Now that we’re roughly midway through the 2016-17 season, it’s a good time to check in on the Blackhawks’ best prospects. The group has been having a fairly solid year, with some guys putting up big numbers and others getting invites to the World Junior Championships.
We’ve also seen firsthand how important a pipeline of young talent can be to a team’s success. This season, the Blackhawks have turned to rookies like Vinnie Hinostroza, Ryan Hartman, and Nick Schmaltz, who were all members of this list a year ago. Good, affordable talent is crucial to any team, and the Hawks have found some success there.
One result of those graduations is a less impressive top of the list than before. The Blackhawks didn’t place any prospects on Corey Pronman’s recently updated Top 50 prospect rankings for ESPN, and only one, Alex DeBrincat, even received honorable mention. That’s a signal of the lack of future superstars in the system, unless DeBrincat can overcome his size disadvantage and translate his prodigious scoring pace to the NHL.
Still, midway through the 2016-17 season, the Blackhawks’ system remains full of interesting prospects. Here’s our latest crack at Top 10 rankings, excluding current NHL players such as Hinostroza, Hartman, Schmaltz, Gustav Forsling, and Tanner Kero, based on what we’ve heard, seen, and read this season.
1. Alex DeBrincat, right wing
Current team: Erie Otters (OHL)
Age: 19 | 5'7, 165 pounds | Acquired via 2016 second-round pick
2016-17 statistics: 81 points in 42 OHL games
Less than a year after being drafted, DeBrincat is already the top prospect in the Blackhawks system. He’s an electric scoring talent whose junior league numbers are so absurd they stand out in hockey history. He’s averaging nearly two points per game in the OHL, which puts him in line with some of the best prospects in recent memory.
There’s little doubt about DeBrincat’s scoring ability. After putting up 51 goals in back-to-back OHL seasons, he’s scoring at an even higher rate in 2016-17. He’s also got some bite to his game, which helps make up for a small package.
But man, DeBrincat is very small. If he becomes a superstar in the NHL, at 5’7 and 170 pounds, he’d be one of the smallest in league history. It’s reasonable to remain skeptical about his transition to bigger, better opponents. But if you’re looking for a potential future 30-goal scorer in the organization, this is the prospect.
2. Tyler Motte, left wing
Current team: Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
Age: 21 | 5’9, 188 pounds | Acquired via 2013 fourth-round pick
2016-17 statistics: 7 points in 33 NHL games; 5 points in 13 AHL games
The past couple years have been big for Motte, who wasn’t considered a top prospect until his breakout junior season at the University of Michigan. That earned him a contract offer from the Blackhawks, then he found himself getting top-line minutes next to Jonathan Toews early this season.
At times, you could see the signs of Motte being a solid two-way player who looked comfortable defensively and could finish scoring chances. He also disappeared from some games and his overall numbers were underwhelming, so now he’s down in Rockford trying to hit the next gear.
But if you’re looking for a solid balance of skills in an NHL-ready package, Motte is just that. His upside may not be super high, as he doesn’t stand out with an elite skill in any area, but he should carve out an NHL role.
3. Ville Pokka, defenseman
Current team: Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
Age: 22 | 6'0, 214 pounds | Acquired via 2014 trade (Leddy)
2016-17 statistics: 18 points in 45 AHL games
Pokka is the most divisive prospect in the organization. He’s got a lot of fans who appreciate his hockey sense and passing ability, but he’s also got detractors who question his skating and ultimate upside as an NHL player. He’s a tough player to peg down, which also makes him fascinating to evaluate.
Scouts have always praised Pokka, a right-handed defenseman, as a smart player who is effective at moving the puck. He’s racked up 63 points in 121 AHL games over the past year-plus, which is pretty good, although he’s failed to take a meaningful leap forward in his play this season.
It’s also probably fair to wonder how much more Pokka can really learn in Rockford. It’s his third full season there since being acquired in the Nick Leddy trade, and he’ll turn 23 years old in June. The Blackhawks will need to figure out exactly what they have in Pokka sooner than later, whether it’s as an NHL player or as a trade chip.
He’s still a skilled, almost NHL-ready defenseman, though, which is valuable in a league that places a premium on good, cheap blue liners.
4. John Hayden, center
Current team: Yale University (NCAA)
Age: 21 | 6'3, 223 pounds | Acquired via 2013 third-round pick
2016-17 statistics: 25 points in 21 NCAA games
The Blackhawks tried to sign Hayden in the summer, but he opted to return to Yale for his senior year as team captain. He has no regrets so far, as he’s continued elevating his game for the Bulldogs. His production has steadily risen over his four college seasons, and he’s now third in college hockey in goals per game.
Hayden is also a change of pace from many of the team’s other top prospects. He’s a big presence at 6’3, 223 pounds, and he’s learned how to use that size to create space and chances. In particular, he’s become a weapon on Yale’s power play, and we know the Blackhawks could use another big, skilled option in that area soon.
That’s the other thing exciting about Hayden’s game: He should be very close to NHL-ready. The forward probably could’ve spent this season in the AHL, but it appears there’s been no hindrance to his development by staying at Yale. Assuming there are no issues signing him in the summer (he’s indicated there won’t be), expect him to fight for a spot in training camp next fall.
5. Dylan Sikura, center
Current team: Northeastern University (NCAA)
Age: 21 | 5'11, 158 pounds | Acquired via 2014 sixth-round pick
2016-17 statistics: 41 points in 25 NCAA games
We saw the signs that Sikura was taking his game to another level during prospect camp in the offseason, where he lit up the ice and showed he wasn’t the same old sixth-round pick. He’s really started tapping into his potential as a speedy scorer, and now he’s absolutely dominating college hockey.
Sikura is up to 16 goals and 25 assists in just 25 games this season, leading Northeastern as one of the most productive players in the country. He’s up there with Hayden among the goal scoring leaders. We’re no longer just seeing flashes, he’s taking over games with some regularity.
There are still questions about his strength, as he’s not a big guy, but he’s not getting pushed off the puck much in college this season. If it’s a sign that he’s figuring out how to overcome that disadvantage, and maybe adding on a few pounds of muscle, then he could be dangerous at the next level.
6. Lucas Carlsson, defenseman
Current team: Brynas IF (SHL)
Age: 19 | 6'0, 189 pounds | Acquired via 2016 fourth-round pick
2016-17 statistics: 5 points in 27 SHL games; 3 points in 7 WJC games
A possible steal from the 2016 NHL Draft, Carlsson was a well-regarded prospect who slipped to Chicago in the fourth round. He’s spent this season split between Brynas IF in Sweden’s top hockey league and with the Swedish junior national team for the World Junior Championships.
The WJC in particular is where Carlsson turned heads. Sweden coach Tomas Monten praised him after the tournament, and ESPN’s Corey Pronman wrote him up as one of the event’s best surprises. “He's not the quickest skater and is a little lean, the latter of which has contributed to him often getting dinged up,” Pronman wrote. “However, he's a skilled player who alleviates pressure and makes things happen offensively. Defensively, I thought he was solid here, making enough stops to complement his skill.”
Carlsson isn’t an imposing physical presence, so he’ll need to show that he can find ways to stop opposing offenses. He’s got upside as a puck-moving defenseman, which earns him a spot on the list.
7. Alexandre Fortin, left wing
Current team: Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL)
Age: 19 | 6’0, 175 pounds | Acquired via undrafted free agent
2016-17 statistics: 38 points in 35 QMJHL games
Fortin showed up as prospect camp last summer as a relative unknown, and by October he was in NHL training camp trying to earn a spot on the Blackhawks. It was an incredible run for the undrafted winger, who showed a combination of speed, scoring ability, and good timing that captured the imagination.
He ultimately didn’t make the roster, so he’s back down in the QMJHL, where he’s had a good season with 14 goals and 24 assists in 35 games. That’s a higher scoring pace than last season, and it sets him up to make the leap to the AHL or NHL next fall.
Fortin needs to prove that he play a complete, three-zone game and make plays against superior competition, but he’s already shown over the past six months that teams might’ve made a mistake passing on him in the draft.
8. Chad Krys, defenseman
Current team: Boston University (NCAA)
Age: 18 | 5’11, 185 pounds | Acquired via 2016 second-round pick
2016-17 statistics: 7 points in 26 NCAA games
Krys is the kind of defenseman prospect you can dream on a bit. He’s already playing a big role at BU as a 18-year-old true freshman, and largely fit in on a team with elite talent like Charlie McAvoy, Jordan Greenway, Clayton Keller, and Kieffer Bellows. He also nearly made Team USA for the WJC, but ended up being the team’s final cut.
So he’s clearly an exciting talent, and someone the Blackhawks can hope will develop according to plan. He has the potential to be a top-notch quarterback on the power play, and could become a very dangerous offensive player from the blue line. On the flip side, he still can be mistake-prone, and his lack of size doesn’t help him defensively. He’s also only committed four penalties in 26 games, so he’s at least shown some good discipline in that area.
Krys isn’t as close to the NHL as some of the other players on this list, but his upside might be higher. This is one development project you’ll want to keep an eye on.
9. Artur Kayumov, left wing
Current team: HK Ryazan (VHL)
Age: 18 | 5’11, 176 pounds | Acquired via 2016 second-round pick
2016-17 statistics: 19 points in 33 MHL games; 0 points in 4 KHL games; 4 points in 5 VHL games
Our list is admittedly geared more towards high-upside prospects than guys with a higher probability of being middling players, and that’s what Kayumov is. At this point, he’s a fantastic skater who still needs to show he can put together the rest of his game. That speed is tantalizing, though, and makes him a good project.
Kayumov has split the 2016-17 season between three leagues in Russia. He started in the MHL, the country’s top junior league, before getting a call straight up to the KHL, arguably the second-best league in the world. He briefly struggled there before he got bumped down a level to the VHL, the second division of senior Russian hockey.
The results across all three levels have been mixed, as Kayumov has only 23 points in a combined 42 games this season. As an offensive-first prospect, you’d prefer to see more production, especially at the junior level. Kayumov also spent 2015-16 in the MHL and put up a higher points per game rate (31 points in 39 games).
He hasn’t quite progressed in terms of putting up numbers, but it’s impressive that he’s elevated through the Russian system at such a young age. Kayumov doesn’t turn 19 until Feb. 14, and he’s played better in the VHL, so he should get another KHL crack relatively soon. The Blackhawks have some upside here.
10. Mark McNeill, right wing
Current team: Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
Age: 23 | 6’2, 214 pounds | Acquired via 2012 first-round pick
2016-17 statistics: 45 points in 25 games
Things haven’t come together for McNeill, the only first-round pick left in the system below the NHL level. He’s got size and some skill, but it’s hard to gauge his NHL prospects when he’s spending a fourth straight season in the AHL and passed waivers unclaimed in October.
His career is at something of a crossroads, and there’s a good chance the Blackhawks end up trading him before the deadline on Feb. 28. He hasn’t demanded one, but the Blackhawks don’t seem interested in him and they might as well try to recoup some value if they can. Maybe they’ll tack him onto a larger deal as a bonus flier for another team.
One worrisome sign is that McNeill’s numbers have declined this season. He’s recorded six goals and 19 assists in 45 games, which is down from 25 goals and 23 assists in 64 games last season. He’s clearly ready for a shot at the NHL based on his comments to The Athletic, so you imagine he’s going to get one eventually. It just probably won’t come in Chicago.
BONUS: Maxim Shalunov, left wing
Current team: Sibir Novosibirsk (KHL)
Age: 23 | 6'3, 185 pounds | Acquired via 2011 fourth-round pick
2016-17 statistics: 33 points in 40 KHL games
Shalunov is separated from the rest of the list for a couple reasons. First, he’ll be 24 on Tuesday and has said he won’t go to the AHL, so it’s getting harder to qualify him as a prospect. Second, it’s still uncertain whether Shalunov is willing to leave the KHL to sign with the Blackhawks.
One of the more interesting developments of the past few months was Scott Powers’ reporting that Chicago has actually retained Shalunov’s rights. There wasn’t much talk about him over the past few years, but he’s emerged in his early-20s as one of the best players in the KHL, which is widely considered the second-best pro hockey league in the world.
So now the Hawks still hold his rights — likely part of a loophole with Russian prospects that allows NHL teams to retain draft rights indefinitely due to the lack of a proper agreement between the NHL and KHL — and they may try to sign him in the summer. He’s indicated he wants a solid NHL role if he’s leaving Russia.
Shalunov’s talent is undeniably intriguing, and if you wanted to include him in the top 10 above, he would place near the top of the list. But given the fact that he would surely come here with a European Assignment Clause, if he’ll come at all, I thought it’d make more sense to include him, but not as part of the top 10. If the Hawks do sign Shalunov in the summer, expect him to place highly on our next edition of Top 25 Under 25.
The next 12: Anthony Louis (college), Dennis Gilbert (college), Mathias From (SHL), Carl Dahlstrom (AHL), Graham Knott (OHL), Radovan Bondra (OHL), Matt Iacopelli (college), Fredrik Olofsson (college), Nathan Noel (QMJHL), Ivan Nalimov (KHL), Luke Johnson (AHL), Luc Snuggerud (college)