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."