A great deal of speculation swirled around the NHL Draft this weekend in Pittsburgh regarding Niklas Hjalmarsson’s future with the Blackhawks organization. Reports indicate that Chicago is shopping both Hjalmarsson and Steve Montador (while he recovers from a concussion).
While the NHL club is looking to move a defenseman out, the team’s AHL affiliate needs to add bodies on their blue line.
When the draft ended, the Blackhawks were thin on blue line prospects under contract. If we leave Dylan Olsen on the NHL roster, there are only five defensemen signed by Chicago to play in Rockford: Ryan Stanton, Joe Lavin, Shawn Lalonde, Klas Dahlbeck and Adam Clendening.
That total does not include Ben Youds, who was named the Most Improved Player in Rockford last year but is not under contract with the Blackhawks organization.
Even if Olsen begins the year in Rockford, or if the club cannot move Montador and he begins the season there, there is still room for another body (or two) to be added to the organization.
Will the Blackhawks look to a minor league free agent to fill the Rockford roster? Is there a prospect coming via trade? Or will they consider extending a contract offer to one of their other prospects?
There are a few college prospects the organization could look to for depth in Rockford.
Paul Phillips, from suburban Darien, was a seventh round pick in 2009 and just finished his third season at the University of Denver, where he was an alternate captain. He’s listed at 6-0 and 200 pounds, and put up a career-best nine points (one goal, eight assists) in 40 games.
Justin Holl was a second round pick in 2010, and has spent the last two years at the University of Minnesota. He posted 11 points (three goals, eight assists) and 34 penalty minutes in 43 games for Minnesota this year. He’s listed at 6-3 and 196 pounds.
Stephen Johns was also a second round pick in 2010, and has been at Notre Dame since. He registered 10 points (four goals, six assists) and 71 penalty minutes in 39 games this year for the Fighting Irish. Listed at 6-4 and 230 pounds, he’s bigger than anyone in Rockford already. And, in 83 games over two years at Notre Dame, he’s piled up 169 penalty minutes.
Nick Mattson just completed his freshman year at the University of North Dakota, but he’s already 21; he spent two successful years with Indianapolis of the USHL before moving on to the college ranks. He was a sixth round pick (180th overall) in 2010 by the Hawks, and went on to win the USHL Defenseman of the Year in 2010-11. He’s listed at 6-1 and 180 pounds, and posted six goals and 13 assists in 42 games last year.
One of Mattson’s teammates at North Dakota is also in the Hawks’ system. Joe Gleason, who turned 22 on April 1, just completed his third season with North Dakota. He had 15 assists in 41 games last year, and is listed at 5-9 and 182 pounds. The Blackhawks selected Gleason in the seventh round in 2008.
A couple of 2011 picks, Michael Paliotta (U. of Vermont) and Sam Jardine (Ohio State) are also in the system, but neither of them appears to be ready to make the jump.
Most of these college prospects aren’t pressing for attention because there isn’t a significant difference between what they bring to the table and the players already in Rockford.
However, Johns’ size and physical play is something that is lacking on the blue line all the way to the highest level of the organization. Stanton is a physical defenseman, but at 6-2 and 205 pounds he isn’t as physically imposing as Johns. If the Hawks want to be more involved with Johns development, they might put an offer on the table this summer.
The clear problem with any organization considering putting a youngster under contract at this point is the potential for a work stoppage this fall.
As the Blackhawks approach the beginning of free agency, and as trade winds pick up, they may look to add a defenseman to the Rockford roster from outside the organization. But where they stand today, there’s room to add on the blue line.