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Blackhawks Magazine: A Class of Their Own

by Emerald Gao / Chicago Blackhawks

The first part of an ongoing series on the organization's player development process was originally published in the April 2013 issue of Blackhawks Magazine. Check back soon for the second part, which focuses on Prospect Camp and the role of development coaches.



Just two years removed from the 2011 draft that brought talented forwards Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw to Chicago, it seems impatient, almost ridiculous, to even begin to evaluate the prospect class that Blackhawks hockey ops selected that summer.

Getting drafted is only the first step, after all, in a long road to the NHL.

Incredibly, the Blackhawks already have a sizeable sample from that draft class—Saad made the team out of training camp in 2011, albeit only for two games, and Shaw made the leap after a half-season of acclimating himself to professional hockey in Rockford. To put the duo’s young careers into perspective with the rest of the league: Saad, selected 43rd overall, was the only 2011 draft pick outside the first 13 selections to play a game for his NHL club, and when Shaw, a fifth-rounder, made his NHL debut on Jan. 5, 2012, the Blackhawks became the only team that season to feature two players drafted the previous summer.

Saad and Shaw may be outliers in a process, often winding and unpredictable, of molding raw talent into professional hockey players. Their quick transition to the NHL was not, however, born of necessity.

“We’re not trying to fast-track any player,” explained Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Kelley. “Saad and Shaw dictated when they were ready. All players do that, really. Some organizations—and we’re one of them—have the luxury to be patient with prospects.”

Looking down the list of prospects, one gets the sense that patience may not be an issue for the 2011 draft class, which as a whole has made significant strides in the two full seasons since entering the Chicago system. The immediate ascensions of Saad and Shaw aside, first-round selections Mark McNeill (18th overall) and Phillip Danault (26th) both signed entry-level contracts within a season of being drafted and are currently stationed in Rockford. In 2012-13, his second season as team captain, McNeill paced the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders with 67 points (25G, 42A) in 65 regular-season games, while Danault (23G, 62A in 56 games) was the focal point of a blockbuster trade-deadline deal that sent him from hometown team Victoriaville—where he was also a returning captain—to the title-hungry Moncton Wildcats.

THE MORE YOU KNOW

Drafting is a tricky business in any sport, which is why it’s usually done by committee. The Blackhawks are no different: Kelley and his staff meet up to five times per season, and out of those gatherings comes the list that serves as a road map on draft day.

The contents and arrangement of the list are confidential information, but what’s not a secret is the type of player preferred by Blackhawks brass: Skating ability and hockey sense are highly valued, as is character, and everything is weighted. On draft day, each pick and player is assigned a value, and timing becomes a crucial, if capricious, element. If that sounds hard, just wait—the next step is even trickier.

“Then you have to project where they are in their development. Do we think a player is going to develop?” Kelley added. “Is he close to being maxed out? That’s where the whole art of the draft comes in—trying to project where these 18-year-olds are going to be by the time they’re 23, 24, and hopefully playing in the National Hockey League.”

It may be impossible to predict the future, but merely imagining it is an easier task. Go on, try: Phillip Danault backchecking and taking a defensive-zone faceoff; the kinetic energy of Brandon Saad and Mark McNeill on one line; Adam Clendening blasting point shots on the power play. It’s all part of the job for the scouting staff, and the Blackhawks certainly have no complaints with how things have turned out over the last few years.

“Mark and his staff understand what we’re looking for here in Chicago, the style we like to play, and they look for players who we think can fit into that style and make a seamless transition,” said Assistant General Manager Norm Maciver. “They did a great job in terms of the evaluation of these players.”

“Every time we’re picking a player, my belief is that that player has a strong chance of not only playing in the NHL, but playing with the Chicago Blackhawks,” Kelley said of the drafting process. “We’re making projections on players who are anywhere from 17-19 years old. A player like Andrew Shaw, who was drafted when he was 19, was closer to being a developed player. We knew what he was.”

It’s not just what Chicago knew about Shaw in June 2011—it’s what they knew that other teams didn’t.

“We had some information from one of our scouts that he was one of those kids who, when you saw him on a regular basis or your team had to play him in a playoff series, you knew how good and how valuable he was,” Maciver said. “We were lucky to get him in the fifth round, no question.”

Contrary to Shaw, who was passed up in consecutive drafts prior to his selection in 2011, Saad’s drop to the second round seems unfathomable given the way he played in his first full NHL season. But in order to get him, the Blackhawks had to look past an 18-year-old’s diminished energy and point production in a draft year and focus on the superb hockey sense and powerful skating that surely contributed to his 2013 Calder Trophy candidacy. Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman credits the Saad pick to efficient information gathering, citing inside knowledge that the player had been struggling through an injury, a leap of faith on the part of the scouting staff that has paid dividends ever since.

“I don’t think there’s ever a thing as a good steal in the draft,” Kelley added. “I would say we were lucky to get Brandon where we got him. If we went numerically, we had him rated a lot higher than where we actually picked him, but that was just our list.”

PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE

According to Kelley, what the scouting staff tries to do is construct chronological cycles that produce a few NHL-ready prospects every year. For a prime example, there’s no need to look further than Rockford, where Clendening (36th) and fellow defenseman Klas Dahlbeck (79th) both enjoyed fruitful rookie seasons with the IceHogs.

Clendening’s high-end offensive abilities earned him a ticket to the AHL All-Star game in January, and he finished the campaign fourth in scoring among league defensemen, with nine goals and 37 helpers. Dahlbeck, who plays a more understated game, was selected as a 19-year-old out of the third round, and his maturity and work ethic helped him adjust quickly to the North American game. In his second season with Rockford, Dahlbeck's offensive game has improved to the tune of four goals and four assists in his first 14 outings.

While one pair continues to thrive in the AHL, another waits further down the pipeline in the NCAA. Michael Paliotta (70th)—a tall blueliner with a tantalizing combination of mobility and physicality—is in his third year at the University of Vermont, where he often matches up against the most dangerous forwards on the East Coast. Meanwhile, Sam Jardine (169th), a versatile defenseman whose physical presence made him a Prospect Camp standout last summer, is in his second season at Ohio State. Jardine collected seven assists in 28 games in his freshman campaign despite suffering a severe laceration to the arm that caused him to miss two months of action.

The club owns the rights to both Jardine and Paliotta until the end of their college careers, and that too was by design. The NCAA route gives prospects up to four years of development time before teams must sign them, and that’s part of the cycle that Kelley and his staff strive to create with each draft class.

“For a lot of these players, we aren’t in a hurry to develop them into professionals,” Kelley said. “In other words, we’re looking for forwards, defensemen and even goaltenders to come up and turn professional at different times. As an organization, we can afford to and are very willing to be patient in their development.”

PASSING THE TORCH

It’s hard to draft well, and even harder to draft high during years of sustained regular-season success. The Detroit Red Wings, a model of on-ice consistency, have owned just two first-round picks in the last five years. The San Jose Sharks, perennially strong over the last decade, selected just three first-rounders in the last six years, and only two remain with the team.

One way to secure more draft picks is through trades, and the Blackhawks made plenty of those after winning a Stanley Cup in 2010 and then succumbing to a salary-cap crunch. The 36th pick that netted Clendening in 2011 was a direct return in the trade that sent Andrew Ladd to Atlanta (now Winnipeg) the previous offseason.

“What stands out for me is the depth of that particular draft class,” Maciver said. “We think that class has the potential of having possibly five players playing in the NHL in the near future, maybe even more. We’re thrilled about the players that we were able to acquire.”

One player who Maciver thinks could turn some heads down the line is local boy Alex Broadhurst (199th), who made history in the USHL by scoring the league’s first-ever shorthanded hat trick in 2011-12 and helped the London Knights defend its OHL title and reach the Memorial Cup the next season. He signed with the Blackhawks shortly thereafter, was assigned to Rockford and currently leads IceHogs forwards in scoring (4G, 7A in 14 games).

Defying expectations? Maybe for a seventh-rounder, but Kelley says that the 10 draft picks from 2011 that remain with the team are progressing in a manner that meets organizational expectations, and there’s more to come.

“All of them have the element of surprise still in them, even Brandon or Andrew, who are already playing in the NHL,” Kelley added.

Indeed, despite already reaching the lofty heights associated with a Stanley Cup championship, Saad and Shaw have only just begun their NHL careers, and even though their quick transitions are anomalies in a maturation process that normally spans years, their success can still function as a beacon for their draft classmates.

For all prospects, ceilings are merely best-case scenarios, dependent on luck and good health, and the quality and length of a player’s development can often alter or boost their fate. That’s where the second leg of the journey to the NHL begins.

“It starts with the drafting, and then the torch is passed along to [Director of Player Development] Barry Smith and [his staff], and then when they become professionals, the torch is passed to Rockford,” Kelley said. “Eventually, the torch gets to Chicago.”

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