07/13/2010 9:31 AM - From chicagoblackhawks.com: (link)
CHICAGO -- It seems a little odd that a developmental prospect camp would be so important to a team that's relishing the spoils of its first Stanley Cup championship in 49 years.
Yet, that is exactly how the Chicago Blackhawks looked at their four-day camp that wrapped up on Monday with a pair of spirited scrimmages. The importance of this camp cannot be overstated for the Hawks.
They are eager to find younger players from within their own system to replace the talent they were forced to trade away in a salary-cap crunch this offseason, and this camp lived up to its expectations for Hawks GM Stan Bowman. He watched closely for signs of prospects being ready to make the jump to the NHL and was pleasantly surprised.
"It kind of reinforces the fact that we've got some great players here who are going to be Blackhawks in short order," Bowman said. "We know that's what we're trying to do here is reload, and get some players who are close to being NHL-ready. Especially in today's NHL, you see young players getting more opportunities than in the past. I think we're a good example of that … we've had a lot of young players play big roles."
That will likely be the case again, as key contributors such as Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, Brent Sopel and Ben Eager will wear new uniforms next season -- not to mention forwards Adam Burish, John Madden and Colin Fraser.
Replacing their names on the roster, at this point, is anyone's guess -- mainly because the Hawks still have to re-sign goalie Antti Niemi and may have to deal another veteran in order to create enough salary-cap space to fill out a full 22-man roster. Prospects will likely make up the bulk of those depth-filling roles, and there were plenty on hand at the camp to see.
Among those that participated, Bowman specifically singled out several for their play -- including 19-year old center Brandon Pirri and 19-year old offensive college defenseman Nick Leddy -- both taken early in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Pirri was the Hawks' second pick of the draft (No. 59), while Leddy was taken with the 16th pick by Minnesota and then traded to the Hawks during the past season along with veteran Kim Johnsson.
Leddy, who said he had to discuss with his parents whether he should return to the University of Minnesota for his sophomore season, was the first player Bowman mentioned on Monday.
"Nick Leddy was excellent," he said. "This is the first time we've seen him here in Chicago. (We) saw him perform during the (college) season, but boy he's really smooth out there. I think he's going to be with the Blackhawks for many years. It's exciting to see that."
Pirri was next to get a mention by Bowman, followed by the Hayes brothers -- Jimmy and Kevin, who will both play at Boston College. Kevin Hayes was the Hawks' first pick (No. 24) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, while Jimmy Hayes (Toronto's second rounder in 2008, No. 60) was acquired for a second-round pick during the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
It didn't take long for Kevin Hayes (6-2, 201) to make his presence felt after he scored on a penalty shot the first day of camp, while Jimmy Hayes (6-5, 210) -- who helped BC win the NCAA national championship as a freshman -- stood out as an impressive power forward presence. He even held his own in a fight on Monday with 6-2, 205-pound forward Rob Flick, the Hawks' fourth-round pick (No. 120) this year, who has played the past two seasons in the OHL with Mississaugua St. Michael's.
"Brandon Pirri had a great camp, (and) the Hayes brothers were really impressive," Bowman said. "(Along with Leddy), they jumped to the top of my mind in that, for each team, they were consistently difference makers."
Kevin Hayes finished the camp with four goals, tied with free-agent invite Terry Broadhurst at the top of the chart, while Jimmy Hayes tallied three times.
Swedish center Marcus Kruger (5-11, 172) also caught Bowman's eye, and he's yet another Hawks' pick from the 2009 NHL Entry Draft (fifth round, No. 149).
Also watching on Monday was Hawks coach Joel Quenneville, who will have the chance to work with a number of prospects at the team's training camp in September. While the Hawks do have a star-laden core of young talent, it's going to be a challenging task for the coaches to work with a number of rookies while trying to defend the Cup.
Quenneville sounded confident it can be done, though. He likes the current make-up of his top three lines, which will be centered by Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Toews, sharpshooter Patrick Sharp and underrated talent Dave Bolland.
He also likes his top four defensemen, which include Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook as the first pairing and puck-moving vet Brian Campbell paired with young Swedish D-man Niklas Hjalmarsson on the second pairing. Hjalmarsson signed an offer sheet with San Jose as a restricted free agent last week, but that offer was matched by the Hawks on Monday -- making Quenneville smile.
"I think when you look at our team, you've got pieces that are in the right place," Quenneville said. "You've got all the pieces that you're looking for that were pretty solid. I've been writing down lines and I like the look of the top three lines and I like the top four (defensemen). There's a lot to be excited about, and whoever takes advantage of (roster openings) -- we feel these guys are going to get better as they go along and make us a better team as well."
Young Swedish forward Viktor Stalberg (acquired from Toronto for Kris Versteeg) is being penciled in for a roster spot after scoring nine goals with five assists in just 40 games for the Maple Leafs last season. Other prospects on the verge of cracking the NHL roster include forwards Bryan Bickell, Jake Dowell, Kyle Beach and Jack Skille -- along with defensemen Shawn Lalonde and Ivan Vishnevskiy (acquired from Atlanta for Andrew Ladd).
Leddy may have played his way into that conversation, as well.
Of those names, only Beach, Lalonde and Leddy participated in the prospect camp. Lalonde hopes he did enough to at least make Bowman and Quenneville think about adding him, while Beach -- a goal-scoring power forward and 2008 first-rounder (No. 10) -- drew more notoriety for his fighting than scoring.
The 6-3, 202-pounder fought four times during the camp, including twice with 5-9, 160-pound Norwegian forward Mathis Olimb, whom the Hawks just signed in June. During the second fight, Olimb injured his shoulder -- it reportedly will require surgery.
All in all, Beach didn't seem too thrilled with his camp performance, mainly because of his lack of goals.
"Obviously part of my game is scoring and I wasn't able to do that," Beach said. "There's frustration there, but I had lots of chances. I hit a couple posts yesterday, (and) had a couple good chances today. I just didn't have the finish, didn't have my hands. (That) may be understandable for the middle of July, but I've got to get back on the ice and get back to work here next week."
Probably a good idea, considering the competition he and other Hawks prospects will face in just a couple of months at training camp.