There used to be a time, not long ago, when the Chicago Blackhawks might have placed prospects like Stephen Johns and Vincent Hinostroza on the fast track.
The college teammates are each having a strong season for Notre Dame, their first as members of the Hockey East Association, but the Blackhawks haven't assigned a specific NHL timeline to either of them.
Chicago's core group of top NHL players, who won the Stanley Cup twice in the span of four seasons, is intact, and the Blackhawks have stocked their system with promising prospects. They now have the luxury of letting future hopefuls develop longer, if needed, and they're thrilled about it.
Chicago Blackhawks prospects like Stephen Johns have been allowed to develop longer if necessary. (Photo: Noah Graham/NHLI)
"We want to make sure the guys are ready to perform when they do come up," Blackhawks director of player development Barry Smith said. "Why waste two extra years in the [minors] if you don't need to?"
It's a philosophy that led to highly touted 20-year-old forward Teuvo Teravainen heading back to Finland following training camp, and Johns, 21, going back to Notre Dame for his senior season. It also played a role in 19-year old Hinostroza going back for a third season with Waterloo of the United States Hockey League in 2012-13 and delaying his Notre Dame arrival.
The Blackhawks can afford to wait now, and the strategy appears to be working. Johns and Hinostroza are two good examples.
Johns, a 6-foot-4, 233-pound senior defenseman picked 60th in the 2010 NHL Draft, is an intimidating, physical, shutdown defender on the top pairing. He's also an alternate captain for the Fighting Irish for the first time in his career and continues to develop his discipline.
"My decision to come back was definitely positive," said Johns, who has four goals and nine assists with a plus-2 rating in 29 games. "From Day One, I've wanted to get my degree from Notre Dame, so I didn't feel as an adult or as a player I was ready to move on yet."
Returning turned out to be the right call, especially on the ice.
"Personally this has been a big growth season for me," Johns said. "I've matured as a hockey player and improved my game in all aspects to try and prepare myself for pro hockey as much as I can."
Johns isn't afraid to use to his impressive size and strength. He has a knack for delivering bone-crunching hits and likes the rough stuff around his net, but it's something that's taken him over the edge in the past.
"His decision-making was an area he struggled with at times, but he's improved that area," Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said. "He's probably NHL-ready physically. He probably could have had the opportunity to go [pro] after last year, but for him it was a maturity factor. He wanted to take his game one more step, as far as the emotional aspect."
The Blackhawks are also impressed by the progress Johns has shown in that area. Chicago has eight defensemen on its roster but Johns' size and physicality, not to mention his huge slap shot from the right side, are attractive assets if packaged with a disciplined approach.
"He is going to bring something different to the table," Smith said. "He is a [Brent Seabrook] type, I would say, in that he has a big body and he skates pretty well. What I like is he's improved by staying focused. He's not running all over the ice to make a hit now. He's got his stick on the ice and he's in much better contact position."
The Blackhawks likely will contact Johns whenever his season and career ends with Notre Dame. The next step likely will be a stint with the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League later this season.
Hinostroza most likely still has some years left to log in South Bend, but that doesn't dim his potential with the Blackhawks. He's got a nice package of skating and skill, along with a willingness to battle around the net. Size will be the biggest hurdle.
The Blackhawks list Hinostroza at 5-9, 158 pounds in their 2013-14 media guide, and Notre Dame has him at 5-9, 175 on its roster. Either way, he'll need to add some bulk.
"He's a fast player with good vision and instincts for the game," Jackson said of Hinostroza. "He is a real slick player. He's dynamic at our level, but he needs to get physically stronger. That's one of the reasons we had him play one extra year of juniors. He's had a history of injuries. He plays hard but he's not built quite like a man yet. He's just got to build up his body, because he's got all the tools and a great mind for the game."
The stats he's put up this season back up that assessment.
Despite missing time with a knee injury plus a stint with the United States at the 2014 World Junior Championship, Hinostroza is third on the Fighting Irish in scoring with six goals and 20 assists in 23 games. He logs significant minutes on the power play.
At the World Junior Championship, Hinostroza scored three goals and had two assists in five games. Not bad for a sixth-round draft pick.
Hinostroza, who was born in Chicago and grew up in nearby Bartlett, Ill., was ranked 115th by NHL Central Scouting in 2012, the year he was drafted. An injury plus questions about his size likely caused him to fall to the sixth round, when the Blackhawks, his childhood favorite, took him with the 169th pick.
IN THE PIPELINE
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By James Murphy - NHL.com Correspondent
The past month has been quite a whirlwind for 19-year old Montreal Canadiens
prospect Charles Hudon
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"I got injured at the end of the season [with Waterloo], so I expected not to get drafted at all," Hinostroza said. "I talked to the Hawks a little bit beforehand and I was hoping they'd draft me. When they called my name, though, that was very cool, and very cool for my family and friends. Now I've just got to keep working hard to get there one day."
He'll have no shortage of motivation, so to speak.
The same size concerns that probably caused him to slip in the draft will probably stick with him through the rest of his career.
"I loved when people would call me too small when I was younger," Hinostroza said. "You'd hear the talk and just laugh about it. You just learn to use it as motivation. It helps out a lot, actually, trying to prove people wrong."
It also helps to have some role models proving it can be done and the Blackhawks have a few, including right wing Patrick Kane (5-11, 181), center Andrew Shaw (5-10, 180) and right wing Ben Smith (5-11, 207).
Jackson brought up another player who has done pretty well for himself through a lengthy NHL career.
"The Blackhawks saw [Hinostroza's] talent level, which is obvious when you watch him play, but he needs to get that little girth on his body to become that [Martin St. Louis] type of player," Jackson said. "That's what Vinnie needs to do. The only thing that can hold him back is the evolution of his body and what happens there."
Evolving, of course, takes time. That hasn't always been something the Blackhawks could spare, but now they can with Johns, Hinostroza and the rest of their developmental system.