One of the many criticisms Blackhawks fans had for former GM Stan Bowman was his affection for rushing prospects through the pipeline. You need to look no further than Kirby Dach for a prime example. Dach struggled mightily this season and became the subject of ire among a fan base angry that the Blackhawks spent a third overall selection on a player that might be a bust, especially when you see guys taken after Dach, such as Trevor Zegras, who have had so much early success in the NHL.
Alex Vlasic was widely expected to join the Rockford IceHogs for their upcoming AHL playoff series against the Texas Stars, an environment that interim head coach Derek King has said on numerous occasions is a great place for players like Vlasic to gain valuable experience.
Instead, Kyle Davidson said on Tuesday that Vlasic would not be joining the IceHogs for their playoff run this week. Davidson instead wants the 20-year-old blueliner to take advantage of an entire and healthy summer of rest and training after the rookie joined the Blackhawks immediately following his college season with Boston University. Vlasic was selected by the Blackhawks just one round after Kirby Dach in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. The handling of the two prospects highlights the difference in philosophy between Davidson and his predecessor Stan Bowman.
The decision with Alex — and this is how case-by-case development decisions are made — last year Alex didn’t have a fully healthy offseason, and ending this year with us, he was healthy. We didn’t want to risk him missing two offseasons in a row because offseason training for young players is so critical in their development, being able to take that next step, especially physically, and being able to handle coming into pro and playing a full season of pro rather than 30 to 40 games in college, all spaced out with time to rest.
The pro schedule is so condensed and so heavy and hard on young players that they need to have that offseason to prepare for the haul that is going to come. In his first full year as a professional, we just really wanted him to get going on his training and have a good summer to be prepared for 22-23 rather than go down to Rockford — which, in itself, would’ve been a great opportunity too. I fully recognize that, and that’s why it was a tough decision. We just felt this was the best for Alex and his long-term development.
I wondered all year, especially after the NHL trade deadline, why Davidson refused to give some of the guys in Rockford like Ian Mitchell, Jakub Galvas, and other young blueliners some run at the NHL level, and now I have my answer. Development – long-term development at that – is vital to Davidson. Jeremy Colliton and Stan Bowman brought Ian Mitchell up last season, and despite Mitchell potentially having the highest ceiling of any Blackhawks’ defenseman prospects, Mitchell struggled at the NHL level. This year, Mitchell spent nearly the entire season in the AHL and has logged 35 points (11 goals, 24 assists) in 57 games with Rockford.
Lukas Reichel, Alec Regula, and a few other prospects (including Vlasic) spent some time with the Blackhawks this season, but that was a concentrated effort that Davidson sees as evaluation periods rather than planned and permanent stays, ones that would have surely resulted in the struggling youngsters being demoted. In April, Davidson said that he didn’t care about burning a year of Lukas Reichel’s entry-level contract. Davidson and the Blackhawks are in it for the long game.
Davidson had this to say about keeping prospects in Rockford until they’re ready to not only be in Chicago but stay in Chicago:
“They’re gonna learn what they need to do to get to the NHL and stay in the NHL and it’s not a race to the NHL for any of our prospects, it’s more of that journey of getting to the point that when you do get recalled we can’t send you back. That takes time, that takes development and that takes commitment but it takes commitment from our side working with them to the point that they come up and stay.
“So it’s in both of the players and management and coaching staff and development staff’s benefit to get them to the point where they are forcing the issue and we need to keep them in the NHL and that’s ours and their job in their development path. Hopefully, we’ll see, you know, everyone’s different in their development curve and timeline and hopefully, we do get some of those hard decisions next year, but if they’re not next year or they’re later in the year that’s great too because we’re looking for a sustained play, not just players to come up and have a good five games and then go back down. So, we want them to be in the right spot for their development long term.”
Davidson also spoke about the plans on the AHL coaching staff from a developmental standpoint, saying that it’s important to him to have the NHL and AHL systems mirror each other so that players come to the NHL knowing the plan rather than bouncing back and forth between systems. Davidson also said that regardless of who the permanent head coaches end up being, simplicity and letting players play hockey free and natural will be imperative, which is the exact opposite of what the Blackhawks were doing under Jeremy Colliton in his system, but we all knew that already.
It’s refreshing to see that Davidson is placing such a significant emphasis on properly developing prospects as the team embarks on a rebuild that Davidson hopes ends with sustained success, success only achieved by building a flourishing prospect pipeline.