How Will Connor Bedard Impact the Blackhawks' Organizational Forward Depth?

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How Will Connor Bedard Impact the Blackhawks’ Organizational Forward Depth?

Chicago Blackhawks

The Blackhawks do not have a single forward on the NHL roster from this season under contract beyond the 2023-24 season. General manager Kyle Davidson and his front office now have the incredibly unique opportunity to build a complete set of forwards lines from scratch around a potentially elite, generational talent in Connor Bedard.

With a blank slate and a lot of cap space to play with, the Blackhawks will be a dangerous proposition moving forward. But there’s a lot of work to do between now and the eventual future we’re all hoping for, both for the organization and the prospects.

Strong early returns from 2022

Thanks to what appears to be a good 2022 draft class, when Scott Wheeler at The Athletic updated his organizational prospect rankings for the NHL in late-January and into February, he had the Chicago Blackhawks all the way up to fifth in the league. That was before a number of prospects inevitable graduate this summer, and Chicago adds Bedard to their talent pool.

Before last summer’s draft, the Blackhawks’ prospect pool was top-heavy with defensemen. In fact, when Wheeler published his mid-season rankings for Chicago in February of 2022 — in which he had the Blackhawks 25th in the league — he had four forwards in the Blackhawks’ top ten prospects — and one of them aren’t even with the organization any longer. Behind Lukas Reichel (1), Wheeler had Colton Dach (3), Evan Barratt (7) and MacKenzie Entwistle (9) in his top ten.

Fast forward 12 months, and Wheeler had Reichel (2), Frank Nazar (3), Ryan Greene (4), Ilya Safonov (9) and Dach (10) in his top ten of a significantly improved group. And we’ve seen Entwistle contribute in a bottom-six role in the NHL for most of the past season.

With all due respect to Kevin Korchinski and Reichel, Bedard will be No.1 on the list for the Blackhawks the moment Kyle Davidson announces his name on June 28. My prediction is the addition of Bedard moves Chicago to the top of most analysts rankings of NHL prospects collections.

We’re going to spent a lot of time in the coming weeks talking about how Davidson and the Blackhawks’ front office constructs the forward group around Bedard. Davidson invested heavily in forwards at last year’s draft, using nine of 11 picks up front. And many of those forwards have shown well in the past year, with third-round pick Gavin Hayes‘ 41 goals in the OHL standing out as a terrific post-draft season.

Understanding many of last year’s picks will not be in the NHL yet, it’s worth a moment to project out a few years to think about what the Blackhawks’ forward lines might look like just considering players they’ve already drafted — adding Bedard, of course.

The Blackhawks’ Forward Future: Centers

The Blackhawks have a nice collection of centers in the system now, with Bedard jumping to the top of the list. There has been some talk about him potentially moving to the wing because of his size, but I’m of the mindset that he plays best with the puck on his stick and being in the middle makes sense.

Behind Bedard as potential NHL centers — if we aren’t considering Reichel — the Blackhawks have Cole Guttman, Nazar, Greene, Dominic James, Aidan Thompson and Paul Ludwinski. I would love to include Safonov in this group more immediately, but he’s signed in the KHL through the 2024-25 season.

Guttman looked good in the NHL last season after a really good, four-year career at Denver. His leadership ability is a huge plus and he’ll likely be in the mix for one of the Blackhawks’ top three center spots in training camp this season. That could obviously be impacted by their free agency and trade moves this summer, but I’m comfortable with him as a center in the NHL at this point.

Nazar can fly; he was probably the fastest skater in the 2022 NHL Draft. And he can handle as well. Because of his size (5-10, 175), it’s possible he ends up moving to the wing. His speed and skill on one of Bedard’s wings at some point it damn sexy and I’m here for it.

Greene really stood out as a true freshman at Boston University this season, and has flown up the charts for most analysts (as evidenced by Wheeler having him fourth overall for the Blackhawks). Producing 31 points in 38 as a teenager in Hockey East is no small feat. He was part of a veteran roster, but he looked great doing it. I could see a future where Greene is centering a second line that includes Reichel.

James was the faceoff leader at the late-summer edition of the World Juniors and looked good for the United States in that tournament. He was also credited with 18 blocked shots with 28 points in 35 games this season for Minnesota-Duluth, so he might be a candidate for a third or fourth-line role at some point down the road.

Thompson was an over-age freshman at Denver and was a point-per-game player despite getting a late start to his season because of injury. He played center for Denver and might stay there long-term.

Ludwinski dealt with some physical issues this season as well. He signed his professional contract, but he’ll head back to junior for another season this fall. We’ll see if his future is at center or on the wing as well.

The Blackhawks’ Forward Future: Wings

It appears the Blackhawks are now moving forward with Reichel as a wing, though they maintained the liked him working at center in Rockford while he was in the AHL this season. If he’s going to stick on the left side, he probably gets the first look at Bedard’s line this season.

I have some reservations about Reichel’s NHL ceiling, however. In fact, there’s a chance the Blackhawks have the ability to draft a player with their second first-round pick this year who has a higher likelihood of being a top-line player than Reichel. That isn’t a bad thing; I think Reichel can be an effective second-line forward on a good team. But I’m not ready to put his name in stone as LW1 on the roster.

It also appears Dach might be best suited on the wing as well, though he was drafted as a center. His size (6-4, 205) and skating could make him an ideal wing in the top-six for Chicago. The skill is there, too. How his body holds up will be important; he missed a lot of time this season because of multiple injuries/concussions.

On the wing, Hayes’ emergence as a scorer is a great asset but he’s working on his skating. Samuel Savoie has that Andrew Shaw-like dog in him and was a fan favorite this summer. Landon Slaggert is returning to Notre Dame for a senior year to play with his brother, but I still like his game a lot. His former teammate in South Bend, Ryder Rolston, is signed and will be in Rockford next season. And Jalen Luypen has really grabbed a lot of eyeballs since he was a seventh-round pick in 2021. He’ll be in Rockford next season as well.

The Blackhawks’ Forward Future: Four Good Lines?

Without knowing who else the Blackhawks add to the organization this summer in the draft or trades, the collection of forwards that will include Bedard in about seven weeks is impressive.

I know things change. I recognize development comes at different rates for every prospect. And I am fully aware that this is a pipe dream exercise at this point in the summer, but… this is what we do when our team isn’t playing and the No. 1 pick just landed in our lap.

So here’s my spitball forward lines for the Blackhawks based on just players they’ve already drafted and Bedard, who we can safely assume is the No. 1 pick in June. Let’s call this Opening Night in October of 2025 for the sake of discussion.

Frank Nazar — Connor Bedard — Colton Dach
Lukas Reichel — Ryan Greene — Gavin Hayes
Samuel Savoie — Aidan Thompson/Ilya Safonov?? — Paul Ludwinski
Jalen Luypen — Cole Guttman/Dominic James — Landon Slaggert

Is that a Stanley Cup championship roster? Probably not. Could it be a fast, young, competitive team that grows together? Absolutely. And will there be NHL veterans added along the way? Sure, absolutely. On Opening Night in 2025 we might still have Entwistle or Philipp Kurashev or Joey Anderson on the roster while some of these guys are still growing and developing in Rockford.

But if this is our baseline group before adding potentially eight more players — some of whom will undoubtedly be forwards in a very forward-heavy (and really good, deep) draft — this could become a group the likes of which we haven’t seen in this city in 17 years.

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