Blackhawks

Hawk Talk: 'Hog Futures

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Hawk Talk: 'Hog Futures

Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011
9:20 a.m.

By Chris Boden
CSNChicago.com

There are some emails I can try to answer, and others I have no business answering.

As questions about the progress of some of the Blackhawks' prospects at Rockford have increased, I've had to confess I have yet to make the trip out on I-90 to see for myself. It's still on the much-delayed To-Do List whenever there's an opening in CSN duties and responsibilities on the homefront. It is, after all, a time investment. But I still wanted to try to get answers on the Blackhawk investments you've been asking about.

The man with those answers is Norm MacIver, the organization's Director of Player Development, who played 500 games for six NHL organizations, was voted the AHL's best defenseman 20 years ago and wound up his playing career wih a Turner Cup in 1999. Some of his time between then and now was spent as a Boston Bruins Assistant Coach. Here's the way he characterized the development of some of those Icehogs prospects you've been asking about when we spoke over the phone Tuesday. Each of these players were tagged with one common phrase by MacIver in his assessments: needing more consistency in their games at the AHL level before they'd be trusted with a prolonged opportunity in the NHL. Stats listed are through Monday with Rockford.

LW Kyle Beach (21 yrs. old...11th overall pick in 2008...6'3"...9 goals, 12 assists, -7 rating, 85 PIM)

His game has improved significantly the past month and a half in his first AHL season. He understands the player he has to be, getting much better at knowing when and where to use his physical game, and realizing there's three zones he must be responsible for in order to take the next step. Too often in the past he's passed up offensive opportunities and is beginning to shoot the puck more.
C Evan Brophey (24...2005 3rd rd. pick...4th yr. at Rockford...6 goals, 6 assists, 8 rating)

Having a strong season as he's embraced a two-way role and become solid on the penalty kill and in the faceoff circle. His development defensively has come at some cost to his production (averaged 15 goals the past 2 years), but now seems to realize his ticket to the NHL as a prototypical 4th-line center, and has made strides to get his foot in that door.

D Brian Connelly (24...2nd full AHL season after being signed as a free agent out of Colorado College...4 goals, 21 assists)

Talented and skilled with the puck, earning him All-Star honors. He's in the process of learning to play the position at his size (5'10, 167), while using his speed and quickness as an asset, and recognizing spots when to jump up in the play and putting those assets to work at the right times.
LW Rob Klinkhammer (24...4th full AHL season..signed as a free agent in '09...6 goals, 14 assists, 10)

Having a very good season finding that consistent niche. He and Brophey have turned into strong penalty killers. He realizes after his first NHL game earlier this year that if he can be an asset in certain areas, he can gain a coach's confidence and trust.

D Shawn Lalonde (21...2008 3rd rounder..first full AHL season after 8 games last yr...5 goals, 15 assists)

Has made a ton of strides the past month and a half, taking off to another level while influencing games offensively. He flashed some of that at Prospects Camp in July, but the focus with the Icehogs has been learning and growing at his position without the puck.

RW Igor Makarov (23...2006 2nd rounder...4 goals, 9 assists, 8)

Dealing with a huge adjustment in first season here in transitioning from the KHL. Brings a passion and energy (and had his first fight last week). He's beginning to understand what he has to do to find consistency, being hard to play against, and finish checks. If he's not going to be an elite scorer, he can't turn pucks over in certain areas.

D Dylan Olsen (20...2 games into AHL career after departing Minn.-Duluth following World Juniors)

An impressive overall performance for Team Canada at the WJC as half the defensive shutdown pair. Had an excellent first half at Duluth and is "night and day" compared to last year. He has the size and mobility, and must now become more confident with the puck and make plays in certain situations rather than dump it in.

C Brandon Pirri (19...2009 2nd rounder...1st year in the "A"...5 goals, 9 assists)

Has quickness and surprising maturity, but physically (6', 160), has a ways to go in the bigger, stronger AHL after just one year at RPI. He's a pass-first, shoot-second playmaker-type with terrific vision, a good hockey sense and skill level.
RW Ben Smith (22..2008 6th rounder...1st AHL season after 4 years at B.C....7 goals, 9 assists)
The 2010 Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player for the national champ is currently sidelined by injury. He's displayed a terrific attitude and work ethic after coming to camp in incredible shape. He's the type of player who'll eventually find a way to become valuable all-around and play different roles. He can't let his offense affect his game in order to bring out his best night-in and night-out.

D Ivan Vishnevskiy (23...3rd AHL season...5 career NHL games...5 goals, 9 assists)

Dallas dealt him to Atlanta to get Kari Lehtonen en route to parting ways with Marty Turco, leading to 28 games with the Wolves. The Hawks got him in the Andrew Ladd deal. A dynamic skater. Dangerous when carrying the puck. An elite shot. Now he has to figure out ways to prevent a big drop-off in performance from one game to another.

Pirri, Klinkhammer, Brophey and Smith all had brief emergency call-ups earlier in the season with the Hawks. Rockford does not have anyone among the top twenty scorers in the AHL, and Nick Leddy and Jeremy Morin have obviously been the most immediate-impact players when the Hawks have needed them. Morin would almost certainly be among the leaders if not for his time with the Hawks, Team USA at the World Juniors and injuries. Goalies Alec Richards and Hannu Toivinen have split time and have nearly identical numbers, including the exact same .907 save percentage.

MacIver also adds that 2010 first round pick Kevin Hayes and older brother Jimmy (who was acquired later in a draft night trade) have often been paired together on a line at B.C. with '09 Rangers first-rounder Chris Kreider. Kevin was sidelined early by a knee injury and has six points in 12 games, but Jerry York and his staff rave about his skill level. Jimmy (6'5") has nine goals and 13 points in 20 games, but has gotten better every year and is being used in a lot of situations.

So there are some assessments from a man who'd know. If you've checked out the 'Hogs yourself, feel free to provide your own. At least until I get out there one of these days.

Chris Boden is the host of Blackhawks Pre and Postgame Live on Comcast SportsNet.

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews: 'Our No. 1 goal is getting back to the playoffs'

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews: 'Our No. 1 goal is getting back to the playoffs'

Jonathan Toews watched a lot of playoff hockey this spring. 

"Quite a bit," he admitted Wednesday before making his Chicago Pro Hockey League debut at MB Ice Arena. "More than usual."

That's because the Blackhawks missed out on the postseason for the first time since his rookie year in 2007-08. It's obviously not a position he'd like himself or his team to be in, especially after experiencing three Stanley Cups in a six-year span.

But you have to find a way to take the positives out of it at this point and let it fuel you for the upcoming campaign.

"You always want to be there playing," Toews said. "But when you can maybe step away from the game a little bit and just kind of breathe and — at the same time, look back and realize you’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of success. Obviously there’s no satisfaction there, but you understand it’s not the worst thing to stop and smell the roses and appreciate what you’ve been able to experience, because I think failing to get to the playoffs makes you realize how difficult it really is and maybe it’s something you took for granted.

"But watching more hockey this spring, I think, is something that was really motivating and kind of inspiring and exciting to want to get back to that level again. You dream of playing in the NHL, but at the end of the day, you want to play playoff hockey. That’s what it’s all about."

There were plenty of things that went wrong for the Blackhawks last season and contributed to why they watched the playoffs from home, whether it's the Corey Crawford injury, the down season from Brandon Saad, or the inexperience on the blue line.

For Toews, who turned 30 in April, it's about regaining that old form that made him one of the top players in the NHL and hoping it can filter down the rest of the Blackhawks lineup.

"For me, it’s part of just recapturing that energy, that motivation, excitement and that mindset of a young player who takes nothing for granted, that you had in your younger days," he said. "But also carrying the experience with you and understanding the impact of what you say, what you do, how you carry yourself can impact your teammates, especially the young guys. For me, it comes down to knowing what to say at the right time. But letting my play be the thing that helps me lead by example. No better time than now to use that experience and that excitement trying to rebound off the season we had last year."

If there's any reason to have belief that the Blackhawks can turn it around quickly, look no further than the two teams that collided in the Stanley Cup Final: Vegas and Washington. 

The Golden Knights had the longest odds to win it all at the beginning of the season while the Capitals' championship window was perceived to be closed after they failed to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017 in the second round yet again with a loaded roster. But it's not about what's on paper.

"Watching that last series, you just knew it came down to who had the most, the deepest belief in themselves," Toews said. "I even had a hard time predicting who was going to win every series. It could’ve gone either way in a lot of situations. It’s not only motivating, seeing how fast that play was and to have missed out on playoff hockey this year and to have the drive to get back there, but knowing if you do sneak into the playoffs it doesn’t matter. You can go a long way.

"For us, thinking, 'OK, we're gonna back and win a Stanley Cup this year,' it sounds like a long shot. But as always, our No. 1 goal is getting back to the playoffs and being ready to hit our stride when we get there."

Stan Bowman explains how Blackhawks may utilize extra cap space

Stan Bowman explains how Blackhawks may utilize extra cap space

The Blackhawks had cap space to use this summer but elected to shore up their depth rather than make a splash when free agency opened up on July 1. Perhaps a large reason for that was because Marian Hossa's $5.275 million cap hit over the next three years complicated what they could do exactly in the short term without jeopardizing the long term.

Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman admitted Tuesday that they had had discussions about moving Hossa's contract for a year now. But it finally reached a point where they simply needed to get it off their hands, even if it meant giving up Vinnie Hinostroza as a sweetener.

"We tried to make that deal work in every other way possible but they obviously said he had to be in it," Bowman said of including Hinostroza.

That's how important it was to free up even more cap space. By trading Hossa's contract in a nine-piece trade with the Arizona Coyotes, it created more options for the Blackhawks and financial flexibility going forward.

"It was a difficult trade from a sentimental perspective, because we'd love to not have to do that," Bowman said. "But on the practical matter, it was becoming challenging to try to operate with that contract here. It necessitated us trying to make the move that we did make. You don't know when those opportunities are going to come to try and make that type of a move. ... When this presented itself, we talked it through and got to the point where we thought it was something we had to take advantage of."

The problem for the short term is, it's mid-July and the big-name free agents are off the market. There's not much the Blackhawks can do to improve their roster externally unless they make a trade, which would require dipping into the pipeline.

And it's unfair to put a grade on the Hossa trade as a whole without seeing how they utilize that extra cap space. Could that be before the 2018-19 season starts?

"It's an option if we can find the right player or the right situation," Bowman said. "We certainly have more options now than we did before. I wouldn't say we have to do something. Having cap space is an asset in and of itself, so things will come along maybe in the summer or maybe in the beginning part of the year where teams have a couple players that make their team unexpectedly and that makes some other players more expendable. In the past we probably haven't really been a good match for those types of situations because we didn't have the cap room at that time, so now we're going to be in the mix for those types of things.

"Whether we use it right away or whether we use it during the season, I think the nice thing is we have the flexibility now going in to the coming years where we're going to need cap room, all that and more, to sign the young players."

It doesn't sound like there's much urgency to pull something off between now and when training camp rolls around in September. At least for now.

That doesn't mean there won't be once the market picks back up again. 

"Each year teams have surprises, good and bad, in camp," Bowman said. "Our team’s the same way. You have ideas on how your lines are going to look or how your players are going to be ready. Sometimes guys surprise you in a good way, sometimes it’s not what you think. There’ll be some adjustments around the league, but probably not a lot of activity.

"If you look back the last couple of seasons, late July and August are quieter as far as transactions. But there are some arbitration cases coming up around the league; those may get settled ahead of time. But if they do go to arbitration, if the number's not the way the team likes it, they may look to do something. There’s the possibility of moves, but probably closer to training camp is more when changes may happen."