It's been a summer of change for the Blackhawks, with several forward spots opening up and a fierce battle for those jobs looming. While the majority of roster decisions will be made at training camp, which begins Sept. 23, this weekend's Rookie Tournament will offer hockey operations brass an opportunity to evaluate some of the team's emerging talent as they go up against other teams' prospects in Traverse City, Mich. In Part 2 of our Q&A, Director of Hockey Administration/GM of Minor League Affiliations Mark Bernard discusses some new names who could make a splash and the unique situation entering training camp.
"There's probably going to be two or three spots open in Chicago, with four or five players battling for those, so it's going to be an exciting training camp," Bernard predicted. "For these young players, they could go the rest of their careers and never have an opportunity present itself like this, where there are so many spots available on the big club. Those guys have to come into camp and really take advantage of it."
The goaltending situation will be different this year, as the tandem possibilities are looking a little younger. Mac Carruth is back in the mix after finishing last season strong, Jake Hildebrand joined the organization after finishing a great college career, and Lars Johansson is coming over from Sweden.
It's important that we start to replenish our goalies and get that next young goalie in the pipeline. I think with Lars Johansson you're getting a guy who has three years at the Swedish pro level with a tremendous amount of success, so we're looking for him to come in and really compete for a spot in Chicago, but if he's in Rockford, compete to be a guy who can be a recall.
Mac was with us on a minor-league contract to start the year, and when Michael Leighton got called up, Mac really got his first crack to be "the guy" in Rockford and took advantage of it. He's worked extremely hard the last three years on the mental side of the game, and he really showed that to us. So he earned himself another contract, and hopefully he can take the next step in his career as well. I want him to battle with Johansson to see who's going to be the number three guy.
Jake Hildebrand is a goaltender who [Developmental Goaltending Coach] Peter Aubry and myself really liked. He had a tremendous collegiate career at Michigan State, he was their MVP each year he was there, he was Big 10 player and goalie of the year, and not on a very successful team. He's a little smaller in stature at just under 6 feet, and barring any injuries, he'll probably start the year in Indianapolis [in the ECHL], but he'll be that guy we have a lot of confidence in to be a recall guy. he's going to have to prove to us that he deserves to be there all the time. He reminds me a lot of Carter Hutton when we signed him; Carter started in Toledo and by Christmastime he was the number one goalie in Rockford. Jake is going to have to go about with that mindset."
What kind of veteran leadership are you hoping to depend on next season?
It's invaluable to have those guys around. Cam Schilling is a veteran; you also have Pierre-Cedric Labrie and Jake Dowell, as well as Spencer Abbott and Sam Carrick. These guys all have a lot of experience and are trying to make Chicago as well. Whether they're recalled or not, they're going to be looked upon to really lead the way with the young players. We need guys like Mark McNeill-if he starts the year in Rockford, he'll be a fourth-year player, he wore an 'A' last year, and it's time for him to take that next step in his leadership. Ryan Hartman, if he's in Rockford he'll be a third-year player, and we need him to also take that next step in the leadership department. But our older players have always been great in the past, and that's why guys like PC and Jake are back. They're kind of our core group that we know will do everything the right way and show the young prospects how to be good professionals.
There's a lot of anticipation for a couple of guys who just signed their entry-level contracts in Nick Schmaltz and Tyler Motte. As we saw at prospect camp, they both have a lot of speed and a lot of skill.
I'm thrilled about it. Speed and skill are what the game's all about now. Tyler Motte joined us at the end of last season and through the playoffs, before going to the World Championship, and had a tremendous time with us. He plays a 200-foot game, he's very good defensively, active with the stick, and he thinks the game at a high level. It's going to be interesting to see what kind of training camp he has, and if he can fight his way onto the team as well. It would be a lot like Brandon Saad his first year; no one expected him to make it, and his first year, bang, there he is.
With Nick Schmaltz, we weren't sure if he was going to go back to school or sign and become a pro, and we're thrilled that he's joining us. He had a great week at Prospect Camp, and he brings a lot of speed and a lot of skill; he's got a pro-ready game. It's going to be exciting to see him at the rookie tournament in Traverse City and in the main camp in Chicago.
Looking at the roster, you see names like Schmaltz and Luke Johnson, who just won a national championship with the University of North Dakota. Is there something to be said about bringing in players with a winning resume?
I think it's huge. Whenever you have players who have won championships before-like Nick Schmaltz and Luke Johnson, Spencer Abbott won last year in Sweden, Jake Dowell won a national championship and the Stanley Cup-those types of players are invaluable. Because once you win, you want to continue to win. It's wired in you. We've had the opportunity and the good fortune to win three Stanley Cups in six years? Well, we're not happy with that, we want a fourth. And I think that goes for everybody in our whole organization. We want to have more success.
To have a guy like Luke Johnson join us is tremendous; he brings a different game than Nick in the fact that he has a little more jam and sandpaper to his game. He has the ability to score some goals, but he's also a good shutdown guy, a good energy guy. And we also signed another one of their teammates in Bryn Chyzyk, who will be a depth player for Rockford. So we signed the hat trick of North Dakota alumni this year. He's another guy who knows how to win, and it's going to be an exciting camp, from Traverse City all the way through to the end of Rockford's camp.
Do you see Traverse City as the start of that training camp evaluation process, where you're seeing what roles each player might fill?
By all means. One of the things we stress to them at the first meeting we have is, we're not going there for fun. We want to enjoy ourselves, we want to enjoy the moment, but it's business. This is your first opportunity to show our management and our scouts what you can do. It's not going to be, let's go there and warm up for four or five days, then step into the main camp. You want to get off to a good start because that paves the way into the main camp.
This organization likes to have a lot of depth on the blue line, and the battle for jobs at training camp is always tough. What will be the determining factors in coming up with a group of 7 or 8 to start the season, both for Chicago and for Rockford?
The biggest thing that these younger guys have to realize when going to Chicago is, number one, can they defend? They're not looking for guys who are going up the ice and trying to score goals; that's not what Joel Quenneville and Mike Kitchen and Kevin Dineen are looking for. They need players who are going to defend, play a safe game, make safe plays, get the puck out of their zone with a good first pass and have confidence. The guy who does that is going to earn a spot on the team. If not, they'll be in Rockford and we'll try to teach them the exact same way, so when they do get the recall they can go up and play with confidence and not have to change their game.
Every year, it's a battle. You need a lot of defensemen in your organization; you'll go through it. Presently we have seven on Chicago's roster, and you need them. Last year in Rockford alone, we went through 43 players, and you need to have that depth if you're going to have success.
No matter how the Rockford roster shakes out, there are going to be a lot of highly skilled prospects on the team who are close to being NHL-ready. What's the style that you want to play with the group that you're projected to have?
We'll play the same defensive system as Chicago and the same neutral-zone forecheck. We started doing that a few years ago, and I think that's key. Ted and Joel talk about what they're going to do and keep it the same, so when the players do get recalled they're not a liability in the defensive zone and they know what's happening. Besides that, we want to play an uptempo game, a speed game. We want to make other teams chase us and get the puck away from us. So we want to play a very similar style to Chicago, so that way these kids can play the same way when they move up.
Can you describe the relationship that the organization has with Indy? How do you monitor the prospects who are in the ECHL?
We have a great relationship with Indy. Jim Hallett and his son, Sean, who own the team in Indianapolis, have done a great job. They have a tremendous venue, they get a great fan base, and they treat our players very well. It's easy to get players in and out if we need them in Rockford, so that's a big plus. When they're down there, I talk to their coach almost on a daily basis, I try to make trips down there, and goalie coach Peter Aubry is down there watching and reporting back to me, so I know who's playing well and who isn't.
It goes by the same law as in Rockford: Whoever's earned it is going to get that chance to come up. We've signed quite a few players this year who are probably going to start in Indy, but that doesn't mean that's where they'll finish.