How Do We Feel About the Blackhawks' Forward Prospect Depth Starting the New Year?

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How Do We Feel About the Blackhawks’ Forward Prospect Depth Starting the New Year?

Chicago Blackhawks

We’re starting a new calendar year with hopes for a No. 1 pick. That’s really the ceiling of expectations for the rest of the Blackhawks’ season if we’re going to keep it 100. But the past calendar year saw general manager Kyle Davidson make some dramatic moves to change the trajectory of the franchise.

So how do we feel about the Blackhawks’ prospect pool now … compared to how it stacked up 365 days ago?

Davidson’s first draft class consisted of 11 selections, nine of which were forwards. A forward-heavy draft should have been expected considering the lack of depth in the organization when he assumed the full-time role. Lukas Reichel was one of few (the only?) signed prospects who had legitimate top-nine NHL skill or talent in the system.

It hasn’t even been a full season, so any evaluations of additions to the Blackhawks’ system from the 2022 draft are based on performances in college and juniors. But the early returns on the ’22 class are incredibly encouraging. And some of their previous picks (plus one free agent addition) have seen their value go up as well.

New Class

Of course the forward that had the biggest hope assigned to him after the draft was Frank Nazar, whom the Blackhawks selected 13th overall with one of the picks they acquired in the Kirby Dach trade.

But Nazar hasn’t played a game at the University of Michigan yet, because of a lower body injury that required some surgical repairs. That shouldn’t diminish our hopes for him long-term; he was probably going to spend at least two years at Michigan anyway. It can be frustrating for fans that he hasn’t been in the same lineup as Adam Fantilli in Ann Arbor this year. But he should be back eventually. And he’s going to be good.

The other forwards the Blackhawks selected this year have had strong seasons wherever they’re playing.

Aidan Thompson was probably the prospect who raised the most eyebrows at development camp this summer what and again at the USA development camp before the postponed World Juniors in August. But an injury suffered in that camp cost him a possible spot on the US roster and a chunk of his freshman season at the University of Denver. The good news: since joining the DU lineup, Thompson has been the guy we saw this summer. He has 11 points (4 goals, 7 assists) in 12 games.

Samuel Savoie also made a lot of waves with the Blackhawks this summer, both in the July development camp and again at the prospect showcase games and in some preseason action with the NHL club. He had 33 points in 64 games for Gatineau in the QMJHL last season and earned a strong Andrew Shaw comparison with Chicago. This season he’s rolling; he has 31 points (14 goals, 17 assists) in just 29 games with the same squad in Gatineau.

Note: the picks the Blackhawks used to select both Savoie and Colton Dach were acquired from Vegas in the three-team trade that sent Mattias Janmark to the Golden Knights in 2021.

Ryan Greene is also skating in the college ranks and has been dynamite at Boston University. As a 19-year-old freshman, he’s looked comfortable against older opponents in Hockey East and had a good camp before the current World Juniors, though he didn’t make the final Canada roster. He has 15 points (6 goals, 9 assists) in 15 games this season and his stock is skyrocketing.

Gavin Hayes was selected with the second pick the Blackhawks acquired from Montreal in the Dach trade. He scored 19 goals last year in 65 games with Flint in the OHL. He finished the calendar year on a hot streak and has already eclipsed that number, posting 20 goals in 32 games to start his first post-draft campaign in Flint. Like Greene, his package of size and speed has his stock rising quickly.

Paul Ludwinski was the Blackhawks’ first pick in the second round, but he was their fourth selection in the 2022 draft. He, too, had a strong summer in Chicago and looked good in the prospect showcase games. But, like Colton Dach, a concussion sidelined him through training camp and put a delay on his start to his junior season. He has scored six goals with 16 assists in 28 games with Kingston in the OHL this year.

Previous Drafts/Acquisitions

Colton Dach was named the captain of his junior team in Kelowna when he was able to return from the concussion he suffered in Chicago. He had a second concussion issue in junior, but came back from that in time to make Canada’s World Junior roster. He’s developing into a good power forward and had shown well in a bottom-six role at the WJC until an injury to his right arm/shoulder ended his tournament before the knock-out round.

The injury especially hurts because of the impact an injury suffered at the World Juniors impacted the development curve of his older brother, Kirby. Of course the previous front office rushed Kirby to the NHL and he missed most of his sophomore professional season with a write injury during the post-pandemic shortened 2021 season that was already a mess. Hopefully Colton can now take time to get himself right again and get into camp next year with a fresh body and work ethic with multiple injuries in the past.

Victor Stjernborg was named the captain for Sweden at the World Juniors. He’s a center with good size who was drafted by the Blackhawks in the fourth round (No. 108) in 2021.

Ilya Safonov is also a center with good size but there are some scouts who really like what they’ve seen from him in the KHL this year. He has 21 points (10 goals, 11 assists) in 43 games this season, almost double the 12 points he had in the same number of games at the KHL level last year. He was a sixth-round pick (No. 172) in 2021.

One of the big risers in the organization who wasn’t drafted by the Blackhawks but signed as a college free agent this summer is Cole Guttman. After leading Denver to the NCAA championship in the spring as the Pioneers’ captain, he didn’t sign with Tampa. The Blackhawks landed him and he’s been marvelous in Rockford. He has 10 goals and 8 assists in 22 games in his first professional season and could be a guy who gets moved up quickly after the trade deadline when there will theoretically be some more lockers available at the United Center.

A couple other forwards I’m excited to see in the professional ranks at some point are Landon Slaggert (who I expect to sign when Notre Dame’s season ends) and Dominic James. Both showed well on the US roster at the World Juniors in August, but their college seasons have not been everything I had hoped.

Overall Assessment

Frankly, for me, the biggest reason the trades of Kirby Dach and Alex DeBrincat made the least amount of sense was because there was an enormous lack of skill in the Blackhawks’ system at forward. Reichel had a nice first professional season but had work to do to show he could grow into an NHL regular, and after that…

The addition of Guttman in Rockford is another player I could see being an NHL contributor in the short-term (next year and a half). And some of the AHL veterans who have brought experience to Rockford have helped take the pressure off Reichel and other younger players to lead a team to wins.

One year ago, there were questions about Dach’s skating and we were trying to force excitement from Michal Teply. Slaggert and Ryder Rolsten were returning to college as upperclassmen on a Notre Dame team with some questions to answer in a strong Big Ten.

Now, while I would argue the Blackhawks don’t have a game-changing top-line forward in the system still (Nazar may become an impact top-six player eventually), the level of overall skill has increased exponentially. The development from hard work from players like Dach and Stjernborg and the additions of so many quality forwards in the 2022 draft should have fans excited for the future.

Indeed, the bar has been raised. The Blackhawks’ talent pool is way better than it was one year ago. And if the development curve can continue, we should be excited for what this group of prospects can provide in the NHL in a couple years (or, maybe, less).

Author: Tab Bamford

Tab is the Lead Blackhawks voice for BN. He is the author of two books about the Blackhawks, most recently "Chicago Blackhawks: An Illustrated Timeline" (Reedy Press, 2021). Find him on Twitter at @The1Tab