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Prospect Camp Notebook: College blueliners growing into veteran roles

by Emerald Gao / Chicago Blackhawks

Patience is a virtue for the Blackhawks when it comes to drawing out the full potential of their prospects, especially in the case of defensemen, who typically take longer to develop their physicality and hockey sense. The college track allows teams to retain control of prospects until the end of their college careers, giving them ample time to monitor each player’s growth.

Chicago collected seven defensemen from the drafts of 2010 and 2011, six of whom were committed to highly competitive collegiate programs at the time of their selection. Adam Clendening (2011, Round 2) left Boston University after two years and made an immediate impact in the American Hockey League this season; he finished third among league defensemen in points and first in assists, making the AHL All-Star Game and winning Rockford’s Rookie of the Year award.

The other five are Justin Holl (2010 draft pick, University of Minnesota), Stephen Johns (2010, Notre Dame), Nick Mattson (2010, University of North Dakota), Michael Paliotta (2011, University of Vermont) and Sam Jardine (2011, Ohio State). They have become familiar faces at the team’s annual Prospect Camp, with some entering their third or fourth go-round as this year’s session commenced on Monday morning.

As conference realignment dramatically alters the landscape of college hockey this fall, these college blueliners will play a crucial role in the success of their teams. caught up with them after Day 1 to get their thoughts about the new NCAA structure, the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup championship and their maturation into leaders both on and off the ice.

Sam Jardine, a sixth-round selection in 2011, finished his first season at Ohio State University with seven assists in 28 games, playing in all situations. (Photo by Mackenzie McCluer)

Evaluating their respective seasons:

Jardine (third camp): “It was good to play older, stronger guys. There was a setback when I got injured, but if anything it just taught me a lot, forced me to dig a little deeper and get back in shape for the playoff push. I was happy that our team had pretty good success, earning a first-round bye and then winning our home playoff series, it was something Ohio State hadn’t done in a while, so we had a great year as a team.

“They gave me a good opportunity to play on the power play, penalty kill and five-on-five, so I can’t complain about anything, opportunity-wise. There’s a really good atmosphere of competition there.”

Paliotta (third camp): “We had a better year as a team, and personally I thought I played pretty well. I played a lot of minutes in every situation, which is really great. I feel like I’m just getting better and better. We had a couple of new coaches this year that I really enjoy playing for, and I’m looking forward to next season.”

Holl (fourth camp): “It was a pretty big adjustment [splitting the season between defense and forward]. I hadn’t played forward since youth hockey, so right away I felt like I got a little better every week. Obviously I feel more comfortable at D, but playing forward has made me a better hockey player. It helps me be more versatile and to know what’s going on on the other side of the puck.

“[Playing an outdoor game at Soldier Field] was a great experience. The ice was a little tough to play on—a little soft and chippy—but the experience was awesome, and something I’ll never forget.”

Johns (second camp): “We went through a bit of a skid after Christmas, but we got our feet again. In the outdoor game, we got a huge win that got us rolling. Going into the playoffs, we had a lot of confidence, and when we hit adversity, we stuck together and climbed through it. It was awesome to win the last-ever CCHA championship. We faltered a little bit in the NCAA playoffs, but that’s one of the reasons why I’m going back [for my senior year]—there’s a lot of unfinished business here.”

Justin Holl, drafted in the second round in 2010, finished his junior season with Minnesota with seven points (3G, 4A) in 35 games split between defense and forward. (Photo by Mackenzie McCluer)

What they hope to accomplish as veterans at Prospect Camp:

Holl: “The format stays pretty static, but every year you get different guys, new players and players leaving, so it’s a little different every year in that sense. I just want to show what I can do, have a good week of practice and games.”

Mattson (fourth camp): “It’s nice to shake off the rust a little bit; I haven’t been in a competitive situation in a while, so I just want to have fun and learn as much as I can. Obviously there are a lot of smart people here who know a lot about the game, so I just try to soak up as much as I can.”

Jardine: “We had the fitness tests this morning, and I was looking to make some big strides there. I’ve had good fitness tests in the past, but I wanted to really come prepared this year. I want to show a little more leadership to the younger guys coming in, by acting like a professional and leading by example.”

Rising junior Nick Mattson, selected in 2010, collected 12 helpers to go along with three goals in 38 games for North Dakota last season. (Photo by Mackenzie McCluer)

On conference realignment (Notre Dame joins Hockey East, North Dakota enters the newly-formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and Minnesota and Ohio State both enter the Big Ten’s inaugural hockey season):

Mattson: “Rivalries take a while to develop, but I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of hatred right away [in the NCHC]. There might be a team that’s .500 in the conference that wins the title at the end of the year, so it’s going to be really competitive, with a lot of parity.”

Johns: “Hockey East is a different style of play—faster and more skilled. It’s a good opportunity for us to grow as a team, to change the way we play and hopefully compete in that league.”

Holl: “It’ll be really fun to start playing Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State [in the Big Ten], so it’s exciting. I’ve played three years in the WCHA, so I’m excited for something different.”

Jardine: “We’re now going into rinks with full capacity, like Wisconsin and Minnesota, so that’s going to be a lot of fun for us, and a good challenge. It’s the reason why our coaching staff has us coming back a little early; we’re going to be there for the full month of August, training hard and getting ready for the season.”

On the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup victory:

Holl: “That was awesome. [Former Gopher Nick Leddy] is a friend of mine, and I was really happy for him. It was a really exciting moment—the playoffs were so fun to watch, and it couldn’t have ended in a better way.”

Jardine: “I watched all of the playoffs—I’m a huge hockey fan, and obviously it’s my dream to play in Chicago, so until then, I’ll be following them real closely. It was an absolute thrill watching them win it.”

Michael Paliotta, a third-round pick in 2011, notched 10 points (1G, 9A) in 35 games in his sophomore campaign with the University of Vermont. (Photo by Mackenzie McCluer)

On the proliferation of U.S. National Team Development Program draft picks in recent years:

Paliotta (USNTDP, 2009-11): “I was watching the draft, and I noticed how many guys from the development team were getting picked by Chicago. It speaks volumes to what the program can give to players who are 16, 17 years old. It helps matures kids. Chicago is known for taking guys with good character and work ethic, so it says a lot about what the national team does for young guys trying to make it to the next level.”

NHL players they look up to:

Mattson: “I really like Duncan Keith. I always try to watch him really closely. He’s about my size and obviously a great skater. I don’t know if we’re necessarily similar players or not, but he’s a guy who’s not a big, bruising defenseman, who uses his skating to gain an advantage out there. He does that better than anybody in the league.”

Jardine: “I like watching Brent Seabrook more than any other defenseman in the league, let alone on the Blackhawks. Strong defender—no one knocks him down. He’s a really good playmaker with his first pass out of his end, and even on the power play. He can finish plays off too, obviously, scoring a lot of clutch goals like the overtime winner against Detroit [in the Western Conference Semifinals]. He’s a Western Canadian boy, as well; I really just love the way he plays.”

Holl: “I like Paul Martin a lot. He’s another former Gopher, a great skater, puck-moving defenseman and great player for the Penguins this year.”

2010 draft pick Stephen Johns emerged as a blueline leader for Notre Dame, notching 14 points (1G, 13A) in 41 games for the 2012-13 CCHA champions. (Photo by Mackenzie McCluer)

Goals and expectations for 2013-14:

Johns: “When I got to Notre Dame, I made a commitment to myself, my family and to [Head Coach Jeff Jackson] that I’d be there for four years. We have a lot of unfinished business as a class and as a team, and I still feel like I still need to improve parts of my game. That’s the best place for me, skating every day and working on the little things. This year, having a leadership role on the team is definitely going to help me build my character.”

Mattson: “As you grow older, guys look up to you a bit more. We have a pretty young team next year, so we’re going to have to lead by committee, and everyone is going to have to chip in next year. The atmosphere at North Dakota is very professional. Even the coaching staff is oriented in winning a national championship and developing NHL players it’s always been kind of the culture. Everyone there wants to make it to the next level, and that makes you a better player.”

Paliotta: “The biggest thing I want to work on is my play with the puck—continuing to be more poised and play with more confidence, being able to make the right play every time. Consistency is my biggest thing.”

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