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.

Johnny Oduya finds a new home in Eastern Conference

Johnny Oduya finds a new home in Eastern Conference

Johnny Oduya is headed to the Eastern Conference.

The 35-year-old defenseman signed a one-year, $1 million deal with the Ottawa Senators. The contract could be worth up to $1.25 million with incentives.

Oduya, who the Blackhawks re-acquired prior to the trade deadline last season from the Dallas Stars, finished with two goals and seven assists in 52 games between the two teams.

It comes to no one's surprise that the Blackhawks didn't re-sign the veteran defenseman.

After being swept in the first round of the playoffs last season by the Nashville Predators, Stan Bowman has made it clear the Blackhawks are headed in a different direction, and their offseason has been plenty of busy so far. Headline deals included trading Oduya's linemate Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes for 24-year-old defenseman Connor Murphy and re-acquiring Brandon Saad from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Artemi Panarin.

Oduya heads to a Senators team which got ousted in the Eastern Conference Final in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Confident Blackhawks youth ready to take the next step

Confident Blackhawks youth ready to take the next step

Ryan Hartman likes how he feels approaching this season, his sophomore stint with the Blackhawks. Scoring 19 goals, earning the trust of the coaches and gaining a good deal of responsibility in your rookie season will do that for you.

“It’s feeling like I should be there,” he said on Friday. “Maybe sometimes when you first get called up, you’re like, ‘Wow, I’m here,’ and you’re still thinking about that. Now it’s just feeling like hockey for me and how it’s always supposed to be.”

More confidence is there for Hartman, as well as a few other young Blackhawks players who cut their teeth last year. That’s good, because those guys, having shown what they can do, will likely get more responsibility this season.

That includes Nick Schmaltz, who will either get first crack at the second-line left wing vacancy or help the Blackhawks at center, which he says is his preference “but I’m fine with wing, too.” Schmaltz struggled to start last season but following a few games in Rockford, he returned a more confident player. He played well with Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik on the top line and filled in for Artem Anisimov later in the season.

“I was nervous coming in. I didn’t know if it was going to work and I gained confidence game by game and felt more comfortable,” he said. “I was making the plays I’m used to making.”

When Tanner Kero was recalled right before Christmas, it was because of Anisimov’s injury. But outside of a bye-week return to Rockford Kero turned that call-up into a full-time gig, giving the Blackhawks another bottom-six center option and earning himself a two-year contract. With Marcus Kruger and Dennis Rasmussen no longer here, Kero is expected to have that third- or fourth-line center role; thanks to experience gained last season, Kero’s more comfortable now.

“It was great,” he said. “Going in, you’re not sure. It’s day-to-day to start and you just want to prove yourself and get those opportunities, get trust and more ice time. As the season went on I got more confident, trusted my game more. Going into the season I’m going in with a lot more confidence.”

John Hayden felt fairly comfortable when he joined the Blackhawks last spring thanks to his senior season at Yale – “I needed that fourth year as a player and a person,” he said. Still, getting in some NHL games, getting a feel for the pro level and gaining familiarity with the Blackhawks will benefit him in September.

“It’s important considering it’s my first training camp and I’ll know a lot of the guys, which helps a ton. From an on-ice standpoint, I have that experience,” he said. “I’ve spent a ton of time addressing areas in need of improvement all in all I’m excited for training camp.”

But Hartman and others don’t see it as weight on their shoulders.

“I don’t think there’s pressure,” Hartman said. “When you look back you want to see improvements every year, you want to see yourself becoming a better hockey player. That’s something I want to do, I want to be able to look back and say I had a good career my first year but each year I got progressively better. That’s where my mindset is at.”

There’s more opportunity for the young players but Hayden says that’s true of everyone.

“I don’t really analyze opportunity. Regardless of the team, it’s going to be competitive,” he said. “Every summer you have to have a hard-working mindset and do what you can to show up in the fall in the best shape of your life.”

The Blackhawks’ young players have all set the bar at a certain level and will be expected to improve. It takes confidence to take that next step. Thanks to experience gained last season, they’re feeling good about taking it.