Friday was the first day of the Blackhawks Prospect Camp, which will run through Monday afternoon. There are over 70 players invited this year, and they have been split into four teams, with two practicing and scrimmaging in the morning and the other two in the afternoon.
It was interesting, and telling, how the Blackhawks arranged the players on the four teams. In the morning, most of the 2010 draft picks were on the ice with a lot of the players in the organization that are considered one or two years away from the NHL; lots of the players that skated in the morning will be playing college hockey this winter.
The Hawks top pick, Kevin Hayes, skated on a line with his brother and Boston College teammate Jimmy in the morning. Both are big kids that demand attention on the ice, but Jimmy looks like he’s still figuring out that he’s 6’5 and 215 pounds. Both skate well for their size, but clearly can, and will, use some more time at BC to grow into their game.
Three players really jumped off the ice in the morning session.
Dylan Olsen, one of the team’s highest rated prospect, was obviously the most talented player on the ice. Listed at 6’2 and 206 pounds at just 19, Olsen projects as a top-four defenseman but has a lot of maturing to do into his body and game. There were a number of instances where he made an aggressive physical play that led to an odd-man rush into the offensive zone for the other team; as he learns the game more that won’t happen. He was very impressive in drills, though.
Ludvig Rensfeldt, one of this year’s second round draft picks, really impressed. Only 18, he’s already listed at 6’3 and 190 pounds but was surprisingly quick on the ice. He was one of the faster, more fluid skaters that made every drill look easy and did a nice job creating space for himself in traffic. His skating ability comes with a nice, quick release that should only get better with time.
Braden Birch was the third player that really looked good in the morning skate. At 6’3 and 195 pounds, he has the size to be an impact defenseman and was more under control in the drills and scrimmage than Olsen. He was rarely out of position, but was still an effective physical force on the ice. He’s still only 20, and plans to be back at Cornell this winter, but Birch could be a contributor on the blue line for the Hawks in the future. Philippe Paradis, acquired from Toronto in the Kris Versteeg trade, also looked good in the morning skate.
One disappointment on Friday was Mathis Olimb, a free agent center signed to a one-year deal. From what he showed in drills and in the scrimmage on Friday morning, he’s a long shot to contribute to the NHL roster this year.
The afternoon teams were made up largely of players that would figure to factor into the Blackhawks more immediate future. Many of the players were more mature, like Ben Smith, who was the Most Outstanding Player for Boston College at last year’s Frozen Four. The afternoon scene was where the big names, like Kyle Beach and Shawn LaLonde, finally appeared for a full house of fans.
It was clear right away that Beach was the alpha male on the ice. He demonstrated each drill and then ran it first. He was more fluid on his skates than almost anyone in the morning group, and there was a thundering difference between his shot on the boards and anyone in the morning. Beach is faster on his skates, stronger with the puck and puts the rubber on net with more force than anyone at the camp.
Beach took some time in the middle of the scrimmage to fight, and the crowd got their money’s worth from both Beach and John Kurtz. Both players landed a number of blows, and the officials let the players dance for a while before finally breaking it up. According to the Blackhawks, the two will need to sort their differences out quickly, though; they’re rooming together during the camp.
LaLonde was also very impressive in the afternoon skate. What was very interesting was that despite most of the college-bound players skating in the morning, Nick Leddy skated in the afternoon and was paired with LaLonde for the entire scrimmage. The two looked really good together, and looked like Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook if they were 19 and had never skated together before.
Leddy has been talked about as an elite skater, with some scouts even making the cardinal sin of comparing him to Bobby Orr. After watching him on the ice for a couple hours, he was more impressive than his scouting reports or brief appearances on YouTube allow. He flies up and down the ice, almost always under control, and handles the puck extremely well. I would confidently say that, while physically he isn’t as mature, he is every bit the skater that Brian Campbell is right now. I was stunned with the quality from Leddy.
Next to Leddy was LaLonde, who has a chance to possibly make the Hawks roster this fall. He’s a bigger kid, 6’1 and 192 pounds, but his speed on the ice and puck handling were very impressive for a 20-year-old with limited AHL experience. He was rarely, if ever, out of position in the scrimmage, and made every drill look easy. After a couple hours this afternoon, there is no question in my mind that LaLonde could contribute in the NHL this winter.
On the same “red” team as LaLonde and Leddy was another surprising pair on the blue line that also played extremely well. Ryan Stanton was paired with 2010 second round pick Stephen Johns, who will skate at Notre Dame this winter, and they were also a solid pair. Stanton, also just 20, is listed at 6’2 and 205 pounds and was more a more physical defenseman during the scrimmage, which could be expected from an WHL veteran. What was really impressive was that Johns, who skated for the US U-18 team last year, held his own with Stanton. Johns is listed at 6’3 and 215 pounds at just 18, but controlled himself very well and filled space on the ice with ease.
If the Blackhawks look to bring two youngsters up to the blue line this year, both LaLonde and Stanton appear ready to contribute at the NHL level. Leddy might be ready sooner than people think as well, and despite being a couple years away, Johns could be an impact player in the league soon as well.
Two forwards other than Beach really stood out in the afternoon session. Marcus Kruger and Jeremy Morin, the prospect acquired in the Byfuglien trade with Atlanta, both showed fantastic skill with the puck and were able to create shots for themselves and others in traffic. Kruger had an assist off a pretty pass on a breakaway, and Morin scored a goal on a gorgeous move as well. Morin, 19, and Kruger, 20, will get some time to develop physically, but both showed the ability to make an impact on the scoresheet.