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Hawks have more talent in pipeline

Wednesday, 07.23.2008 / 9:00 AM / Prospects

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer


Petri Kontiola, who is a native of Finland, got his first taste of North American hockey last season and proved that he can adjust to the game.
Petri Kontiola 2007-08 season highlights
Youth is already being served in Chicago, where Windy City fans are buzzing about supremely talented Blackhawks' forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

The Blackhawks, who are fast becoming one of the hottest NHL tickets, also have integrated young defensemen Duncan Keith, Cam Barker, Brent Seabrook, James Wisniewski and Jordan Hendry into the lineup.

It's fair to say this is one of the up-and-coming teams in the League, but a deeper look down into the Blackhawks' pipeline reveals even more high-end forwards and goalies on the way.

"We're pretty happy with where it's going," Chicago GM Dale Tallon told NHL.com. "We started with the defense and they moved up. Now we have moved up to the forwards, and we have to start the cycle again."

Here is a closer look at who Chicago fans should be watching out for:

CENTERS

Petri Kontiola -- The Blackhawks like Kontiola, a 23-year-old they selected in the seventh round (No. 196) back in 2004, because of his intelligence and tenacity. The Finn plays in all three zones and has already proven to the Hawks that he can play on a scoring line or a checking line.

Kontiola played 12 games in Chicago this past season and registered five assists and a plus-5 rating. He played 66 games with the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL and had 68 points on 18 goals and 50 assists. He was also a plus-17 with Rockford.

What's remarkable is 2007-08 was Kontiola's first season in North America. He had previously only played in Finland, but proved he was able to adapt to the North American game. Look for Kontiola to make a push for a roster spot out of training camp.

"He has to get climatized a little more and get his conditioning up," Tallon said. "He's a really smart player."

Nathan Davis -- Davis just finished his four-year career at the University of Miami (Ohio) with 132 points and a plus-45 rating in 138 games. The Hawks signed Davis to an entry-level contract in May.

But Davis, the Hawks' fourth-round choice (No. 113) in 2005, had a sub-par senior season after a dominant junior year. He was limited to 21 games this past season due to various injuries and managed 17 points and a plus-3 rating. That was a big comedown from 2006-07, when was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award after scoring 50 points and accumulating a plus-18 rating in 42 games.

He had 40 points and a plus-23 rating in 37 games as a sophomore and 25 points in 38 games as a freshman. Look for Davis to land in Rockford this coming season, but he could be shuttled to Chicago as well.

"He has good wheels," Tallon said.
   
Evan Brophey -- Brophey had a sub-par pro debut season with only 19 points on four goals and 15 assists in 74 games for Rockford. The former third-round pick (No. 68) in 2005 showed his tremendous offensive upside in 2006-07 when he had 36 goals and 71 points for the Plymouth Whalers in his final season of junior hockey.

Brophey, who is 6-1 and 205 pounds, projects as a power forward in the NHL. He will most likely be back for a second season in Rockford in the fall, and the Blackhawks will be monitoring his every move.

"Brophey can really skate and he's a smart playmaking center," Tallon said. "He had mono and tons of odd stuff, but we look at him to be a force in a couple of years."

WINGS

Jack Skille -- Skille is one of the headliners among the Hawks' prospects. The No. 7 overall pick in the 2005 Draft played in 16 NHL games this past season and had three goals and two assists. Skille also played in 59 games for the IceHogs and had 34 points on 16 goals and 18 assists.

The Blackhawks feel that prospect Jack Skille will develop into a solid power forward after displaying a strong rookie season last year.
The Blackhawks love his speed and his willingness to be physical. Expect the 6-foot-1, 200-pounder to make a splash in the NHL this coming season.

"Skille has great wheels and he's learning the pro game," Tallon said. "He had a real solid rookie year. He's going to be a good power forward, who is hard to stop with his speed and strength."

Troy Brouwer -- Of all the Blackhawks’ prospects, Brouwer may be the best goal scorer of the bunch. Brouwer had 35 goals in 75 games with Rockford this past season after scoring 41 in 66 games as a rookie in 2006-07. Those 41 goals came on the heels of his 49-goal season for Moose Jaw of the WHL in 2005-06.

Brouwer's production, though, dipped in his second season with Rockford. Not only did Chicago's seventh-round pick (No. 214) in 2004 score six fewer goals while playing nine more games, he was also a minus-8 after playing to a plus-15 rating in 2006-07.

The Blackhawks, who used Brouwer for 10 games in 2006-07 and another two this past season, still like him a lot because not only is he a scorer, but he can be a physical presence, too. He's another in a long line of power forward prospects.

"Brouwer is a goal scorer and he's getting closer and closer to getting his foot speed up to snuff," Tallon said. "He has scored at every level. We're really high on him."

Igor Makarov -- The Hawks used the No. 33 selection in the 2006 Draft on Makarov, a speedy Russian. While Makarov won't likely make it to North America for this coming season, the Hawks remain high on him.

Makarov has been busy playing at the highest level in Russia, for St. Petersburg of the Russian Super League the last two seasons. He has 11 goals and 13 assists in 99 games for St. Petersburg, but has shown flashes of skill.

"Makarov is in St. Petersburg and he'll come to our camp," Tallon said. "He plays a North American style, with quickness and skill."

Michael Blunden -- Yet another power forward prospect, Blunden is 6-foot-3 and somewhere in the neighborhood of 210 pounds. He's big. He's strong. He's physical. He also knows how to score goals.

Blunden, Chicago's second-round pick (No. 45) in 2005, scored 16 of them in 74 games for Rockford this past season. He had 100 goals in 236 OHL games for Erie. Blunden has 10 games of NHL experience already behind him and could push for a roster spot in camp.

Michael Blunden is another big, power forward that we like. If he can stay healthy -- he has had nagging injuries the last couple of years -- but he's fit, strong and willing. - Chicago Blackhawks GM, Dale Tallon
"Michael Blunden is another big, power forward that we like," Tallon said. "If he can stay healthy -- he has had nagging injuries the last couple of years -- but he's fit, strong and willing."

Akim Aliu -- Perhaps Aliu is taking a page out of Dustin Byfuglien's book. Aliu not only played forward for the London Knights this past season, but he saw a little time on the blue line. Byfuglien, of course, came to Chicago as a defenseman and the Blackhawks turned him into a power forward.

Aliu acquitted himself well in his versatile role. He had 28 goals, 33 assists and a plus-10 rating in 60 games. It was by far his best OHL season, and earned Aliu, who was a second-round pick (No. 57) in 2007, his first pro contract.

"Akim is a big kid that can really skate and has good skills," Tallon said. "He can play the point on the power play, and played some D for London last year."

Dan Bertram -- Bertram is headed to the pros after four solid seasons for Boston College, which he capped by helping the Eagles to the NCAA championship this past season.

He finished his collegiate career with 105 points in 161 games and a plus-41 rating. Bertram had a career-best 37 points in 43 games as a senior.

Bertram, a second-round pick (No. 54) in 2005, also represented Canada four times in international competitions and has won gold medals at the 2006 and 2007 World Junior Championships as well as the 2004 Under-18 Junior World Cup. He won silver at the 2005 World Under-18 Championships.   

"Danny Bertram is a character kid," Tallon said. "He has won three gold medals and an NCAA title. We like his character and his skill."

Kyle Beach -- Chicago made Beach the No. 11 selection at last month's draft in Ottawa. Tallon said the Hawks would have traded out of the spot had Beach not fallen to them, but this power forward was too good to pass up.

Tallon said he feels that Beach is the player that has been missing in Chicago. Not only can Beach fill up the score sheet -- he had 27 goals and 60 points for the Everett Silvertips of the WHL this past season -- but he has an abrasiveness that Tallon just loves.

Beach, who is 6-foot-3 and 203 pounds, was the only player in the WHL to average a point-per-game while also averaging more than three penalty minutes per game. He has 121 points and 418 PIM in 125 WHL games.

Beach will be given a chance to make the Blackhawks opening night roster. If he doesn't, he'll head back to the Silvertips for one more season of junior hockey.

"He's big, strong, powerful and a little volatile," Tallon said. "He can play left wing with Toews and Kane and protect them as well. We are excited about it."

Billy Sweatt -- Sweatt was the first of two second-round picks (No. 38) by the Blackhawks in 2007, and he has already played two seasons at Colorado College. Sweatt had 27 points on 10 goals and 17 assists in 37 games this past season after scoring 26 points in 30 games as a freshman in 2006-07.

Sweatt is known as a speedy forward, but not overly physical like a lot of the other Blackhawks' prospects. However, he became an effective penalty-killer for the Tigers this past season and has shown remarkable on-ice intelligence.

Before the Hawks took Beach, it could be argued that Sweatt was their top left wing prospect.

Kris Versteeg -- Versteeg got to show Blackhawks execs what he's all about in January when he played in eight straight games. He had two goals, two assists and a plus-1 rating during that call-up. He saw at least 17 minutes of ice time in five of those games, and twice played 18 or more minutes.

Versteeg wound up playing 13 games for the Hawks this past season and 56 for Rockford, where he had 18 goals and 31 assists. He also showed his tough side by wracking up 174 penalty minutes while with the IceHogs.

Versteeg, who was originally drafted by Boston in 2004, was shipped to Chicago in a trade on Feb. 3, 2007. He is only 5-10 and about 180 pounds, so size could be a factor in his NHL future, but so far the Blackhawks like what they've seen from him.

"Versteeg really played well for us," Tallon said. "He has great skills and quickness."

DEFENSEMEN

He is a good puck-moving defenseman. He hits hard in the neutral zone and makes very few mistakes. - Chicago Blackhawks GM, Dale Tallon
Niklas Hjalmarsson -- Hjalmarsson was drafted in the fourth round (No. 108) in 2005. The Swede is now 21 and could have an immediate future on the blue line in Chicago should he play well in training camp.

Hjalmarsson played 13 games for the Hawks this past season and was good. He had an assist and a minus-2 rating. In 47 games with Rockford he had four goals, nine assists and a minus-8 rating.

The thing is, though, that this was Hjalmarsson's first season in North America. He spent the previous couple seasons in the Swedish Elite League. Hjalmarsson showed good ability as a two-way defenseman who can control the puck and make a good first pass.

"He is a good puck-moving defenseman," Tallon said. "He hits hard in the neutral zone and makes very few mistakes."

Shawn Lalonde -- The Blackhawks used a third-round pick in last month's draft on Lalonde, an 18-year-old prospect who plays on the blue line for the Belleville Bulls of the OHL. The Blackhawks traded up to land Lalonde at No. 68.

Lalonde had 31 points and a plus-28 rating in 66 games this past season after recording 26 points and a plus-6 rating in 58 games as an OHL rookie in 2005-06. He's projected as an offensive defenseman, but scouts believe he has done his due diligence to pick up his defensive game in the last two years.

"Shawn's the type of player that we had rated as first-round caliber," Blackhawks amateur scout Mark Kelley told the team's Web site. "He's one of the top-10 skaters in the draft, and moves the puck well. He also has great recovery."

Simon Danis-Pepin -- The Gatineau, Quebec, native is a towering 6-foot-7 and weighs 220 pounds. He's going to enter his senior year at the University of Maine, where he has gotten better in each of his three seasons.

Danis-Pepin, a second-rounder (No. 61) in 2006, had 12 points this past season after registering just 10 over the previous two seasons. He was also an All-Academic selection in Hockey East.

GOALIES

Before the Blackhawks aquired Cristobal Huet it appeared that Corey Crawford would get the backup goaltender position, now it seems that Khabibulin will take up that slot.
Corey Crawford -- Crawford appeared to be in line to be the backup goaltender before Tallon signed Cristobal Huet earlier this month. He could still be the backup if Tallon moves Nikolai Khabibulin.

In his three starts, Crawford allowed only five goals while facing 97 shots. He shut out Anaheim on March 5 with 19 saves, and also kept Chicago in the game against Detroit with 44 saves against 46 shots on March 11. The Hawks wound up losing the game 3-1.

Crawford stopped 29 of 32 shots in a 3-0 loss to Carolina the next night.

Crawford, Chicago's second-round pick (No. 52) in 2003, has played mostly in the AHL over the last three seasons and has put together a respectable 89-60-10 record with a 2.87 GAA and .905 save percentage.

"We're very high on him," Tallon said before the Huet signing. "I think it's time for Corey to come up and challenge for that backup position."

Antti Niemi -- Tallon said before adding Huet that Niemi will be given a chance to compete for the backup job because he has a wealth of experience playing in the top league in Finland the last three seasons.

Niemi, who signed as an unrestricted free agent in May, will be making his debut on North American ice, and how he adapts to the smaller ice surfaces will go a long way in his development and whether he winds up in Chicago or Rockford.

Niemi, 24, was 26-6-14 with a 2.35 GAA and .927 save percentage for Pelicans of the Finnish Elite League this past season. He won 56 games and posted a 2.71 GAA over the last three seasons for Pelicans.

"Antti is one of the top European goaltenders and had been courted by the majority of NHL teams," Tallon said. "We like his size, athleticism, ability and the depth that this gives us at this position."

Josh Unice -- Prior to Niemi's signing, Unice was the second-best goalie prospect in the system. He may still be the future for the Blackhawks, who picked him in the third round (No. 86) in 2007.

Unice bypassed a chance to play for Bowling Green and instead went to Kitchener to play for the Rangers in the OHL. Before the Rangers picked up Columbus prospect Steve Mason, Unice was their No. 1 and was a standout.

He finished with a 30-6-3 record and a 2.45 GAA. He was 11-3 with a 2.40 GAA in the OHL playoffs as well. Unice, who will return to Kitchener for his second season, will compete in the U.S. junior team evaluation camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. in August.

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com.


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