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.
The Blackhawks have drafted more defensemen than any other position under Stan Bowman, but they tended to cash in their top-round picks (first and second) on smaller, smooth skating and more offensively gifted players. Alex Vlasic, though, seemed to be the start of the Blackhawks shifting some focus to blue-liners with more of a “defense first” focus — and a bit more size as well. At 6-6, Vlasic towers over other top defensive prospects like Ian Mitchell (5-11) and Nicolas Beaudin (5-11), as well as the departed Adam Boqvist (5-11) and Henri Jokiharju (6-0). While not as technically skilled with the puck as those kids, Vlasic adds a diversity of talent to the prospect pool that is important, especially in a complimentary role.
Vlasic was considered a controversial player during his draft class. Many argued he had the combination of raw talent and athleticism that earmarked him for the first-round, but the inconsistencies in his game left others thinking he was only successful due to him being more physically mature than his current competition. The latter is the reason he fell to the Blackhawks, who obviously didn’t mind taking on Vlasic as a project. Although it’s still too early to see if the gamble will pay off, Vlasic’s progress this past season has been very promising.
Defensively, Vlasic was a standout with Boston University in the NCAA, shutting down opposing top lines and being an integral part of the penalty kill. According to InStat Hockey, Vlasic was above average in the following defensive categories: all-zone break-ups, puck battles, pressured shots against, blocked shots, zone entry prevention, and defensive-zone exits. His gap control had been inconsistent in previous years, but he’s definitely improved how he reads plays so that his larger size wasn’t the only reason it was difficult for his peers to get around him.
Vlasic is not overly physical despite his size, but he does know how to use his large frame well for positioning (and as mentioned above, got more consistent in this regard). He also uses his length to retrieve the puck or knock loose ones away, depending on the situation. His reach, in particular, has always been a huge tool of his, using his lizard tongue-like hockey stick to break up plays regularly. Vlasic does have a nasty side to his game but it will manifest in hard (and sometimes late) crosschecks rather than huge or punishing hits. He could still benefit from learning to add more contact with his body into his game as well as bulk to his frame — he’s still quite reedy for his height.
The biggest concern when it came to consistency during his draft year were mostly about his play with the puck, which took a big leap this past season. That’s why Vlasic was primarily logging top-pair minutes and was even elevated to the power play last season. Vlasic has always been a good skater for his size, but he applied that ability to push the pace for Boston even more. He seemed to simplify his puck handling a bit, going for effective passing rather than trying to do too much and that has led to fewer turnovers year-over-year for him. It’s unlikely that Vlasic will ever be a big offensive contributor if he makes it to the professional leagues, but decent puck handling ability can be the difference between a second or third-pairing defensemen in the NHL.
Despite reportedly being offered a contract by the Blackhawks this year, Vlasic will be returning to Boston University for his junior season. He’ll be a part of the leadership group as an alternate captain and he’s expected to be a top-pairing defenseman once again. Vlasic is still far from a finished product and with the Blackhawks contractual investment in their current top-three (Seth Jones, Connor Murphy, and Jake McCabe), staying at school for further development is likely a good thing.
In terms of where Vlasic projects for the Blackhawks, he’s one of the defensemen in system that seems to have a more of a solid floor than an incredibly high ceiling: he’s got the skating and defensive ability to be a competent bottom-pairing player but could possibly play a top-pairing role given the right partner and his continued improvement to consistency with and without the puck. Like has been preached with other defensive prospects, patience will be a virtue as kids like Vlasic start easing into playing professionally in the coming years.