Sunshine, Wind, and Hockey: A Day at Blackhawks Prospect Camp

Jim Neveau, Blackhawks Beat Writer

A sunny, 75 degree day in the city of Chicago hardly seems like the ideal weather for hockey, but the weather outside was forgotten the instant one walked into Johnny’s Ice House on West Madison Thursday morning.

The beautiful sound of pucks hitting stick blades and skates thrashing across the ice was a refreshing  change of pace from the sounds of baseball coming from US Cellular and Wrigley Fields. While the great American Pastime may appeal to most denizens of the Windy City, the prospect of seeing the future of the Chicago Blackhawks organization is a powerful incentive for area puck heads.

Players at the Blackhawks’ Prospect Camp run the gauntlet from 1st round picks (Kyle Beach, Dylan Olsen) to virtual unknowns who are trying to find their way into the NHL by any means that they can (Mike Montgomery, Joe Lavin). The great thing about these camps is that they not only bring together guys who are new to the organization, but also pair them with guys who are still hungry to achieve their dream of playing in the league.

After all, there is probably no greater incentive for a player to strive for the highest levels of the NHL than to play at a prospect camp that is a mere four blocks from where the real team plays its games before sold-out crowds every single night. This is the case with Johnny’s, and it gives it a great appeal.

Other elements at Johnny’s hearken to a simpler time for most of these young men. Even though the sheet of ice they play on is very high quality, the place still has the feel of a typical recreational ice arena. Banners for the local beer league champions are up next to state title banners for high schools who use the arena. There are also no bleachers on the ice level, so it feels almost as though the players are playing in a Petri dish, and the fans watching are the scientists eager to see signs of life.

Most noticeable at the arena is the collection of inspirational signs that litter the walls of the rink. While Notre Dame may have their “Play Like a Champion Today” sign, Johnny’s settles for simple black signs with white lettering, with pearls of wisdom such as “When you lose, talk little. When you win, talk less”. The humble feel of the place is in stark contrast to the highly elaborate spectacle that unfolds during this camp, in which players who are destined for the riches of the NHL have to pay their dues.

With all of that being said, the reason the camp is put together is obviously to evaluate the talent that the organization has within itself, as well as to mine the free agent rolls of young, undrafted players, who may still pass snuff if given the opportunity.

With 53 players in camp, it is certainly hard to pick out guys who are going to stand out at the next level. Every player on the ice has a good amount of talent, and its hard to tell them apart at first glance.

However, upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that certain guys are the cream of the crop, and are destined to be playing on the big stage sooner or later. Here is my list of guys who you should keep an eye on not only this season, but into the future.

Kyle Beach, Left Wing (1st round pick #11 overall 2008)

Kyle is a 6’ 3” winger who plays a style of hockey seemingly built for the NHL. He is aggressive, plays a high speed game, and isn’t afraid to mix it up in the corners or in the neutral zone. His head is always up, looking for any edge that he can get.

He had a good season last year in the WHL, splitting time with Everett and Lethbridge. He scored 24 goals, added 39 assists, and in a feat of intense zeal, racked up 165 PIM in just 54 games.

If his PIM are to be taken at face value, then we may have a guy who has the same sensibility as Adam Burish, but the same offensive skill of Patrick Sharp on our hands. This hybrid of agitator and scorer is a rare one in the NHL, and the Hawks certainly are going to give Beach a look if any trades are made involving left wingers (Andrew Ladd and Sharp come to mind). I’m sure the Hawks would love nothing more than to stick Beach with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and give other teams yet another huge match-up problem to deal with.

Joe Lavin, Defenseman (5th round pick in 2007)

Lavin isn’t a guy that immediately springs to mind when someone brings up the Hawks’ draft class in 2007, but judging by his performance on the ice during the season with Omaha (USHL), he has the potential to be a very solid two-way player.

Lavin racked up 23 points in 33 games last season with Omaha, and is committed to playing at Providence College in the fall.

During the camp today, he exhibited very good puck-handling skills, a quick burst of speed when it was necessary, and also a killer slap shot that found its way past Joe Palmer, who’s Ohio State logo on his goalie pads served as more of a bulls eye than he had perhaps envisioned when he purchased them.

He also was quick back on defense most of the time, and a murmur went up every time he was near the puck. He is an exciting player, and his ceiling seems pretty high.

Dylan Olsen, Defenseman (1st round pick in 2009)

Dylan was ranked in the middle to late first round in the NHL Draft in June, and there was good reasons for optimism for the kid. He was touted as a solid two way player, and scouts gushed over his tenacity and leadership qualities on the ice.

He played with Camrose of the AJHL last season, and his performance did not disappoint. He racked up 24 points and 45 PIM with the squad last year, and it was for that reason and other intangibles that the Hawks used their 28th overall pick on the 6-foot-2 defenseman.

During drills today, Olsen was the first guy on the ice, and he quickly put on an exhibition. His puck handling was absolutely flawless, and his wrist shot was deployed early and often. Even during drills, Olsen plays the game with an intensity that is absolutely critical to the success of any up and coming player in the league.

During the first scrimmage of the day, Dylan made quite a few good defensive plays, displaying quick reflexes, a propensity for clogging up passing lanes, and a passing ability that scouts drool over. On two separate occasions he was facing his own goalie, and as he received the pass at his blue line he quickly saw open teammates at the opposing line, and he fired perfect passes right to the tape. A luscious sound for Hawk lovers indeed.

Dylan figures prominently in the Hawks’ future plans, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him playing in the NHL within the next two years.

Brandon Pirri, Center (2nd round pick in 2009)

Brandon came into the camp as a highly touted second round pick, and with valid reason. He scored 18 goals and racked up 32 assists in only 40 games with Streetsville (OPJHL) last season, and also received 42 PIM.

Brandon is a slight kid in terms of stature, standing 6 feet tall but only weighing in at 160 pounds. What he lacks in physical size, however, he makes up for in terms of intelligence and speed. Pirri was constantly taking good routes to the puck during the scrimmages, and he also seemed very adept at keeping track of everything going on around him.

He was frequently in the middle of plays, and it was nice to see him taking charge in such a positive way. Even during the first set of puck handling drills, when he was struggling, he kept his head up, and listened to coaches’ advice. This is an important quality to see in a young hockey player, primarily because of the relatively large differences between the NHL and junior games. Pirri seems coach able, and that can only work to his advantage into the future.

Bill Sweatt, Left Wing (2nd round pick, 2007)

Sweatt is a six-foot tall dynamo while he is on the ice. He was making plays from every angle, starting odd-man rushes, playing aggressive defense, and passing with a deft touch that inspired oohs and ahs from the crowd.

During his 104 game career at Colorado College, Bill has scored 31 goals, added 45 assists, and played a very up-tempo game that impressed scouts throughout the league.

He stood out primarily for one play, during which he found himself on his knees about 15 feet from the net. With guys pummeling his body with stick blades and elbows, Sweatt had the ability to read the play, and knock out a near one timer from his knees that nearly resulted in a goal. It’s that kind of no-quit attitude that he brings to the table, and the Hawks should take a long, serious look at him.

Honorable Mentions:

Andrew Bogosian, Forward

The 5-foot-11 forward played with a lot of speed and intensity, and after watching him work his way flawlessly through drills, it’s a minor miracle that he was undrafted.

Zach Cohen, Forward

The product of Boston University showed a lot of poise on the ice, and took his fair share of hits and dished some out too. A really solid player who may not ever be a star, but certainly has potential as a role player.

Mike Montgomery, Defenseman

His flaming hair aside, this young man really stood out for his puck-handling ability during drills, and his passing during the scrimmages.

With all of these great players together in the same place, it was certainly hard to come up with guys who really stood apart. With so many talented players on the ice together, the NHL certainly looks as though they are loaded for bear for years to come.