(The top 10 continues in our ranking of the Hawks' best players under 25 years old! Here's the post on No. 10, Mark McNeill. For the first 15 names in the rankings, here are the posts on Nos. 11-15, Nos. 16-20 and Nos. 21-25.)
When our votes landed Blackhawks center Phillip Danault at No. 9 on the list, we had no idea he would be sidelined for four-plus months as a result of hip surgery. With that in mind, Danault's value probably takes a little hit, since he's going to have a tough time cracking into the rotation once he returns in the middle of the season. For a player whose value stemmed partially from being NHL-ready, it's a blow to lose the first half of his age-22/23 season.
The good news is that Danault deserved to be ranked No. 9 among the team's under-25 players for some very good reasons. Often considered the heir apparent to Marcus Kruger as a steady, defensive-minded center, Danault's made a ton of progress on that side of the ice. A solid skater who has become a major penalty killer for the Rockford IceHogs over the past two seasons, it's possible he could fill that kind of role in Chicago soon assuming he gets healthy and the spot is there.
Just don't expect Danault to become much more than that. Even once he gets healthy, there's not enough offensive skill for him to become a top-six forward.
That's the challenge, since Danault needs to be a high-level defensive player in order to justify getting steady NHL minutes. We've seen him thrive as a defensive leader at multiple positions for Rockford, but it's a different animal in the NHL. If Danault is just average defensively, his lack of offense would leave him as a fringe player. Over two seasons with the IceHogs, Danault has recorded just 64 points (19 goals, 45 assists) in 142 games. He was better in the 2015 playoffs, going for five points in eight games, but even Kruger was scoring at a much higher clip during his brief time in Rockford.
The hope is that Danault, like Krugs, can make his name as a zone-clearin, penalty-killin' machine. He was drafted in the first round in 2011 -- thanks Troy Brouwer trade! -- after being named the best defensive forward in the QMJHL. Since then, he's added a good deal of bulk to his frame (6'0, 201 ponds), which has helped him win more puck battles around the boards.
Kruger's shown how defensive greatness can turn someone with lacking stick skills into a very productive player. Joel Quenneville loves playing mix-and-match games with his lines. Part of why he's able to do that is having such varied options, including a pair of elite defensive centers in Jonathan Toews and Kruger. Now that the 25-year-old Swede is set to get a new contract as a restricted free agent this summer, putting his long-term future with the team in question, Danault could be getting ready to step into a similar role.
That's why it's so unfortunate that he got injured, taking away what could've been a huge opportunity in training camp this fall. The Blackhawks seem to be coming in with the plan of watching 15 guys compete for 5-6 spots, and with Danault's strong defensive acumen, pedigree and brief past experience in Chicago (two games last season), he could've been positioned to make some waves. Instead, by the time he returns in November or December -- hopefully it's no later -- the Blackhawks could already have an established depth chart and little room for movement barring injury.
Still, Danault is a talented young player who has the kind of specialized skillset that could make him a fantastic NHL role player. A lack of offensive punch might keep him from the top-six, but a strong set of defensive skills could allow him to have a long career.
Birth date: Feb. 24, 1993 (age 22)
Acquired via: First round (No. 26 overall) in 2011 NHL Entry Draft
Most recent stop: Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
Size: 6'0, 201 pounds
Contract: Entry-level; $863,333 cap hit for 2015-16; RFA in 2016
Highest ranking: No. 7
Lowest ranking: No. 9
(Note: Danault received the same number of voting points as another player. For various reasons, we gave the tiebreaker to that player, although technically, they're both tied for No. 8 in the rankings. )