The Chicago Blackhawks’ farm system is looking better than it did a few years ago. Having a lot of picks in the first three rounds helped with that, but GM Stan Bowman and amateur scouting head Mark Kelley deserve credit for using those picks on hits such as Alex DeBrincat.
The change is particularly noticeable in Rockford, where the IceHogs have been one of the AHL’s biggest turnaround stories. A new crop of prospects led by Matthew Highmore and Anthony Louis have been putting up strong numbers in their rookie seasons. It’s been encouraging to see even if those guys will never be NHL stars.
But the Blackhawks’ brightest prospects are primarily unsigned, pointing toward an even brighter future as these players climb the ladder and reach their primes. The cupboard looks pretty good for a team that hasn’t picked higher than No. 29 in three years.
Here’s a look at our ranking of the Blackhawks’ top 10 prospects. This list excludes anyone who has played 25-plus games in the NHL or is currently on Chicago’s NHL roster.
1. Henri Jokiharju
Acquired by: 2017 first-round pick (No. 29)
Current team: Portland Winterhawks (WHL)
Stats: 7 goals and 30 assists in 31 games
Jokiharju is the best defenseman prospect the Blackhawks have had in a long time. That’s not surprising because he’s the first defenseman they’ve selected in the first round since Dylan Olsen in 2009, but it’s a good sign that he’s lived up to the hype so far during his first season after being drafted.
The defenseman is putting up huge numbers for Portland in the WHL and just playing a starring role for Finland at 2018 World Juniors. The Athletic’s Corey Pronman said afterwards “you could argue he was Finland’s best puck moving defenseman in the tournament,” which is very high praise considering that same defense had four other first-round picks in Miro Heiskanen (Stars), Olli Juolevi (Canucks), Juuso Valimaki (Flames), and Urho Vaakanainen (Bruins).
There may not be No. 1 defenseman potential here, but Jokiharju looks like a potentially good No. 2 who is a fantastic power play quarterback. That would fit nicely in Chicago ASAP, so don’t be surprised if he signs an entry-level deal soon to have that opportunity in the fall.
2. Dylan Sikura
Acquired by: 2014 sixth-round pick (No. 178)
Current team: Northeastern (NCAA)
Stats: 12 goals and 18 assists in 19 games
Sikura’s rise from a fringe prospect to the top of the Blackhawks’ farm system has been fun to follow. He fell short of making Team Canada for the 2018 Olympics, but a dominant senior season at Northeastern shows he’s ready to take the leap and be tested at the next level.
Back in November, Pronman said he was the best player in college hockey this season, which is impressive regardless of his age. Even without an elite-level skill in his arsenal, he’s above-average in practically every area and has potential to be a top-six forward in Chicago in the near future.
“We’ll see how that all plays out, but if he’s good enough, there’s always a spot,” Joel Quenneville said of Sikura recently.
You could make a real argument that Sikura, even though he’s roughly four years older, should be higher than Jokiharju on this list. He has a chance of making an immediate impact on the team this spring, and could join Nick Schmaltz and Alex DeBrincat as part of the next group of productive Hawks forwards.
The big question is whether he signs when Northeastern’s season is over. He could technically pull a Kevin Hayes and head to free agency in August. All indications are that the Blackhawks are doing everything in their power to prevent that, but the door remains open for disappointment.
3. Ian Mitchell
Acquired by: 2017 second-round pick (No. 57)
Current team: Denver (NCAA)
Stats: 1 goal and 14 assists in 22 games
Mitchell may be a long ways from emulating Duncan Keith, but it’s possible he plays with his inspiration eventually as one of the Blackhawks’ top picks from last year’s draft. A skilled, mobile defenseman who is already playing on Denver’s power play as a freshman, he fits right in with the kind of blue liners Chicago has been targeting.
The defenseman is already off to a very good start in his first NCAA season with 15 points in 22 games on one of the best teams in the country. He’s helped fill the gap left by reigning Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher, who has 26 points in 42 games for the Devils this season.
Mitchell will need time to develop, so it’s possible he doesn’t sign with the Blackhawks immediately this spring, but he’s looking good in his first go-around beyond the junior level.
4. Tim Soderlund
Acquired by: 2017 fourth-round pick (No. 112)
Current team: Skellefteå AIK (SHL)
Stats: 6 goals and 2 assists in 27 games
It’s hard not to double take when you see headlines like “Chicago pick Tim Soderlund looks like the next Viktor Arvidsson” getting published on one of the biggest hockey outlets in North America. There’s some real hype growing around the Swedish forward, and it seems to be for good reason.
Soderlund fell to the fourth round of the 2017 draft because he’s small. Like, 5’9 and 163 pounds. But he’s an exceptional skater, and at age 19, he’s already playing among men in Sweden’s top league, where he has eight points in 27 games with Skellefteå AIK.
The forward also starred for the Sweden at 2018 World Juniors, recording two goals and three assists in seven games as part of the silver-medal winning team. Here’s one of the goals:
Another shorthanded goal for Sweden, this time it’s Tim Soderlund. 1-1 pic.twitter.com/NPkziLnJiX— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) January 6, 2018
Soderlund’s lack of size hasn’t been an issue so far, and the Blackhawks’ willingness to target those kinds of players may pay off again here.
5. Lucas Carlsson
Acquired by: 2016 fourth-round pick (No. 110)
Current team: Brynäs IF (SHL)
Stats: 6 goals and 8 assists in 33 games
It’s been easy for Carlsson to slip under the radar playing in Sweden the past few years, but he’s shown progress in his third season in the country’s top league. The defenseman has already set career-highs with six goals and 14 points in 33 games, and has reportedly made progress defensively in addition to his offensive breakout.
“He’s more mature, more comfortable,” a Blackhawks scout recently told The Athletic’s Scott Powers. “He’s getting more ice and responsibility and making the most of it. He’s having a solid year.”
Carlsson should be a candidate to receive an entry-level contract offer from the Blackhawks this year, although he may need some time in the AHL before making the leap to the next level.
6. Chad Krys
Acquired by: 2016 second-round pick (No. 45)
Current team: Boston University (NCAA)
Stats: 5 goals and 14 assists in 22 games
There’s been good reason to be skeptical about Krys — namely, his defensive play has often left a lot to be desired. That’s usually a bad sign when we’re talking about a top defenseman prospect.
But Krys has a combination of skating and puck skills that’s truly unique from the back end, and that makes him intriguing even as his defensive game remains a work-in-progress. There’s still a ton of upside here as an offensive-minded blue liner if he can get his defensive game to a certain level.
Even on a team stacked with NHL talent like BU, Krys has been by far their most productive defenseman with 19 points in 22 games. He has more points than Brady Tkachuk (2018 prospect), Jordan Greenway (Wild), Shane Bowers (Avalanche), and Dante Fabbro (Predators).
Krys is one of the more high-risk, high-reward prospects in the system, but his potential remains significant.
7. Artur Kayumov
Acquired by: 2016 second-round pick (No. 50)
Current team: Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (KHL)
Stats: 2 goals and 1 assist in 22 games across two leagues
The past couple years haven’t gone according to plan for Kayumov in a lot of ways. He’s bounced around three different leagues in Russia, and earlier this season, he missed a month due to a broken collarbone. It seemed for a while there like this prospect was trending toward bust status.
But then the 2018 World Juniors happened, and Kayumov reminded us why the Blackhawks used the No. 50 pick on him in the first place. He finished second on Russia with five points in five games, tied with probable 2018 No. 2 overall pick Andrei Svechnikov.
Kayumov showed that his speed and skill remain intact even after some underwhelming stints professionally in Russia, and he’s still worthy of our attention as an NHL prospect. It’ll be interesting to see whether he can put it all together.
8. Andrei Altybarmakyan
Acquired by: 2017 third-round pick (No. 70)
Current team: SKA-1946 St. Petersburg (MHL)
Stats: 10 goals and 7 assists in 38 games across three leagues
Another Blackhawks player who impressed for Russia at the 2018 World Juniors, Altybarmakyan is making the team’s scouting staff look good for uncovering him with the No. 70 pick. The team acquired that pick by trading down from No. 26 to No. 29 in the first round, then took a flier on a speedy Russian who nobody had really heard of at the time.
The forward has bounced around in Russia professionally, spending most of this season in the VHL, the country’s second-tier league. He’s also played 13 pointless games in the KHL and five games in the MHL, the Russian equivalent of major juniors.
Altybarmakyan is the kind of prospect you envision being a really good third-liner in the NHL. He’s a very good skater who isn’t quite skilled enough to be a potential top-line guy, but he’s shown a high compete level and isn’t completely clueless when he has the puck. Ideally he becomes a great bottom-six winger who kills penalties, pressures the puck with his speed, and pitches in offensively on occasion.
9. Carl Dahlstrom
Acquired by: 2013 second-round pick (No. 51)
Current team: Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
Stats: 3 goals and 16 assists in 39 games
For all the success that we’ve seen in Rockford this season, there aren’t many good NHL prospects on the roster. Even the team’s leading point producer, Matthew Highmore, remains a fringe player who is still trying to convince management he’s worthy of a shot. Many of the top scorers have been relatively older guys with NHL experience like Vinnie Hinostroza, Tomas Jurco, and Erik Gustafsson.
But there’s still some talent in the AHL, and that includes Dahlstrom, a young blue liner who moves pretty well for being 6’4, 231 pounds. The 22-year-old has played well in Rockford with 19 points in 38 games this season, and looks like he could factor into the Hawks’ plans as a depth defenseman in the near future.
He’s certainly not the most exciting prospect, and you could probably make an argument for Ville Pokka or Luc Snuggerud, two players with a bit more offensive skill, to be more deserving of this spot. But Dahlstrom is playing well with the IceHogs and remains intriguing in his own right.
10. Ivan Nalimov
Acquired by: 2014 sixth-round pick (No. 179)
Current team: Salavat Yulaev Ufa (KHL)
Stats: .938 save percentage in 19 games
Yes, he’s a 23-year-old goaltender playing in Russia who may never come over to North America. But Nalimov was always gifted with impressive raw tools, and this season, he’s began putting them together with a .938 save percentage over 19 games between Salavat Yulaev Ufa and Admiral Vladivostok.
The Blackhawks will hold his prospect rights indefinitely given the lack of a transfer agreement between the NHL and KHL, and it’s possible he comes over in a year or two once his contract in Russia expires. At that point, even as a late bloomer, it’s possible he’s an option to be the team’s next long-term starting goaltender.
That makes Nalimov really intriguing, even if there’s still a ton of uncertainty surrounding his NHL future. Particularly for the franchise like the Blackhawks that’s otherwise bare when it comes to goalie prospects.
The Next 10, in alphabetical order: Evan Barratt, Collin Delia, Alexandre Fortin, Dennis Gilbert, Matthew Highmore, Roope Laavainen, Fredrik Olofsson, Ville Pokka, Luc Snuggerud, Joni Tuulola