No standings points were won or lost over the past five days, as the Blackhawks held their annual Prospect Camp, and it’s doubtful that sports radio will spend much airtime dissecting the three camp scrimmages. But listen to Blackhawks VP/GM Stan Bowman, and you’ll soon realize that the team’s hockey operations crew ranks this week as one of the summer’s most important events.
“This is a very important event for us; we’re dedicating a lot of time to it,” Bowman told the assembled media Friday. “It’s exciting to see this many young players who can be contributors for the Blackhawks.”
In the age of the NHL’s salary cap era, big-ticket free agents and teams spending millions to reach the league-mandated minimum, a deep pipeline of prospects is invaluable, especially for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. Having a talented crop of young players with affordable contracts and huge upside can add all-important depth to an already solid core.
When it comes to improving an NHL roster from year to year, being able to draw skilled players from your system is a major advantage, provided a team has the players capable of filling those roster spots. And in most cases, it’s far more cost-efficient to bring along your own players than to sign free agents to a team already approaching the salary cap threshold, as the Blackhawks are. Bowman and the Blackhawks have gone to great lengths to ensure that the team has a deep well of prospects from which to draw.
“When free agency hits, it hits home that you have to have your own players developing, and continue growing from within,” Bowman said. “July 1, if it proved one thing to me, proved that it’s a difficult strategy to improve your team through free agency. [It’s important] to improve your team through the draft and by developing your players.”
The good news for Blackhawks fans is – as evidenced by the standouts in this week's proceedings – the Blackhawks system is rich is talent.
The first name on most experts' lists is Brandon Saad, who made his NHL debut last season, and has only grown from there, says Bowman. Earlier in the week, Head Coach Joel Quenneville floated the idea that Saad could be in contention for an opening night roster spot again in 2012-13, and the Hawks’ GM indicated that he was just as impressed by the 2011 draft pick’s progress.
But the list goes on: up the middle, the Blackhawks have made major investments, including four first-round picks in recent drafts. Those players – Kevin Hayes, Mark McNeill, Phillip Danault and Teuvo Teravainen – all stood out to the team’s GM this week.
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“As the week has gone on, I think you’ve really seen the players come to the top,” he said. “You see a kid like Teuvo come in as the youngest kid at camp and I think he’s been one of the best all week, so that bodes well for the future. I think some of the other guys who have been here a couple of times, like Kevin Hayes, have played really well, along with Mark McNeill, Phillip Danault and Brandon Saad.
“A few years ago, we identified center as a position we wanted to try to grow some guys into,” he added. “In the last couple of years, we got guys who will be high-end players, and that’s good for us. [But] we don’t have to rush them into it.”
Both McNeill and Danault took part in Chicago’s training camp last season and will return again with their eyes toward making an NHL roster. It may not happen this season, but Bowman says that neither is that far away from being counted on as impact players down the road.
“This year, Mark took a big step. He just looks a lot more comfortable to me and he’s making an impact in the scrimmages. He’s a big, strong kid; he had a good season and then he trained hard.
“Phillip is that consummate two-way center. He makes plays – he probably doesn’t get enough credit for his offensive game – and he does all the little things like blocking shots and winning faceoffs. The coaches love that side of him.”
As the youngest player at camp, 17-year-old Teravainen stole the show at the three scrimmages, making show-stopping passes and impressing fans with his lightning-quick snapshot. The team’s scouts took notice, as well.
“I think Teuvo has shown in his short time here that he’s going to be a special talent, and he’s not even 18 yet,” said Bowman. “Teuvo’s going back to Finland [this season], but I don’t think he’s that far away from being an NHL player; he’s just got to add strength, which will come in time. He’s got that flair for making special plays, so he’s a lot of fun to watch.”
On the back end, Bowman was quick to praise 2011 pick Adam Clendening, who was signed to an entry-level contract this summer and will likely begin next season with the AHL club in Rockford.
“I think Adam is probably the one defenseman who has the potential to make the jump this year,” Bowman said. “He’s got that offensive ability; he seems to read the play really well, he makes good passes and he’s pretty physical – he’s not timid at all. I think it’s good for him to look at this year as a learning year, but also as a year he could make an impact for us.”
Drafting talented players is only half of the battle, with development as the other, equally-important half. With Rockford only a short drive from Chicago, Bowman says the chance for the NHL and AHL staffs to coordinate and share resources is much easier than other teams around the league, who often have affiliates hundreds or thousands of miles across the continent.
“I think we’ve got a great group here, along with our coaches in Rockford. We spend a lot of time with [our minor-leaguers]; we have constant contact, so they get a lot of attention and get better quicker than in other organizations,” said the GM. “When these players do turn pro, leaving juniors, college or Europe, they will be able to move up to the NHL sooner.”
The strategy has definitely paid dividends so far. Two Blackhawks draft picks from 2011 – Saad and forward Andrew Shaw – made NHL debuts this past season, and rookie players including Marcus Kruger, Brandon Bollig, Dylan Olsen and Jimmy Hayes all saw regular ice time, as well. And that fails to mention skilled players such as Brandon Pirri, Ben Smith and Jeremy Morin, all of whom played for the IceHogs in 2011-12 and could easily challenge for an NHL roster spot come September.
“We’ve spent a lot of time over the last three years – we’ve had more draft picks over the last three years than anybody – and a lot of those players are contributing. Not a lot of teams have players that they drafted a year ago playing significant minutes,” said Bowman. “You have to look at that; it’s not just bringing back the same guys – there is growth in their game [year-to-year].”
Though Bowman didn’t discount the idea of bringing in another free agent or two – for the record, he said that the team has and will continue to talk to players and their agents about opportunities – there is an aggressive push towards future investments, which will only appreciate in value down the road.
“We’re in a good position relative to some teams; we’ve got a good group of players under contract, and some of them are young, so you can push them down if you have to. Some of them are offensive talents like Teuvo, some are different players like McNeill, Danault and Hayes, who are bigger guys and play a different game, so we’ve got a lot of options,” he said.
“I’m not saying we’re not going to do anything else, but there are players here who will improve and help us get to the next level. It’s our job to look internally at our young players and give them the opportunities,” said Bowman. “I think we’re going to have a very competitive training camp.”