Second City Hockey’s 2022-23 preseason Blackhawks Top 25 Under 25 series ranks the organization’s top 25 players under the age of 25 by Oct. 1, 2022. 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 Chicago Blackhawks are currently overloaded when it comes to defensive prospects, so it’s not surprising that six of the last 10 on this list have been blue-liners, and we’ve still got more to add. This includes 2020 third-rounder Wyatt Kaiser, a defensemen whose stock has been steadily rising in the organization since.
As a freshman in the 2020-21 season, Kaiser ended the year as the No. 1 defenseman for Minnesota-Duluth in terms of TOI, and he continued in that role as a sophomore. His point production took a nice jump — he went 0.36 points per game to 0.56 — all while continuing to log the most minutes in all situations for the Bulldogs — including on the penalty kill.
Kaiser is also coming off a three-point, five-game stint with Team USA at the 2022 World Juniors where he was the top player of their group-play game against Austria. It wasn’t a perfect tournament for Kaiser — he had a miscue against Germany that cost his team the shutout — but it speaks volumes to how the national coaching staff viewed him as he was moved up to the top-pairing when Luke Hughes was injured against Czechia.
Wyatt Kaiser with what the kids call a 'seeing eye wrister'— /Cam Robinson/ (@Hockey_Robinson) August 13, 2022
Nice lateral movement at the top for the Blackhawks' prospect pic.twitter.com/BlwwJxK5dI
Kaiser’s biggest strengths have always been his skating and transition ability, skills that have only improved into his second season in the NCAA. He boasts both stellar straight-line speed and excellent agility, and he’s become more effective at using these two attributes consistently to dance through and around opponents in the neutral zone. Combined with his above average puck-handling, Kaiser showed more and more on the scorecard offensively as his development has progressed. While he’s unlikely to ever be flashy in terms of offense, Kaiser’s breakout capability means he should contribute some secondary scoring as he transitions to higher leagues.
Occasionally, Kaiser can be overzealous when jumping into a play, which led to some turnover issues, but these were much more minimal in year two.
Wyatt Kaiser puts UMD up 3-0 with a beauty pic.twitter.com/mgHNXPMuPX— CJ Fogler AKA Perc70 #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) March 20, 2022
Kaiser also relies heavily on his skating ability to defend both in the neutral and defensive zones. He excels at closing gaps in the neutral zone, using his smooth skating and excellent edgework to defend the blue line well. That edgework also comes in handy in his own zone to maneuver into good shot and pass blocking positions. And, of course, Kaiser’s speed lends itself to being a good backchecker, contributing to his near 60 percent puck retrieval success. Like with his breakouts above, Kaiser can sometimes be overly aggressive when it comes to defense, but his speed usually allows him to recover.
Speaking of retrievals, it should be noted that Kaiser became more versatile in how he approached these by being stronger in general. In the past, Kaiser primarily used his stickwork, elusive skating, and high IQ to recover and maintain possession, but adding muscle over the years — over 20 pounds since his draft — Kaiser is now able to out-muscle or be more physical when needed. This is an area that still needs work, but it’s good to see improvement.
Kaiser’s ranking above other, more NHL ready defensive prospects like Alex Vlasic and Alec Regula may seem odd, but realistically, they’re all very close to each other and the difference in their current rank on this T25U25 list is pretty negligible. Vlasic is more of a stay-at-home defensive type who can contribute offensively on occasion. Regula, as a defender, skews to offense more but is also decently responsible in his own end. Kaiser is a two-way defensemen with superior skating and a calmness to his game that rarely waivers. All three players have a solid chance of making the NHL at this point and have similar ceiling projections as top-four defensemen, but Kaiser’s more balanced approach and projectable tendencies raise his floor slightly in comparison.
Kaiser is returning for his junior season at Minnesota-Duluth where he’ll once again be tasked with top defensemen assignments. There’s been some hype around Kaiser since he put on a defensive clinic during a five-overtime 2021 NCAA postseason game against North Dakota — he was on the ice for only one scoring chance against at even-strength while logging nearly 60 minutes — but it’s still important for fans to keep expectations in check, especially in relation to his timeline to the NHL. Kaiser has taken very positive strides since being drafted, but he only turned 20 in July, so he’s definitely still in the maturation phase of his development. That being said, depending on how deep the Bulldogs go this year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Kaiser sign with the Blackhawks and play a game or two just get his feet wet, like Vlasic did this spring.