By Brad Gardner
All thirty NHL teams are optimistic at this time of summer, but the one thing we can all be sure of is that everything will not go according to plan. Injuries have their way of piling up, players may not live up to expectations, or teams may find that progress made during the summer in one area has left them with a hole elsewhere in the game plan. One of the Blackhawks organization’s responses to the unpredictable nature of the NHL season has been keeping their AHL affiliate within arms reach, roughly 90 miles west on I-90 in Rockford, Illinois. The Third Man In takes an admittedly early look at some possible mid-season scenarios and introduces the prospects who may be expected to answer the call.
So you need a top six forward…
Safe bet: Jeremy Morin is the easy answer here after a solid nine game trial last season. Coming back from a concussion, though, he’ll get back into the swing of things with the IceHogs to start the season. His best asset may be his goal-scoring ability, but he showed as a rookie that he was willing to play any role to stay in the Chicago line-up. The 20-year-old winger is the organization’s best bet if the power play is in need of new life – his cheetah-quick release would be a dangerous weapon with a set-up guy like Kane feeding him the puck.
Long shot: Brandon Pirri was severely over-matched in his single appearance in Chicago last season, not strong enough to challenge other skaters and not quick enough to find any room for himself. If he can carry over momentum from his strong finish with Rockford last season, he could get another chance to prove himself with the big club.
So you need a top nine plugger…
Safe bet: Blackhawks’ coach Joel Quenneville likes to juggle his lines when the team is in need of a spark, which has allowed forwards like Troy Brouwer and Bryan Bickell in recent years to play everywhere from the bottom six to the coveted left wing spot alongside Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Jimmy Hayes is destined to carry that torch in the near future. A big body at 6’5 with finishing ability, Hayes isn’t likely to carry an offensive line at the pro level like he did at times with Boston College. He projects as more of a complimentary forward, capable of banging around and creating space for his linemates and chipping in goals from the dirty areas.
Long shot: Kyle Beach appeared to be the heir to this throne, but has fallen out of favor with the organization to some extent. Beach claimed not being a Black Ace last season in the playoffs was a wake-up call, so when the rookie Hayes was hand-picked to join six other Blackhawks at Barry Smith’s training camp for HC Lugano in Switzerland, it must have been a jolt of morning coffee for Beach. If the divisive forward isn’t ready for work in Rockford this season, he may not be long for the organization.
So you need a grinder…
Safe bet: The signing of veteran depth forwards Dan Carcillo and Jamaal Mayers made it a lot harder for a guy like Rob Klinkhammer to make the team out of camp. That will be fine for Rockford fans, as Klinkhammer has been among the team’s most consistent performers the past two seasons. Though he couldn’t finish a breakaway to save his life last season, he brings energy and effort to each shift, throws his 6’3 frame and 206 pounds around with authority, and can eat up some minutes on the penalty kill.
Long shot: Now with his third organization after being selected late in the first round by Carolina in 2009, Philippe Paradis has been seen as something of a disappointment. Had he been selected 20 or 30 picks later, no one would be calling him a bust before his first full pro season. At 6’2 and 205 pounds, aggressive in the physical department, and capable of playing both wing and center, the 20-year-old winger is built for a bottom six role at the NHL level. Though his offensive production is not as consistent as other areas of his game, Paradis will flash some skill as well and could develop into another plugger for Quenneville to move around the line-up.
So you need a short-term defenseman…
Safe bet: Signed as a free agent out of the WHL last summer, Ryan Stanton emerged as a steady presence in the defensive end for Rockford. He’s not flashy but still an effective stay-at-home blueliner, with the strength to defend the net front and work along the boards. Stanton could play an effective third-pairing role for stretches if the Blackhawks are in need of some bulk on the back end.
Long shot: Brian Connelly has been the offensive leader on Rockford’s blue line for the last two seasons, but has yet to get a look with the big club. He has been held back by his small frame at 5’10 and not having the wheels to make up for his lack of size, but Connelly’s vision and passing ability could see him get a shot with the big club some time soon, especially if they are in need of a power play quarterback during the season.
Safe bet: With Leddy graduated to the big club full time, Dylan Olsen becomes the gem of the blue line prospects. A mobile 6’2 defenseman, Olsen is an intimidating presence on the ice and boasts a huge shot. Lofty appraisals aside, the 20-year-old defenseman could develop into an all-situations player and could get the first shot in Chicago should a larger role open up on the blue line due to trade or injuries.
Long shot: Shawn Lalonde is another prospect with long-term aspirations in Chicago. Though his defensive game still needs some work and he does not boast the same intimidating frame as Olsen, Lalonde is a special player offensively. He skates extremely well, is comfortable carrying the puck, and his right-handed shot could be an asset on the Blackhawks’ power play.
In addition to covering the Blackhawks here at TheThirdManIn.com, Brad is also the Blackhawks’ correspondent at HockeysFuture.com.