Now that the Chicago Blackhawks’ prospect camp is in the rear view mirror, it’s time to hit somebody in a different sweater in the annual prospect tournament
It’s been a long summer for Chicago Blackhawks fans, but the annual prospect tournament in Traverse City, Mich., is a sign that hockey is coming. The Blackhawks this week released their roster for the tournament, which doesn’t include 2017 first-round pick Henri Jokiharju and 2016 second-round pick Chad Krys because both players sustained injuries at the World Junior Summer Showcase last month.
A lot of fans will look at this roster and quickly assume that former Erie Otters winger Alex DeBrincat is the player to watch in this tournament simply because of his phenomenal numbers in the OHL. But the Blackhawks are too smart to rush DeBrincat into the NHL. They are well aware of his talent and skill, but will make sure he is put in the right situation to succeed.
It’s no easy feat to go from juniors to the NHL no matter how well you performed against your peers. And with an overhaul in the Blackhawks’ farm system, player development has to be the key that gets the ’Hawks back to Stanley Cup contention. As much as NHL Network wants DeBrincat to contend for the Calder Trophy this season, he will most likely end up in Rockford to learn how to be a pro.
Now that we got the elephant in the room out of the way, let’s look at a few players who can make some noise in this tournament and challenge some Blackhawks for their jobs.
Fortin didn’t participate in this summer’s prospect camp, so the rookie tournament will be the first chance for Blackhawks to see his development since last season. Fortin is no stranger to this tournament. In fact, his performance last year earned him an entry-level contract from the Blackhawks.
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He continued to impress the ’Hawks’ coaching staff in training camp by making it to the final cuts for the opening night roster. The ’Hawks had Fortin return to the QMJHL to get stronger and develop his game, and apparently that’s what he’s done.
It’s interesting that all the media attention is gathering around DeBrincat, most likely because of his flashy goal-scoring ability and playmaking skills. But right now, the Blackhawks almost don’t need that player, and aren’t looking for those qualities. In fact, they just traded a 25-year-old, electric goal scorer in Artemi Panarin.
In the Blackhawks’ system, they are looking for smart, mature hockey players who can make the right play and be responsible. Coach Joel Quenneville is known to not trust young players, but Fortin seemed to win him over last year when he proved he could skate with the big boys.
What the Blackhawks need to see from Fortin in this rookie event is attention to defense and control is all zones. Fortin’s speed has never been the problem, but controlling the puck on the rush and making the easy pass need to come naturally.
As for his game defensively, his size and strength will contribute to his ability to contest the puck carrier. If Fortin can win some battles in the corners and help on the breakout, he maybe the best fit as left wing on the second line instead of Patrick Sharp or Nick Schmaltz.
I will be the first person to tell you that I am not a fan of Graham Knott, personally. At prospect camp, he couldn’t win a faceoff and looked slow despite having decent hands and a nice scoring touch. But his potential is sky high.
The Blackhawks missed out on their second-line center of the future when 2010 first-round pick Kevin Hayes walked out on them to play for New York in 2014 after college. With a similar build and skill level at 6-foot-4,195 pounds, Knott should be knocking at the Blackhawks’ door. The ‘Hawks are dying for center depth, and adding a piece like Knott would help immensely.
Knott already has had success at the junior level, winning the Memorial Cup with the Windsor Spitfires last season. It’s probable that Knott will spend at least one full season in Rockford adjusting to the pro game, but the ’Hawks will have their eye on him, especially if a key injury occurs.
Da Windy City
Knott has the opportunity this weekend to push around some other guys and play with some pretty talented wingers. If he can find other ways to contribute, like killing penalties and playing smart defensively, I don’t see why he can’t challenge a guy like Tanner Kero for his job in Chicago.
We know that Knott has skill, but can he get nasty? If Knott shows improvement at the dot and can provide some net-front presence, the Hawks may have a diamond in the rough.
The Blackhawks’ blue line is what has got everybody worried this preseason with the significant loss of Niklas Hjalmarsson. The Blackhawks’ return was a young, big defenseman in Connor Murphy, but his contributions to the team are to be seen.
To me, there are three spots that are up for grabs, and it hasn’t been often in the last several years that the ’Hawks have been able to say that. Gustav Forsling, Michal Kempny and Jan Rutta are in no way locks for starting roles unless they win the job by default.
Carl Dahlstrom is a player the Blackhawks don’t usually carry on their roster. They tend to like quick, puck-moving defensemen who can clear the zone quickly. It’s interesting when you look at the Rockford IceHogs’ statistics from last season and see that Dahlstrom was somewhat responsible defensively, having a plus/minus of minus-12, when a more notable prospect like Vilie Pokka was minus-25.
A problem the Blackhawks had last season and beyond was clearing the front of the net. Teams noticed that to beat the ‘Hawks, they needed to keep the puck in their zone and score hard-working, greasy goals. There’s no denying the Blackhawks score prettier goals than their opponents, but don’t the count for the same amount of points?
If Dahlstrom can show improvement in his skating and be a shutdown defenseman, he may be in the conversation of making the team. He’s had a full season in Rockford, he’s willing to throw his body around and hopefully will give guys like Jeff Carter the business when he decides to park it in front of Corey Crawford.
So will the prospect tournament be the end all be all for some of the Blackhawks rookies? Definitely not. And there are several other names that could be big factors in the tournament this weekend, but they will need time in the AHL to develop. With a new coach in Rockford and a very young team, the IceHogs will be looking to do things a new way and that includes getting players to the next level when they’re ready.
Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith will be fine without DeBrincat this season. But eventually you need to find successors to core players before you lose them and are scrambling to find their replacements. Someone should’ve been in line to succeed Marian Hossa and Hjalmarsson. And that all starts with development and seeing if these young guys can play on NHL ice.