When he signed a one-year contract to stay in Chicago this year, most observers assumed that former first round pick Jack Skille was a lock to make the NHL roster.
Skille, 23, has good size (6’1, 215) but has never been able to translate his effective play from the AHL to Chicago. However, a popular rationalization for his limited action in Chicago was his inflated cap number (over $1M) because he was the seventh overall pick in the 2005 Draft. Apologists claimed that, if he got a chance, he could perform at the NHL level.
Now is his chance.
After the departures of so many depth players in the Hawks forward lines, it appeared that Skille had the concrete ceiling keeping him in Rockford broken down. On paper, the Blackhawks needed to replace at least one top-six forward and most of their bottom two lines. This was the ideal opportunity for Skille, who’s cap number was significantly lower because his rookie contract had expired, to see playing time.
However, the trades that sent many of the depth players out of town may hurt Skille’s chances more than they helped him.
When the Blackhawks hosted their prospect camp in July, a number of players that were acquired in summer trades jumped into the mix to make the NHL roster this season. Jeremy Morin was very impressive in the July sessions, and Kyle Beach’s raw talent and great production in juniors forced management and the coaching staff to pay attention to his play.
In the weeks just before training camp opened, the Blackhawks made two under-the-radar moves that further complicated Skille’s future. When Fernando Pisani and Ryan Potulnysigned with Chicago, they brought specific skills to the roster that provided one key element that Skille could not: they had NHL experience on their resumes. Pisani is a quality defensive forward, while Potulny has scored as many as 16 goals in an NHL season.
The available spots on the roster were shrinking.
But with the Hawks clearing cap space, they now have the flexibility to have 22 or 23 players on the NHL roster. Even if Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg joined Pisani and Potulny on the NHL roster, the Hawks figured to have at least one forward spot open among their top 12. Whether or not John Scott factors into the forward rotation or on the blue line (or if he’s worthy of ice time considering the other talent available) is another issue all together; Skille figured to get a good, long look at the 12th forward spot.
Before training camp opened on Thursday, Skille felt like a lock.
Then the team started skating.
Bickell blew away the first four days of training camp, leading the entire collection of talent with six goals. He is clearly jumping on his opportunity to replace Dustin Byfuglien as the primary power forward, and could play his way into top-six ice time this season.
However, right behind Bickell with five goals in four games is Beach, who was a disappointment at the prospect camp and again in the Toronto rookie tournament. His approach appears to have changed; in the two previous appearances with the Hawks, Beach showed a fight-first mentality. In training camp he’s effectively putting his offensive skills to work and has produced well as a bigger (6’3, 210) forward.
Also impressing everyone has been Igor Makarov. With three goals and three assists in just three scrimmages, Makarov has created the same buzz in this year’s training camp that he did in 2008.
Morin’s vision on the ice has led to two goals and two assists, but he continues to be a very impressive prospect. At just 19, Morin’s age might be the only reason he starts the season in the AHL. Two other prospects that have been with the organization a little longer, Rob Klinkhammer and David Gilbert, have scored three goals each and could get a longer look in a few preseason games because of their strong play in the training camp scrimmages.
Meanwhile, Skille has been underwhelming. He has one goal and one assist in four scrimmages, but nothing about his game has jumped off the ice. In the “championship game” of the training camp’s scrimmage tournament, Skille was clearly outplayed by both Morin and Beach; Makarov was not on the ice.
Right now, Makarov looks more likely to make the Hawks roster than Skille.
Another issue Skille will have to combat is the Hawks’ depth. Scott can play both forward and defense, but isn’t an 82-game player. Because of health concerns in the past, Pisani can’t guarantee a full season either. At the same time, Stalberg has only 40 NHL games of experience, but looked good skating with Marian Hossa over the weekend, scoring two goals and adding one assist in three scrimmages.
The Blackhawks have two defensemen, Jordan Hendry and Nick Boynton, that do not figure to be 82-game players either. This means one of the three bottom slots will likely be filled by a defenseman. While Scott might play a part in this part of the depth chart, it’s more likely that an impressive youngster like Nick Leddy, Ivan Vishnevskiy or Shawn Lalonde gets a look.
Lalonde was the most impressive player at the prospect camp in July, and continues to look NHL-ready in training camp. He spent a lot of time on the ice with Brent Seabrook this weekend, and looked comfortable. His positioning was solid, and his puck moving ability could be a dimension the coaching staff wants to see on the roster.
Both Morin and Beach have played center at times, something Skille cannot claim. Add to the mix at center Potulny and Jake Dowell, and the Hawks may consider faceoffs into the depth chart as well.
It all adds up to Skille struggling to find his place on the roster. There are a lot of good, young, talented players in the mix, and the additions of a few veterans meant Skille was among the players that needed to earn their spot in the NHL. So far, he hasn’t.