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2021 Blackhawks Top 25 Under 25: Wyatt Kaiser steamrolls to 17

After an impressive freshman season, Kaiser is arguably the second best defensive prospect in the the Blackhawks’ system to not play a pro game yet.

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Second City Hockey’s 2021-22 preseason Blackhawks Top 25 Under 25 series ranks the organization’s top 25 players under the age of 25 by Oct. 1, 2021. The rankings are determined by a composite score from all four SCH writers. Each participant used their own metric of current ability and production against future projection to rank each player. All four ballots will be released after the series is completed.

Wyatt Kaiser fits the mold of smaller/lighter weight, smooth-skating defensemen with some offensive prowess that the Blackhawks have been drafting for years.

It was likely Kaiser’s skating ability that caught the Blackhawks’ attention, as he was one of the most technically proficient defensemen in his draft with an uncanny ability to “make forecheckers look like they’re skating in quicksand,” according to EP Rinkside’s 2020 draft guide. Prior to being drafted, Kaiser used his skating primarily to play-drive as a senior in high school, collecting 34 points (9 G, 25 A) in 25 games with Minnesota’s Andover Huskies. His ability to make tape-to-tape breakout passes and willingness to jump into the rush made him the spoon that stirred his team offensively.

But it was the defensive side of Kaiser’s game that made him stand out this past season in the NCAA. He still contributed offensively — Kaiser had 10 points (all assists) in 28 games — but he focused his on-ice awareness and elite skating much more into a two-way mentality that paid dividends as he quickly rose to be the No. 1 defenseman for Minnesota-Duluth. According to InStat Hockey, Kaiser averaged 25:36 minutes as a freshman and led UMD defensemen in TOI both at 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill. He also won roughly 58 percent of his puck battles — which is above average for the NCAA — and averaged 1.43 blocked shots per game (with that number increasing as the season progressed).

Kaiser’s best game of the season was also his last where he put on a defensive clinic during his single postseason game. The freshman defender was on the ice for only one scoring chance against at even-strength (from the outer slot) while logging 59:39 in the five-overtime game against North Dakota, which is pretty insane. Kaiser obviously wasn’t alone in that feat but was clearly a driving force behind that quality shot suppression, especially due to an active stick that broke up passing plays, blocked passing and shooting lanes, and aided in quick zone-clears. Kaiser has been described as “calm” and “poised” throughout his short collegiate career so far, and this game served as the exclamation mark for those descriptors.

Although Kaiser has taken great steps forward defensively, it’s not accurate to say he is a defense-first player (like Alex Vlasic or Nolan Allan) — he’s just leaned into the defensive side of the game to become a more balanced, two-way defenseman. He was still second-best on his team in transition plays that resulted in a scoring chance (1.65 per 60) and he has an above average rate of getting his shot through to the net (46 percent). Kaiser doesn’t have a particularly powerful shot, but his accuracy helps prevent loss of puck possession, and his SOGs often create scoring chance opportunities for his teammates.

One area that Kaiser needs to work on is in-zone passing, which is messy and can lead to unnecessary turnovers. Considering his passing is typically strong when in transition, especially bank passes, it’s concerning that cycle passing is more difficult. Combined with only a so-so shot, this could limit his offensive ceiling in the NHL if he doesn’t improve his skills when disconnected from his skating.

What’s next

Kaiser will be returning to UMD for his sophomore season to hopefully continue to play big, important minutes as a top-pairing defensemen in the NCAA. He’s also going to be in contention to play for Team USA at the 2022 World Junior Championship, having a solid showing at Team USA’s Summer Showcase in August.

Projection-wise, Kaiser’s stock has definitely risen, and he’s got the potential to be a second-pairing defensemen in the NHL if he continues to progress. His natural talents and vast improvement year-over-year suggest he could end up being a steal of a third-round pick. However, it’s important to note that Kaiser is young for his age class — he was one of the youngest drafted in 2020 since his birthday was late July — so while his development curve is on a sharp positive trend, fans should be patient during any potential growing pains along the way. This will especially need to be true if Kaiser makes the transition to the AHL after his sophomore season as the Blackhawks reportedly attempted with Vlasic this year.