Blackhawks hoping Traverse City could serve as springboard for top prospects going into 2019 training camp

Blackhawks hoping Traverse City could serve as springboard for top prospects going into 2019 training camp

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — For the fifth consecutive year and eighth time total, the Blackhawks sent many of their top prospects to Traverse City to participate in the annual Prospect Tournament ahead of the 2019-20 hockey season. Thirty-seven Blackhawks prospects who have participated in this tournament have gone on to play in the NHL.

It’s a great opportunity for the organization to evaluate where each player is in their development curve going into the season, but also for the players to start off on the right foot.

"It's great for I think the vast majority of them, it's their first taste of pro experience," Blackhawks director of player development Mark Eaton told NBC Sports Chicago. "They get a little taste of it at development camp where they're surrounded by other guys of their skill level but to come here and play against three other teams made up of their respective teams' best prospects, it kind of helps them get perspective that they may be the best where they were coming from but as you keep moving up and progressing levels, everybody gets better.

"So it's a great taste for them, especially guys who are going into training camp right after. It's a great ... we don't want to use the word tune-up because this is serious stuff and we don't want them to view it that way, but it gives them a taste and momentum going into training camp."

The Blackhawks use their annual development camp in July as a week of teaching more than anything. It’s not necessarily an evaluation period. Traverse City is the time to do that because everyone is back into hockey mode and the offseason training is over with.

So what does the team look for in a tournament like this, where there's minimal practice time, you're playing with players you've never played with before and doing so against other top prospects in a high-stakes round-robin format?

"It's hard to get into the specifics,” Eaton said. “Minus our college prospects for this tournament, it gives us a chance to see them compete together against other prospects, so it allows us to better compare them against each other seeing them in game situations, seeing how they read plays, this or that, things that are harder to evaluate at development camp more on an individual basis during the season. So to see all of our top guys together, playing together at once, it helps with the comparison and evaluate kind of where they fall."

Two years ago, Alex DeBrincat had an underwhelming development camp because his game doesn’t stand out during individual drills. What makes him great is his ability to find open ice in a game-type setting.

DeBrincat shined in the 2017 Traverse City Prospect Tournament and scored the game-winning goal for the Blackhawks in the championship game. He followed that up by making the team out of training camp, beating out Patrick Kane for the team lead with 29 goals in his rookie campaign then potted 41 goals in his second season. Not bad.

While the organization doesn't want to put too much stock into this four-day tournament, Traverse City is a good opportunity for players to make a strong first impression and perhaps propel guys like Adam Boqvist and Kirby Dach going into training camp on Friday as they look to push for roster spots and make decisions difficult on management when finalizing the Opening Day lineup.

"No question, Alex is probably the biggest standout that we've had at this tournament,” Eaton said. “I think he came in with the mentality that he was going to prove something. He wanted to show that he belonged and that he was going to fight for a spot at training camp and that's exactly what he did at this tournament and the rest is history as far as what happened the rest of that year and last year as well.

"When I used the term earlier ‘warm-up,’ we don't want them to view it that way, we want them to come out here and be assertive, not dip their toe in the water; come here and show us that you belong and that you're ready to take that step."

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Brandon Saad joins the Blackhawks All-Decade Team

Brandon Saad joins the Blackhawks All-Decade Team

Throughout the 2019-20 season, NBC Sports Chicago will be unveiling its Blackhawks All-Decade Team. The roster will feature the 14 forwards, 7 defensemen and two goaltenders that made the biggest impact on the franchise from the 2010 through 2019 seasons.

Man Child. The Saad Father. Baby Hoss. Kneel Before Saad.

You’ve got to have a pretty good start to your career to get nicknames and phrases like that coined after you as a 20-something breaking into the league. What Brandon Saad did in the first few seasons of his NHL career certainly qualifies.

After being selected in the second round of the NHL draft in 2011 (a steal, by all accounts), Saad eventually worked his way into the Blackhawks’ lineup and became a key contributor on two Stanley Cup teams…and did so before the age of 23.

Saad has spent parts of seven seasons in Chicago, notching 95 goals and 211 points in 374 games as a member of the Blackhawks. But his presence has been felt even more so in the playoffs. In 67 playoff games with the Hawks, Saad has 15 goals and 19 assists with a plus-16 rating. And if it weren’t for a tough-luck loss in Game 7 against the Kings in the 2014 Western Conference Finals, he might have had his name in consideration for a Conn Smythe Trophy, too.

Unfortunately for Saad, his career might forever be linked to Artemi Panarin’s because of the 2017 trade that brought the power-forward back to Chicago. But for as good as the Panarin/Artem Anisimov/Patrick Kane line was for a while – and that line doesn’t happen without Anisimov coming to Chicago in the first Saad trade – there might not have been a better two-way line in the NHL at one point than Saad/Jonathan Toews/Marian Hossa.

Whatever nickname you choose for him, Brandon Saad earns a spot on our Blackhawks All-Decade team as the left winger on the third line. 

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Alex Nylander on healthy scratch, feedback from Jeremy Colliton and role with Blackhawks

Alex Nylander on healthy scratch, feedback from Jeremy Colliton and role with Blackhawks

Alex Nylander's first couple weeks of the 2019-20 season have been interesting. He started on the top line and scored a goal in the season opener but by the third game found himself on the outside looking in.

Nylander sat out for one game before drawing back into the lineup on Monday, where he was placed on the fourth line with Ryan Carpenter and Zack Smith. He logged a team-low 8:20 of ice time, but scored the second goal of the game that turned out to be the game-winner.

While he was disappointed about being a healthy scratch against Winnipeg on Saturday, Nylander took the positives out of observing the action from afar and taking a step back to collect himself.

"Of course you always want to be in the lineup but that could've been good for me to watch the game and learn from that game and take what I learned from that game into my game," Nylander said. "It was obviously something you don't want to do, you want to be in the lineup as much as possible and obviously stay there. I played a good game last game so I'm just going to build off that and keep doing what I've done all training camp, be confident and make my plays."

Nylander and head coach Jeremy Colliton sat down on Wednesday and watched every shift the 21-year-old took in Monday's 3-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers. And the review was positive.

"I thought he was very good," Colliton said. "Eleven shifts, he was probably good for five, great for five and he had one tough one. He helped us win. He was a big part of our win the other night. It can be a little easier for him when he's playing less to really focus on the quality when he's out there. It may not be a bad thing for him as he grows into an everyday NHLer."

Nylander said he appreciated having that kind of line of communication with his head coach. He was drafted No. 8 overall in 2016 but hasn't been able to break through at the NHL level, so he's been open to any kind of constructive criticism.

"It's been really great," Nylander said. "Obviously I want to have a positive mindset every day here and get better. Getting feedback from my linemates as well as the coaches has been really good, just taking everything in and applying it to my game."  

The Blackhawks are trying to being patient with Nylander, but they're also trying to find a balance between giving him a long leash and holding him accountable. That goes with any young player.

"It's a combination of giving a guy enough room to make some mistakes and that's how he's going to grow but it's also accountability," Colliton said. "Sometimes you got to get a guy's attention. But he's responded great. Got no issues with his work ethic. He came out of the lineup for one game and I think he did everything right after that. Just how he approached practice, how he approached the media, being asked about it and how he approached his chance when he came back to make a difference for us."  

For now, Nylander will remain on the fourth line because the four-line rotation worked so well in their previous game. But it's clear he wants to have a large role on the team. He's just got to earn it on a consistent basis.

"Just focus on every shift I get here and obviously want to be good every shift and show that I want to be back on the top line or get more ice time," Nylander said. "But I've just got to play good here, work hard every shift and take advantage of who's out there and use my skill out there and just try to make plays and be good defensively as well."

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