A dive into the brief NHL stints for Kaiser, Vlasic and Regula
Three more blue-liners who could be making the NHL leap in the future.
This next season is going to be interesting for the Blackhawks, as they're expected to have a bit more youth in the lineup – and not just because they won the lottery for the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft. A lot of that youth will likely be on the blue line, and we got a taste this season with a handful of the D prospects who are right on the cusp of being NHL ready. We've already reviewed Isaak Phillips and Filip Roos – the two who played the most in Chicago – so now we'll take a look at the final three of the Blackhawks rookie defensemen.
Arguably, Kaiser is the defenseman who's risen the most on the Blackhawks prospect depth charts. Originally drafted in the third round back in 2020, he made an impact playing top-pair minutes for the University of Minnesota-Duluth right after the draft and improved dramatically over the next few years in the NCAA. Kaiser quickly earned a reputation as a smart, poised, two-way defenseman who has a competitive streak a mile wide.
Kaiser signed with the Blackhawks after his junior season at UMD and played his first NHL game on March 18. Unfortunately, he joined the team during one of its worst stretches of the season, but that didn't stop Kaiser from making a positive impression. He's a cerebral type of player, always thinking of the smartest move to make, whether it's playing defense or shifting to offense. And that translated pretty well in the nine games he played with the Blackhawks, averaging 18:36 – the second most among rookie defensemen – while getting plenty of time in defensive situations, such as on the penalty kill.
For a player who skates and handles the puck so well, Kaiser is actually more known for his calm, efficient approach defensively than his offense – and he illustrated why pretty well in his first game with the Blackhawks as he played a simple, defense-first style. He isn't the heaviest player at 190 pounds, but he showed that he's strong enough to suppress or break up plays physically along with being smart with stick positioning. He knows how to utilize his above average skating to cut off opposing players along the boards or in traffic.
Richardson specifically called out Kaiser's ability to compete physically, even against some of the tougher players in the NHL after the March 25 game against the Minnesota Wild:
“Great footwork out there; not afraid to compete. Seems like every time he was on the ice (against the Wild, Ryan) Reaves was on the ice and he didn’t show one hint of, I guess, feeling like intense going into that corner. He went full blast, protecting pucks and moving pucks."
In terms of results, Kaiser had some solid shot metrics in his small sample. His most common defensive partner was Connor Murphy, who had a rough season, but Murphy's partnership with Kaiser was one of his best. The duo were on the ice for 49.51 percent of the shot attempts and 47.80 percent of the expected goals in about 47 minutes at 5-on-5. Those may not seem like great numbers, but considering that's about six and eight percent better, respectively, than the Blackhawks team average in those stats, then it's impressive enough – especially when Kaiser and Murphy still started in the defensive zone well over half the time while facing mid-level quality of competition.
One of the more interesting facts about Kaiser's playing time is that he averaged 1:38 per game on the penalty kill. Now, he did join the team after the trade deadline, so there were more opportunities for him, but it's not typical for coaches to give time to defensemen straight out of college in such an important role. Again, he was mostly paired with Murphy on the top unit, suggesting that Kaiser impressed coach Luke Richardson enough to trust him in that situation. Smart, efficient play with some aggression is how Kaiser played on the PK. His ability to exit the zone – whether via a carry or pass – was especially noticeable.
Kaiser also showed he has the tools to be a solid – though not likely spectacular – offensive contributor. As mentioned above, his skating is one of his greatest assets along with his puck handling, so it's not surprising that several of his highlights in his nine games showcased his maneuverability in traffic and willingness to jump in the play when needed.
Ultimately, Kaiser is an intriguing prospect because he has a duality to his playing style that could translate well to the NHL. The Blackhawks have been emphasizing skating as a key component of their defensive prospects, and Kaiser is arguably top-three in that regard. Combine that with his hockey IQ and physicality despite being lighter, it's not difficult to see how Kaiser could carve out a role in the future with the Blackhawks, even though he may spend some time in Rockford next year.
Also, how can you not root for a Backstreet Boys fan?
Vlasic, like Kaiser, had his stock really rise while he was in the NCAA. A former 2019 second-rounder, he was drafted as a defense-first player who has a lot of potential to impact the NHL if he could work on getting his speed to the right level. Vlasic spent three years with Boston University before getting 15 games with the Blackhawks last season, a predominantly positive stint. This season, he only played in six games with the Blackhawks, but that had more to do with his almost irreplaceable role with the IceHogs, where he was absolutely one of the top players. In fact, Vlasic was meant to stay with the Blackhawks at the end of the season, but with the IceHogs' playoff fate in dire straits, Vlasic was sent back down to Rockford – along with Lukas Reichel – to help save the season.
Rockford head coach Andres Sorensen raved about Vlasic any time someone asked about the former BU Terrier:
“Where do you start? His ability to take in information. He’s such a presence on the ice. With his size and his skating abilities, he’s so hard to play against. He’s adding a layer of being more puck friendly, being more in the rush, carrying the puck more, obviously now playing the power play, taking a step there. So, there’s lots lots lots to like there.”
For more on Vlasic's season with Rockford, check out the SCH prospects tag, where we followed him and the other IceHogs throughout the season.
Despite already having NHL-ready size at 6-foot-6 and over 200 pounds, the Blackhawks decided to take a patient approach to Vlasic's development, allowing him to mature in Rockford for most of the season. It's impossible to say yet with only six games played this season if the approach has worked yet, but Vlasic certainly didn't look out of place in the NHL lineup in that span.
The most obvious improvement year-over-year was Vlasic's confidence when skating with the puck. He's always been a smooth skater, but speed was an issue – especially when puck handling – and Vlasic had many instances of carrying the puck almost effortlessly out of danger or into the offensive zone. Vlasic didn't show it as much in the NHL, but he can add to a team's offense with skating and heads-up passing ability as seen in the Rockford playoffs:
This confidence obviously intrigued Richardson, because Vlasic got the most ice time among the rookie defensemen with 19:38 per game, trailing only Seth Jones and Jack Johnson for the team lead among blue-liners, albeit in a smaller sample of games.
Like Kaiser, Vlasic spent most of his time partnered with Connor Murphy, though their results together weren't quite as strong. In 78:48 at 5-on-5, Vlasic and Murphy finished with 43.80 percent of the shot attempt share and 44.31 percent of the expected goals share while staring less than a third of the time in the defensive zone. Those numbers, while low, are still better than the team metrics, which is about all you can ask for. Also like Kaiser, Vlasic had plenty of PK time: his average game time of 2:12 on the kill was not only first among the rookie defensemen, it was actually first among all defensemen. Now, his small sample likely skewed that number, but it's impressive nonetheless that Richardson trusted a rookie with over two minutes in a key defensive situation.
Richardson also had a ton of positives to say about the development of Vlasic in Rockford this season and how that translated in the NHL so far:
“He’s going to be a big defenseman with a big reach — a shutdown type of guy. To be ‘the guy’ and [handle] all the important situations down there [in Rockford] this year, it was really important for him to go through the process all year, not being up-and-down or in-and-out of [the Hawks’] lineup. You saw it a couple of times when he stripped pucks, took off with it and made that first pass — that’s what he’s been doing well [in Rockford] all year.”
In the end, Vlasic is the type of defenseman who coaches love to have: good size, skating ability, and plays a simple but effective style. If all goes well, the Blackhawks are likely hoping he'll develop into a Niklas Hjalmarsson type of defender where he can be trusted to face and shut down top quality of competition. The expectation is that Vlasic will likely earn a roster spot with the Blackhawks next season, so we'll get to see his progress more towards that lofty goal more regularly.
Of the rookie defensemen this season, Regula just didn't stand out as much as the others. He played in the fewest games (4), though that might have resulted from more injury issues than any of the other rookies, and the right side of the Blackhawks D lineup was pretty full. But there is something to be said about the fact that he wasn't recalled to Chicago for any brief stint after the trade deadline when other defensive prospects were. Even Roos, an older but newer prospect, was chosen over Regula and given two additional games in March with the Blackhawks.
Regula came to Chicago in the 2019 Brendan Perlini trade with the Detroit Red Wings. He spent another season in the OHL, hitting career highs in goals (27) and points (60), before playing predominantly in Rockford during the 2021–22 season in a top-four role. Regula seemed to make a positive impression then, earning 15 games with the Blackhawks in the same season, so it was a bit surprising he played so few NHL games this season.
Scott Powers of The Athletic suggested that the lack of playing time in the NHL may have meant that other defensive prospects have jumped Regula on the depth chart, which seems pretty plausible.
Caleb Jones was Regula's most common partner in the NHL, spending almost 33 minutes together at 5-0n-5. The results weren't pretty for them, though, despite starting over 70 percent of the time in the offensive zone and facing a low quality of competition: the Blackhawks had just 30.30 percent of the shot attempts and 23.21 percent of the expected goals when on the two were on the ice together – not great, Bob. Caleb Jones did not mesh well with many defensemen this season, but Regula also didn't look as strong as he had in previous seasons and in the AHL.
Unfortunately, Regula's most noticeable moment was actually a time when he and Caleb Jones got pinned into the defensive zone for about four minutes:
On a positive note, Regula also played 1:54 on the power play – mostly on the second unit – where the Blackhawks saw an increase of 12.2 shots per 60 with Regula on the ice over their season average. That's an area where the Blackhawks desperately need help in the future, so having Regula as a power-play quarterback – or even in the bumper role, where he was so successful in the OHL – could be ideal for the big defender and the team.
Still, despite the lack of NHL playing time, Regula remains a solid prospect who the Blackhawks should invest a bit more time in. He's one of the few right-shot defensemen in the prospect pool that is nearly NHL-ready, he's got a great combination of size (6-foot-4, 218 pounds) and skating ability, and he's shown that he can produce quite well in the right situations. Even though Regula had zero points in the NHL in those four games, his ability to get his shot through on net and read offensive plays could be useful for a Blackhawks team that had the worst offense in the NHL last season.
Regula also showed an above average defensive foundation in Rockford, so it's possible he just needs more time in the NHL to see if he can replicate that play.
For more on Regula's season with Rockford, check out the SCH prospects tag, where we followed him and the other IceHogs throughout the season.