A team built to win today still needs to be preparing for the future in the modern NHL. Even with one eye firmly on the Stanley Cup, the Chicago Blackhawks have consistently worked hard under general manager Stan Bowman to sustain a pipeline of high-level talent into franchise.
That's not easy to do when you're regularly picking at the bottom of the first round -- or not at all because you traded the pick for a rental. Bowman has been creative in acquiring young players from a variety of avenues, however, and it's helped keep hope alive in Chicago even as the team weathers a summer more difficult than anyone could've imagined. The Hawks will be younger next season out of necessity, and Bowman's ability to add those kinds of players has been tested.
The Blackhawks are currently ranked No. 16 in ESPN's latest organizational prospect rankings, and also boast young NHL talent like Teuvo Teravainen and Marko Dano. Being middle-of-the-pack may not sound impressive, but here's what Corey Pronman had to say about the state of the farm system:
The Chicago system remains very deep, and though they graduated a big name in Teuvo Teravainen, the signing of Artemi Panarin nearly brought the same amount of talent into the organization. I have not loved the Blackhawks' recent draft classes, but their current farm team has a lot of talent, and there are numerous prospects who can step in and play soon, if not right away.
Considering the team has won three Cups in six years, I think we'll all take phrases like "very deep," "has a lot of talent," and "numerous prospects who can step in and play soon."
So now that it's mid-August and we need something to talk about, it's time to roll out our own ranking of this year's Top 25 players under 25 years old. Why 25 years old, you might ask? Well, it's a round number, for one, and beyond that, it's generally accepted that players tend to peak in their mid-20s. If you want to talk about the vast majority of players who make it in the NHL, they've already made names for themselves by that age.
So we're looking at every player in the organization under 25 years old, from current NHL stalwarts like Teravainen and Andrew Shaw to teenagers who are still playing in Europe. Today, we're rolling out the first five names on the list, and we'll be doing the same until we crack the top 10, which is when we start getting to the bigger names that'll be getting their own individual posts.
The four kind folks who have voted on these rankings are Brandon, Adam, Liz and I. Each of us ranked 25 names and then points were distributed with a No. 1 ranking valued at 25 points, a No. 2 ranking at 24 points and so on. If you're wondering what our credentials as hockey scouts are, may I recommend you check out my amazing Be a GM team in NHL 15? Oh, and we also watch lots of hockey.
Ranking these guys wasn't easy, and I'm sure you'll disagree with some of these rankings just as our various writers did. Once we release the final names later on, we'll share our individual rankings with you guys and see how those various results pile up.
First off, here's a list of honorable mentions who received votes but didn't fall in the top 25: Robin Norell, Dillon Fournier, Robin Press, Matt Iacopelli. Other young players not listed include Jeremy Morin (didn't work out so hot the first time), Viktor Svedberg (as much as we want a 6'9 defenseman to be good), Roy Radke, Chris Calnan, Anthony Louis, Dennis Gilbert, Ryan Shea and Mac Carruth.
Without further ado, here are Nos. 21-25 on the SCH Top 25 Under 25.
25. Luc Snuggerud
Birth date: Sept. 18, 1995 (age 19)
Acquired via: Fifth round (No. 141 overall) in 2014 NHL Entry Draft
Most recent stop: University of Nebraska-Omaha (NCAA)
Size: 6'0, 184 pounds
Contract: Unsigned, set to play 2015-16 with Nebraska-Omaha
Snuggerud is looking like a great value pick by the Blackhawks in the fifth round of the 2014 draft. As a freshman at Nebraska-Omaha during the 2014-15 season, the 19-year-old impressed with his skating and gave indications he could emerge as a quality talent for the team in a couple years.
As SBN College Hockey notes, Snuggerud largely fell on draft day because of a lack of junior hockey experience. Since being selected by the Blackhawks and starting his time in college, the defenseman's stock has only gone up, even if he's still developing his decision-making skills on both ends.
After scoring a goal in his NCAA debut against Minnesota State on Oct. 10, 2014, Snuggerud only scored one more goal the rest of his freshman year. That's a sign that he needs to improve his shooting, and SBN College Hockey says his slap shot is "very average at this point." During the 2014-15 season, Snuggerud scored on just 2.7 percent of his shots on goal, and that number will need to rise before he can really make an impact on the offensive end.
Still, for a fifth-round pick, Snuggerud's development is coming along very nicely.
Highest ranking: No. 21
Lowest ranking: Unranked
24. Tanner Kero
Birth date: July 24, 1992 (age 23)
Acquired via: Signed as college free agent
Most recent stop: Michigan Tech (NCAA)
Size: 6'0, 185 pounds
Contract: Entry-level; $667,500 cap hit for 2015-16; RFA in 2017
Signed out of Michigan Tech as a college free agent in April, Kero will be one of many young forwards competing for NHL playing time during training camp in the fall. A lefty-shooting center who was named 2014-15 WCHA Player of the Year, Kero is considered a smart playmaker who makes up for a lack of traditional size at center with his I.Q. and vision.
That kind of player can be pretty hit-or-miss in the NHL, where some guys simply aren't able to overcome their size deficiency against the world's best players, but we should discover whether Kero will sink or swim fairly quickly. The Hawks have Kero signed through 2016-17 on a two-way deal before the 22-year-old will become a restricted free agent.
Kero recorded 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in 41 games as a senior with Michigan Tech. A 2015 Hobey Baker nominee, he was one of the best players in college hockey during the 2014-15 season. That may not excite folks who have memories of 2013 Hober Baker winner Drew LeBlanc, but Kero will try to make a greater impact starting in October.
Highest ranking: No. 18
Lowest ranking: Unranked
23. Tyler Motte
Birth date: March 10, 1995 (age 20)
Acquired via: Fourth round (No. 121 overall) in 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Most recent stop: University of Michigan (NCAA)
Size: 5'9, 192 pounds
Contract: Unsigned, set to play 2015-16 with Michigan
Motte came out of this year's prospect camp with some of the most positive reactions of any player. A 2013 fourth-round pick who has spent the past two years playing at the University of Michigan, Motte is the kind of aggressive, willing forward who can crash the net and show that beloved grit in a smaller package. "Motte had a great camp," a team scout told ESPN's Scott Powers last month.
As a sophomore with the Wolverines, Motte recorded a career-high 31 points (nine goals, 22 assists) in 35 games. The 20-year-old has been making steady progress since being drafted a couple years ago, and says the kinds of things you want to hear from a young player. "You just got to come out here and compete," Motte told Powers at the prospect camp. "That’s my style of game, just get on pucks, get to the net, backcheck, block shots, things like that. That’s how I’m going to make it at the next level."
Motte may not be as big or talented as some of the Hawks' other prospects, but his attitude and progress over the past two years give reason to believe he can make an impact. Set to return to Michigan for his junior year, Motte is unsure whether he'll consider leaving school next year to go pro. If he keeps improving at this pace, he'll get a shot soon enough.
Highest ranking: No. 20
Lowest ranking: Unranked
22. Carl Dahlstrom
Birth date: Jan. 28, 1995 (age 20)
Acquired via: Second round (No. 51 overall) in 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Most recent stop: Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
Size: 6'4, 228 pounds
Contract: Unsigned, set to play 2015-16 with Linkoping (Sweden)
The best pedigree of any player listed so far as a former second-round pick, Dahlstrom is still trying to prove he's more than just a big body with potential. Back in May, Chris Block wrote that Dahlstrom's high placement on a previous top prospect list had received some scoffing responses from those around the team who aren't nearly as high on him.
The Blackhawks brought Dahlstrom over from Sweden with Norell and Robin Press at the end of the 2014-15 season on a tryout contract. Like Norell, he didn't last long before both the team and player decided he wasn't ready for North American hockey. According to Block, that's because the team quickly developed a negative impression based on Dahlstrom's brief ice time with the IceHogs.
"No puck skills" is the internal performance review. The Hawks would also like to see Dahlstrom be more assertive in his play. Not just more physical, but showing more willingness to step up and make more puck plays.
Dahlstrom only played two games with Rockford, the second being particularly ugly. He knows that brief performance is a big part of why he's going to spend the 2015-16 season in Sweden. "I think I started off good and the second game I was just thinking too much," Dahlstrom said at prospect camp. "It’s just that easy. You just got to play. You can’t just think what the coaches or whatever everybody wants you to do. You just got to play your game. That’s why you want to be over. That’s why I’m here right now."
As a former second-round pick with his size, Dahlstrom remains an interesting name who could move quickly if he can be better with the puck. He will return to Linkoping of the Swedish Hockey League for the upcoming season, then we'll see where the franchise is at in evaluating him.
Highest ranking: No. 18
Lowest ranking: No. 25
21. Garret Ross
Position: Left wing
Birth date: May 26, 1992 (age 23)
Acquired via: Fifth round (No. 139 overall) in 2012 NHL Entry Draft
Most recent stop: Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
Size: 6'0, 173 pounds
Contract: Entry-level, $636,666 cap hit for 2015-16; RFA in 2016
Here's another player who could actually appear in a Blackhawks uniform next season. Ross will likely compete for playing time in training camp with Kero and a litany of other potential third- and fourth-line forwards after a solid 2014-15 with the IceHogs. Most likely, he'll end up back in Rockford to start the upcoming season.
Drawing comparisons to Shaw, Ross is known for being an aggressive player who tries to get under the skin of his opponents each night. He can score a little bit, too, and just needs to prove he can more than a good AHLer. Nothing about what Ross does on the ice is special, and while he put up 43 points (21 goals, 22 assists) in 69 AHL games last season, it's hard to say whether that game will translate against bigger, better opponents.
Ross doesn't turn 24 until next spring, but he may not last another year on this list if he doesn't crack the Hawks' lineup soon. The team should give him a chance starting in October, and we'll see if he can leapfrog more well-regarded names to get his NHL shot.
Highest ranking: No. 16
Lowest ranking: No. 24