Starting Thursday morning at Johnny’s Ice House West in Chicago, the Blackhawks’ up-and-coming players will take the ice in the team’s annual Prospect Camp. But like all other pieces of the organization’s Hockey Operations department, the camp has not escaped the critical eye of VP/GM Stan Bowman and company, and as a result, it has been changed for the better.
“The past couple of years, we had about 70 players at camp, and about half were our players,” recalls Bowman. “We were trying to uncover some gems - undiscovered free-agent players - and cultivate relationships so we’d have a leg up in signing them in a year or two. But then we thought about it; the original purpose for a prospect camp is for your prospects to become indoctrinated with the Blackhawks. They need to become familiar with Chicago, and the way we train, approach nutrition, the way our team likes to play and what our coaches stress.”
What came from this change of philosophy will be on full display at Johnny’s through Monday. In previous years, prospects might participate in one or two scrimmages per day in camp; this year, there will be only two scrimmages total in the five days of camp. Instead of head-to-head competition, the invitees will run drills with the coaches overseeing the camp, and work to learn Joel Quenneville’s system. Each prospect will receive more one-on-one coaching than ever before, as well.
“We decided to bring in some additional people to help with the on-ice part,” says Bowman. “We still have [Rockford head coach] Bill Peters [and assistants] Ted Dent and Steve Poapst, and [Assistant GM] Marc Bergevin and [Director of Player Personnel] Norm Maciver will be assisting as well.
"But we’re also bringing in [Blackhawks European Development Advisor and former NHL assistant coach] Barry Smith, and this is his forte; he’s always been a real details-oriented kind of guy in terms of skill development. We also have some guest coaches; [former Blackhawks] Troy Murray and Denis Savard will be there, and they’re great players who can lend their skills and knowledge to our young guys.”
Perhaps the biggest change, however, is the number of attendees. In previous years, there were easily enough prospects to ice three full teams, and many of them were free agents hoping to be signed. This year, the prospect camp roster is just 46 large, and most of them are Blackhawks draft picks.
“We wanted to focus on developing our drafted players and trying to get them a flavor of what it’s like to be a Blackhawk,” Bowman says. “To do that effectively, we had to cut the numbers down; it’s hard to teach with a big group. We still have some free agents in camp who we like, but it’s a smaller group.”
For the free agents attending camp, showing the brass that you can play the Blackhawks’ style will be a major factor in whether this appearance leads to bigger and better things down the road. Last season, goalie Johan Mattsson was invited to camp as an undrafted free agent; after working well with coaches last summer, the Blackhawks secured his rights when they selected him in the 2011 NHL Draft.
“The free agents that we do have, the idea is to establish a bit of a relationship with these players and assess their play a little better,” Bowman says. “We want to determine if these are players that we could see being Blackhawks down the road. You can tell better when you’re on the ice with them, whether they can pick up things as well.”
It can be a trap to say, ‘well, that guy’s two years older, so he should be better,’ because he may not be... [The 2011 draft class] is younger, but they may not be that far behind. - Stan Bowman
Other players who will be watched closely are the 2011 draftees, as nine of the ten players chosen last month will report to camp, led by first-round picks Mark McNeill and Phillip Danault. Bowman says that it’s important to see how these players will stack up against prospects who are two or even three years older.
“It can be a trap to say, ‘well, that guy’s two years older, so he should be better,’ because he may not be. McNeill is 210 pounds right now, and when you talk to him, he’s determined to make the Blackhawks next year, which is a good attitude to have,” he says. “I don’t know that it matters that it’s their first exposure to us; we’re looking at them with a fresh set of eyes. They’re younger, but they may not be that far behind. There are some interesting guys there and I’d like to see how they compare in their first go-around here, once they get the nerves out of the way.”
It’s a different way of looking at the prospect camp as a whole; all 30 NHL teams run a camp like this every year, but not everyone would be as willing to try something a little different. But Bowman says that the belief is after this camp, each prospect will be a little more prepared to play the Blackhawks’ system.
“We’ll see how it goes,” says Bowman. “The idea is to get these kids a bigger taste of Blackhawks hockey, so that when they turn pro, it won’t be the first time that they hear the things that are important to Joel. They need to become familiar with the Blackhawks’ philosophy, and this will give them a better sense of what we expect of them later on.”