Blackhawks

Early NHL mock draft: Six potential candidates for Blackhawks at No. 3 overall

dylan_cozens_nhl.jpg
NHL

Early NHL mock draft: Six potential candidates for Blackhawks at No. 3 overall

The 2019 NHL Draft has a similar feel to last year's draft. There's no debate about which players are going No. 1 and 2: Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko.

The No. 3 spot is where it gets interesting and could go in many different directions. Luckily for the Blackhawks, they'll be the ones to decide how it unfolds after the ping pong balls moved them up nine spots from No. 12 to No. 3 in what's being viewed by the organization as "a game-changer."

Whether the Blackhawks should keep it or look to trade it is a discussion for another day, but let's dive right into some possible candidates for the Blackhawks at No. 3 overall (in alphabetical order):

1. Bowen Byram, D

The Blackhawks have taken three defensemen (Nicolas Beaudin, Adam Boqvist and Henri Jokiharju) in the first round of the past two NHL Drafts, and also used a second-rounder in 2017 to take Ian Mitchell. But their philosophy is usually to go for the best available player and that could be Byram.

Byram, who's only 17, racked up 71 points (26 goals, 45 assists) in 67 games this season for the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League. He also has 12 points (three goals, nine assists) in nine playoff contests.

At 6-foot-0, 193 pounds, Byram is a supremely gifted skater and can take over a game at any moment. He's a minutes eater and can play effectively in all three zones. If the Blackhawks are looking to add to their pipeline of defensemen, he's the best in this class.

2. Dylan Cozens, C

The Blackhawks have a strong 1-2 punch up the middle in Jonathan Toews and Dylan Strome. But you can never have enough high-end centermen, and with Toews now in his 30s, it's important to start collecting some pieces that could be building blocks for the future.

Cozens, 18, is the third-ranked North American skater, according to NHL's Central Scouting rankings. In 68 games for the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the WHL, he accumulated 84 points (34 goals, 50 assists), won 49.2 percent of his faceoffs and had a plus-38 goal differential at 5-on-5. He also had eight points (four goals, four assists) in seven postseason contests. Good things happen when he's on the ice.

At 6-foot-3, 180 pounds, Cozens is known to be smooth skater, pure goal scorer and smart defender who can kill penalties. That sounds like someone the Blackhawks could use.

3. Kirby Dach, C

There's only one player ranked above Dach in NHL's Central Scouting North American skater rankings and that's Hughes, who's expected to go No. 1 overall. 

Dach, 18, has spent the last three seasons with the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL, where he ranked third on the team this season with 73 points (25 goals, 48 assists) in 62 games and scored five game-winning goals. He also led the Blades with seven points (five goals, two assists) in seven postseason tilts.

At 6-foot-4, 197 pounds, Dach has the makings to be a big, powerful center who's hard to play against. He can play in all situations, including both the power play and penalty kill, and can play the role of a shutdown centerman. 

4. Peyton Krebs, LW/C

The Blackhawks have had a rotation of players at left wing over the last couple seasons, so there's certainly a desire to start adding some high-level talent in that area and giving their centers offensive playmakers and goal scorers to play with. They also like having versatility up front and players who can bounce around positions if needed. Krebs would fit the description here as a player who can also play center.

The 18-year-old forward led the Kootenay Ice of the WHL this season with 68 points (19 goals, 49 assists) in 64 games, and did so while facing the highest quality of competition on a nightly basis. Krebs, 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, is known to have a terrific hockey IQ and plays with a high motor. He's also the captain of Kootenay, showing he's got the leadership qualities every team aspires to have in the locker room.

5. Vasili Podkolzin, RW

The No. 1 European skater after Kakko? That would be Podkolzin.

Podkolzin, 18, is a 6-foot-1, 190-pound Russian winger who has all the qualities teams are looking for in a player. He can skate, he can score, he's got a competitive edge, has an elite hockey IQ and is just as effective on the defensive side of things.

The potential hang-up here is that Podkolzin's contract with SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League reportedly runs through the 2020-21 season, although TSN's Craig Button said Tuesday night that he doesn't have any doubts that Podkolzin will play in the NHL next season.

6. Alex Turcotte, C

This is the kind of player that catches your attention and will jump off your TV screen. 

Turcotte, 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, is an 18-year-old center who's known to be an offensive playmaker with elite speed and plays a 200-foot game. In 30 games with the U.S. National Under-18 team this season, he posted 53 points (23 goals, 30 assists) for a points-per-game average of 1.77.

Turcotte is an Illinois native, and even spent one season with the Chicago Mission Under 16 team. If the Blackhawks are looking for a flashy player that can score, Turcotte can be that guy. But he's committed to play at Wisconsin for the 2019-20 season, so it's unlikely he would make the jump to the NHL right away.

*All advanced stats via prospect-stats.com

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Why fixing penalty kill is crucial for Blackhawks in 2019-20

Why fixing penalty kill is crucial for Blackhawks in 2019-20

Just how important is special teams in the NHL?

Of the 16 teams that qualified for the postseason, 14 clubs had at least one special teams unit that was ranked in the top half of the league and 12 teams had at least one unit ranked in the top 10.

The Blackhawks finished the season with the 15th-ranked power play and 31st-ranked penalty kill. The Blackhawks' 72.7 percent kill rate is the lowest the league has seen in 30 years.

“The penalty kill is something that clearly has to be better," GM Stan Bowman said. "That was a big disappointment this year, no question about that. So we have to devote some resources to that. Some of it might be players, if we get some players that have that kind of experience or have a history. Part of it is tactically can we find ways to be better. We have a lot of time now to study it and put a lot of our focus on that.”

Jeremy Colliton did not rule out getting external help to improve the PK.

“We’re going to look at everything, for sure," he said. "We’re going to look at obviously tactically and we’re going to look at the personnel and how we’re using guys and try to put them in the best situation we can. And maybe that’s new, different guys who weren’t getting the opportunity. Or maybe that’s someone from outside.”

The Blackhawks did manage to fix their power play issues this past season. When Colliton became head coach on Nov. 6, the Blackhawks power play was near the bottom of the league. By December, the man advantage was dead last, cashing in on fewer than 12 percent of their power plays.

Colliton made Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome and Erik Gustafsson his top power play unit and from Dec. 20 till the end of February they were the league's best unit, converting on 35.2 percent of their power plays.  

Gustafsson’s addition to the power play was a major factor in the unit's improvement.

"A big part of our power play progression and transformation from being at the bottom to being in the top group," Bowman said of Gustafsson. "I was really pleased with that and we're going to need him next year for sure.”

If the Blackhawks penalty kill can make strides like the power play did, Colliton’s crew will likely be playing at this time next season.

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Recapping breakout OHL season for Blackhawks top prospect Adam Boqvist

Recapping breakout OHL season for Blackhawks top prospect Adam Boqvist

The London Knights set high expectations for themselves going into the 2018-19 OHL campaign. They always do. Their roster is usually loaded with top NHL prospects and this season was no different.

After finishing No. 1 in the Western Conference with 99 points, the Knights looked poised to go on a deep run. They got off to a roaring start in the playoffs by sweeping the Windsor Spitfires (4-0) and kicked off the second round by winning three straight against the Guelph Storm. But then, for the first time all season, the Knights lost four in a row to squander a 3-0 series lead and were eliminated just like that. It was a disappointing finish for a team with Memorial Cup aspirations.

One of the bright spots of the postseason was Blackhawks prospect Adam Boqvist. He was tied for first among all skaters with 10 goals through two rounds; no other defenseman had more than six. And he finished with 13 points in 11 games for a points-per-game average of 1.18.

To summarize his season: Boqvist scored one goal in his first 15 games. From that point on, he finished with 29 goals and 60 points in 50 games, including playoffs. He became an offensive driving force.

It's unclear what his future holds, but with Evan Bouchard expected to turn pro and secure a full-time roster spot on the Edmonton Oilers next season, returning to London would put Boqvist in a position where he could be the No. 1 defenseman in all situations.

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