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Blackhawks Prospect Report: Several defensemen impressing as seasons wind down

Another look across the organization’s potential future.

2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Hockey Championships - Semifinals Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images

The Rockford IceHogs are keeping pace as the fourth place team in the AHL’s Central Division, gaining points in eight of their last 10 games. But they’ll need to be careful down the stretch to secure a playoff spot — the Texas Stars are tied with them at 65 points but have played two more games than the IceHogs. That playoff chase is the main reason why the Blackhawks have been stingy with their call-ups recently.

There’s almost nothing else to say about 2021 first-round pick Lukas Reichel at this point: he’s having a tremendous season in Rockford despite a so-so cast around him. He’s stayed at a point-per-game almost all season — including 16 points (7 G, 9 A) in his last 16 games — and his confidence in making plays seems to be at an all-time high. In addition to his creativity on offense, Reichel has been one of the better defensive forwards in Rockford. His backcheck, stick checks, and pickpocketing abilities are obvious in practically every game.

Josiah Slavin (seventh-round, 2018) has regained his scoring form with 13 points (8 G, 5 A) in his last 13 games, a vast improvement from the one assist in his 10 games prior. He had been contributing on the defensive side of the game when not scoring — he’s one of the best on the penalty kill, for example, where he can combined he strong defensive instincts and his offensive abilities — but it’s nice to see him being rewarded for his two-way play with some points.

Even though he’s a contentious prospect for Blackhawks fans, Mike Hardman (NCAA free-agent, 2021) has made the most of his AHL assignment, playing well no matter what line he’s on. His ceiling may not be particularly high in the NHL, but in the AHL, Hardman really adjusted to using his body smartly for possession gains, his transition work improved notably, and he’s been willing to mix it up in front of the net — often scoring dirty goals or screening goalies. He has 13 points (7 G, 6 A) in his last 17 games.

Andrei Altybarmakyan (third-round, 2017) has bounced back from a lull in his last sample to 10 points (2 G, 8 A) in his last 16 games. As usual, he’s typically putting in the grunt work on his line thanks to his hard-working nature. The Blackhawks have a lot of players with similar lower-line NHL projections, but Altybarmakyan has put himself near the top of the pack in Rockford with his play this season.

2019 fourth-round pick Michal Teplý is still producing nicely overall with nine points (3 G, 6 A) in his last 14 games, but there been a bit less consistency in his game lately. Some of that’s due to missing time for a shoulder injury, but even more due to line juggling and thus not playing with Reichel all the time. The latter then begs the question: is Teplý dependent on or complimentary to other high-end players? With some of the best hands among prospects in Rockford, the Blackhawks could really use Teplý reaching his projection as a middle-six player.

Unlike fellow 2017 third-round pick Altybarmakyan, Evan Barratt is still having a rough, inconsistent season. He’s picked up just 4 goals with no assists in his last 14 games, and it’s taken him almost 20 more games to surpass his point total from last season. There’s an argument to be made that Barratt hasn’t been given the opportunity to play with the higher-quality players on the IceHogs like some other, but he also hasn’t exactly demanded a promotion with his play either.

Rounding out the forward prospects are Cam Morrison (NCAA free agent, 2020) with one assist in his last 13 games and Jakub Pour (European free-agent, 2021) — who missed a few weeks due to injury — with a goal and an assist in his last six games.

As usual, 2017 second-rounder Ian Mitchell led all Rockford defensemen in points with 10 (2 G, 8 A) in his last 15 games as well as playing the most minutes in all situations. Arguably, Mitchell deserved NHL playing time over some others that have been up with the Blackhawks all season, but he’s been stellar as the No. 1 for the IceHogs in the meantime. In addition to the offense, he’s really worked on his defensive positioning and how he takes on opposing players one-on-one.

Mitchell has missed the last two games with an injury and his timeline for return is unknown.

With the injury to Mitchell, it meant that someone else on defense was going to get an opportunity on the top pair and that player was Alec Regula (trade acquisition, 2019). He’s looked solid, though facing higher quality of competition has shown he’s still got some areas to work on — specifically his positioning and gap control. The latter isn’t usually an issue for the 6-foot-4 defender as his long reach is enough to make the defensive plays he wants, but that’s been less true as of late. Still a good showing, but it’s illustrated that he’s still green at just 21 years old. Regula has six assists in his last 12 AHL games, and he also spent 4 games in the NHL since the last prospect update where he had zero points but was decent in a bottom-pairing role.

Isaak Phillips (fifth-round, 2020) was also promoted to the top line — albeit much longer ago — and has been a great defensive springboard for Mitchell, playing reliable and smart hockey. Phillips has some raw, natural defensive talent — using his body, stick work, and skating ability — that is obvious in pretty much every shift, so it’s really just a matter of giving that talent enough to time to develop properly. He also had six points (2 G, 4 A) in his last 15 games.

2020 NCAA-free agent, Wyatt Kalynuk (NCAA-free agent, 2022) has picked it up recently with 10 points (3 G, 7 A) in his last 15 games, the second best rate behind Mitchell in that span. He’s still arguably the best skating defender in Rockford, especially apparent in transition, and he’s been more consistent in the defensive zone with his coverage recently that’s allowed him to break up plays and steal pucks, resulting in IceHogs’ possession. Kalynuk is another prospect that is likely NHL-ready but hasn’t been given much of a chance to actually find out.

Jakub Galvas (fifth-round, 2017) and Nicolas Beaudin (first round, 2018) have been the primary bottom pair in recent games and it’s not been pretty for the most part. Galvas is typically one of the strongest in terms of defense, but he’s made some odd mistakes and failed on recoveries lately. Beaudin’s been having a down season. While he’s still been fine for the most part on defense, there have been moments when his usual high-hockey IQ looked like it deserted him. Sometimes players just don’t mesh, and both players are much better away from each other — especially Galvas — so it’s really in the IceHogs best interest to break them up. Also, Galvas has five assists and Beaudin has four assists in their last 15 games.

And finally, 2021 European free-agent signing Arvid Söderblom is the undisputed No. 1 in Rockford and one of the best goalies in the AHL. His .916 save-percentage is down slightly from the .920 percentage he had mid-February, but it’s still good for ninth-best in the AHL and third-best among rookies while still facing the highest shots against of any goaltender in the top 20. Again, don’t let a few poor NHL games for a 22-year-old goalie playing on North American ice for the first time his season affect your opinion: Söderblom has been the real deal in Rockford this season. He’s stolen many games with his play in net and he could definitely be an NHL-caliber goalie if developed correctly.

In the NCAA:

Drew Commesso (G) | Alex Vlasic (D), Boston University

Unfortunately for both Commesso (second-round, 2020) and Vlasic (second-round pick, 2019), Boston University didn’t qualify for the NCAA postsesaon, so they’ve only played in four college games since the last prospects update.

Commesso finished the season with a .914 save-percentage and 2.52 goals against average, which is very impressive considering his rough start and BU’s general lack of shot suppression. With the goalie depth shallow for the Blackhawks at both the AHL and NHL levels, it’ll be interesting to see if Commesso stays at BU for his junior season or makes the jump to being a professional.

As for Vlasic, he finished his junior season with eight points (1 G, 7 A) in 32 games while generally playing top pair minutes. The defense-first defensemen has also played in three NHL games since signing his ELC in mid-March, but he’s averaged around just seven minutes a game so it’s impossible to really evaluate anything about his play so far. It’s likely that Vlasic will play in the AHL next season.

Dominic Basse (G), Colorado College

2019 sixth-round pick Dominic Basse had his season end with no postseason games as well and capped off the season with three losses. Colorado College was one of the worst defensive teams in NCAA, but Basse finishing the season with a .888 save-percentage and 3.23 goals against average was still disappointing overall.

Wyatt Kaiser (D) | Connor Kelley (D), University of Minnesota-Duluth

Kaiser (third-round, 2020) drew a lot of attention in one of his final games for one of the most impressive goals by a defensemen in the NCAA, but it shouldn’t have been the first time people were impressed by the smooth-skating defensemen. Not only can he contribute offensively — he added another nine points (1 G, 8 A) in his last 10 games, bringing his points total to 19 (2 G, 17 A) in 34 games — Kaiser is also one of the most adept on the defensive side of the puck in the NCAA, smartly using his speed and stick to break up plays. Kaiser will likely stay in college for another season — as he should because he still has room to improve — but he’s one of top defensive prospects for the Blackhawks in terms of a balance between realized skill and potential.

Kaiser’s teammate, 2021 seventh-round pick Kelley, finished his sophomore season well, ending with 11 points (2 G, 9 A) in 39 NCAA games. He played mostly as the No. 4 but was relegated to the bottom pair during the Frozen Four tournament mostly to balance out the defense pairings.

Landon Slaggert (LW) | Ryder Rolston (RW) Notre Dame

Landon Slaggert (third-round, 2020) continued to do what he does best in his final six games of the season: play a strong two-way game, predominantly tasked with facing top-quality of competition. He produced one goal and assist in that span to bring his total to 26 points (12 G, 14 A) in 40 games. Although his points-per-game rate was way down from last season — 0.65 compared to 0.88 — Slaggert became a much more well-rounded player as the season progressed, playing in every situation and against some of the best-of-the-best in the NCAA. He’s also the type of hard-working, never-give-up, tenacious player that tends to endear themselves to fans.

His teammate Ryder Rolston (trade acquisition, 2021) is more one-dimensional, but he made the most of his offensively skewed role for his sophomore season at Notre Dame with 27 points (10 G, 17 A) in 38 games. That’s a vast improvement on the just six points (1 G, 5 A) he had as a freshman — a nice surprise.

Both Slaggert and Rolston could turn pro this season, especially considering the lack of forward depth in Rockford, but it also wouldn’t be surprising — or bad for their development — to play another season in the NCAA.

Jake Wise (C), Ohio State University

2019 third-round pick Wise’s NCAA season wrapped early in March, and he should be proud of his come-back season: he had 28 points (10 G, 18 A) in 35 games in his senior season at Ohio State, over 10 more points than he had in three seasons at Boston University combined. Wise will definitely turn pro after this season, but it’s unknown if that’ll be with the Blackhawks or another organization. It’s possible his bounce-back season came a little too late for the former.

Taige Harding (D), Providence College

Harding (third-round pick, 2021) had no points in his final four NCAA games, but he looked fairly acclimated to playing colligate hockey after spending the first half tearing it up in the AJHL. His final point totals for the season were a single assist in 15 NCAA games and 37 points (14 G, 23 A) in 37 AJHL games. Harding is one of the most raw defensemen in the Blackhawks prospects cupboard, so playing another two or so years in college should be great for his development.

In juniors:

Ethan Del Mastro (D), OHL

Del Mastro (fourth-round pick, 2021) continued to impress down the stretch for the Mississauga Steelheads as a top-pairing defensemen. His production went back to a 0.5 point-per-game rate over his last 17 games — down from the nearly PPG rate it was in the 15 games prior — but he was tasked more often with shutting down top opposing players, especially in the OHL playoffs.

Louis Crevier, D (QMJHL)

There’s not much more that can be said about 2020 seventh-rounder pick Crevier: he’s smart, physical, and one of the most defensively sound prospect the Blackhawks have. He’s never going to wow with his skating, but it’s very good for a player of his size (6-8, 214 pounds). And considering offense isn’t his calling card, he’s been racking up the points lately with 17 points (3 G, 14 A) in his last 17 games with the Québec Remparts. That brings his point total to 30 points (9 G, 21 A) in 52 games.

Nolan Allan (D), Colton Dach (C), Jalen Luypen (C/LW), WHL

Allan (first-round, 2021) is another typically defense-first defensemen that has really stepped up to become more well-rounded this season by adding an element of offense to his game. He’s coming off a four-point (1 G, 3 A) game on Saturday, bringing his total to 16 points (5 G, 11 A) in his last 16 games — his best offensive stretch of the season. His NHL-ready skating combined with his strong defensive instincts — he has especially impressive gap control and body work in the neutral zone — were always enticing but this offensive breakout could suggest that Allan projects more top-pairing instead of just top-four.

If you sort Blackhawks prospects by points, then both 2021 second-round pick Dach and seventh-round pick Luypen are at the top of the list.

Dach picked up his 25th goal of the season on Saturday, bring his point totals to 64 in 55 games with the Kelowna Rockets — a nice bump from the 20 points in 20 games he had with the Saskatoon Blades last year. Goal-scoring tends to be Dach’s primary method of production but his playmaking has been standing out, with 12 assists in his last 17 games and nine of them being primary. If Dach can continue to work on his skating, he definitely has the hands to be an NHL player.

If you ever get to watch an Edmonton Oil Kings game, Luypen will be one of those players you won’t be able to take your eyes off of while he’s on the ice. Oft-compared to Hagel due to their high motors and late-round selections, Luypen isn’t as quick but he has a better natural shot than the (dearly) departed fan-favorite former Blackhawk.

Despite being only a season removed from his draft, there is a chance that Luypen is offered an ELC in the offseason. Whether that means he’ll turn pro is unknown. He may go back for another season in juniors like Dach did, but having that be a consideration shows how strong a draft+1 season Luypen is having.

In Europe:

Niklas Nordgren (RW) | Antti Saarela (LW), Finland

Nordgren (third-round, 2018) still hasn’t gotten a call back up to Liiga despite picking up another eight points (1 G, 7 A) in his last nine Mestis games. As has been stated before, it’s unlikely the Blackhawks sign him before their rights to him expire this summer.

Unfortunately for the Blackhawks only other Finnish prospect, 2019 fourth-round pick Saarela was injured on Feb. 11 and hasn’t played a game since. He finished the season with 19 points (12 G, 7 A) in 37 Liiga games as one of the best two-way players on Ilves Liiga.

Artur Kayumov (RW) | Ilya Safonov (C), KHL

2016 second-rounder Kayumov had his season come to an end last month, and he finished the season with 19 points (10 G, 9 A) in 42 games. Kayumov hasda down season by his own standards, but he could still be useful to the Blackhawks during their rebuilding process, if only because he’s one of the few that has high-level professional experience.

Also, there were reports that Kayumov was interested in signing with the Blackhawks this season, but NHL-KHL relations have complicated matters.

Safonov (sixth-round, 2021) finished out the season with one assist in his final six games, bringing his total to 12 (8 G, 4 A) in 43 games with Ak Bars Kazan. The 6-4, 205-pound shutdown center is reminiscent of Marcus Kruger in style — great in transition, defensively smart, great under pressure — but with obviously more size.

Michael Krutil (D) | Victor Stjernborg (C), SHL

2020 fourth-rounder Krutil’s move back to the SHL was a good decision as the 19-year-old has been very solid with Växjö Lakers HC, albeit in a limited role. He’s easily the youngest defensemen on his team, so hopefully next season he’ll get more opportunities in a larger role.

Like Safonov mentioned above, Stjernborg (fourth-round, 2021) is a strong defensive center who is primarily used in a shutdown role and is especially adept on the backcheck and puck-stealing. Unfortunately for him, his SHL team picked up some players for a playoff push, which forced them to regulate Stjernborg to HockeyAllsvenskan for most of the season’s final games. While that’s disappointing, it did allow him to play a more offensive role, and he scored 11 points (5 G, 6 A) in seven games.

Stjernborg was also named to Sweden’s U19 roster for the Four Nations Tournament which starts in mid-April.