The most certain way to have success in the NHL is to maintain a strong pool of prospects at all times. Even though they have won three Stanley Cup championships in the past six years, the Chicago Blackhawks’ prospect pool has suffered minimally despite having consistently late draft picks. There’s a solid level of depth at pretty much every position, except between the pipes.
I’ve already ranked the players who are, in my mind, the 6th through 10th best prospects in Chicago’s pipeline. This post will follow that up with my thoughts on who ranks in the top five.
The five players players featured in this post are hoped to become some of the core pieces for the next generation of Blackhawks hockey in Chicago. As their recent championship teams have demonstrated, it’s always crucial to have young players ready to step into depth roles should their services be required.
One notable aspect about the top end of Chicago’s prospect pool is that the players each have high ceilings while simultaneously being, at most, a year away from contributing to the NHL roster. That combination is crucial in any prospect pool, and the Blackhawks seem to have quite a few prospects who fit that description.
5. Ville Pokka, D
Coming in at number five is defenseman and native of Tornio, Finland Ville Pokka. Pokka was originally selected by the New York Islanders in the second round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. He came over to the Blackhawks as the centerpiece of the trade that sent Nick Leddy to Long Island.
The best thing about Pokka’s game is that he is an extremely polished player. There’s not that much he does that’s unquestionably elite, but everything he does, he does very well. That quality is paramount for defensemen in today’s NHL where they have to be able to skate, pass the puck, contribute offensively, and hold their own in the defensive end all at the same time.
Pokka stands exactly six feet tall and weighs in at 196 pounds, so he certainly isn’t undersized, but he’s not overly imposing either. A quick look at his game film will reveal to the keen observer that Pokka’s skating is one of his best assets. He’s a very cerebral player who doesn’t rush his decisions, and as a result he is rarely caught making an egregious error.
You can see here in the highlight below the clear methodical approach to this game in the offensive zone. It’s just seven seconds of actual play, but watch his calm demeanor as he moves the puck to the wall, smartly glides to a more natural shooting position, winds up, and takes his time to find the right spot to shoot the puck through traffic:
Pokka projects very nicely as a future second-pairing defenseman, with the possibility to blossom into a useful #2. The fact that he doesn’t really excel in any one facet of the game does make it likely that he never becomes a true #1 or elite defenseman, but he’s an excellent player to have in the pipeline. Look for him to have a huge year in Rockford with the possibility looming for him to fill in as an injury call-up if need be.
4. Nick Schmaltz, C
Schmaltz is, in my opinion, the most tantalizing prospect in Chicago’s pipeline. You will not find many people who share that sentiment, as he’s certainly not the most skilled or the most flashy (wait ’til you see the three guys ahead of him on this list), but his upside represents the type of player who is both very useful and hard to come by in the NHL these days.
Schmaltz was Chicago’s first round pick in 2014. When he was drafted, the player TSN used as their style comparable was Jason Spezza. I disagree with that assessment. I’m not usually a huge fan of player comparisons, but the one player that I see in Schmaltz’s game is San Jose Sharks center Joe Pavelski.
Like Pavelski, Schmaltz at times plays a large man’s game in a smaller man’s body. He stands at six feet tall, while Pavelski is an inch short of that. Anyone who watches Pavelski with regularity might have a hard time believing that he’s 5’11”. He’s skilled, yes, but he’s tenacious in his pursuit of the puck and his “hockey motor,” if you will, is always on full blast.
Here’s a 1:05 clip of Schmaltz’s highlights from 2015’s World Junior Championship:
The main play worth noting is the last minute rush against Team Finland starting at 0:05 of the video. Schmaltz takes the puck in his own zone. At 19.2 seconds remaining in the 3rd, he hits his own blue line. At 17.6 seconds left, he’s reached the Finnish blue line. That’s 1.6 seconds through the neutral zone with the puck on his stick. That’s some serious explosiveness, and that’s without even mentioning the outstanding deke that he used to maneuver past two defenders to get a chance alone on the goalie.
From my viewings, plays like that are the norm for Schmaltz. Heading into the draft he was billed as a reasonably sized, smooth, cerebral play-making center, but that’s not what I see at all. In my mind, he falls much more cleanly into the mold of an aggressive goal-scoring center who uses his combination of deceptive strength, speed, and skill to get to the front of the net and create high-quality scoring chances.
I’m not saying that Schmaltz is a sure thing or even a good bet to be the next Pavelski, as there’s certainly some bust potential in Schmaltz’s game that lies in the impending difficulties he’ll face in in his adjustment to the professional game. But as far as playing styles are concerned, hey, the tape doesn’t lie:
3. Artemi Panarin, LW
Panarin’s long anticipated NHL debut is due up this October. The 23-year-old Russian sensation signed with the Blackhawks in the Spring, and the hype surrounding him has been building ever since.
It didn’t take long for the youthful Panarin to establish himself as one of the KHL’s best forwards. This past season playing for SKA St. Petersburg the winger put up an astounding 62 points in 54 regular season contests. And what did he do to follow that up? He put up 10 points in 10 games representing Russia at the World Championships.
The offensive ability that you’ve heard about from Panarin is very real. He’s dynamic and gifted, and he’s as good a bet as any to crack Chicago’s forward group this year. There will be an adjustment period early on, to be sure, but don’t be surprised to watch Panarin quickly fill the offensive void left by Patrick Sharp’s departure to Dallas.
The Blackhawks should consider themselves fortunate that the highly-touted Russian chose to sign with them. It isn’t overly likely that he becomes a superstar at the NHL level, but there is some first line upside in the best case scenario. My guess on Panarin’s floor, is to become an outstanding middle six, depth scorer.
2. Marko Dano, C/W
A lot is going to be expected of Dano given that he was such a large piece of the return in the trade that sent Brandon Saad to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Artem Anisimov is a considerable addition, but when you break the trade down it’s clear that Chicago wanted Dano in the hopes that he could become a similar player to Saad.
I’ve written about this before, but the idea that Dano develops into a Saad-esque contributor on Chicago’s first line really isn’t all that far-fetched. They’re roughly the same size, and their outputs in their respective first years in the NHL are practically identical.
That being said, it’s important that Blackhawks fans don’t expect him to be Brandon Saad immediately. His game is considerably less polished than Saad’s is/was. Regardless, I don’t find the bust factor much to be worried about. He’s already proven that he’s a capable NHL contributor, and finding a niche for himself in the forward group of the defending champions can only mean good things for his development.
If Dano can follow up his rookie year with a sophomore campaign similar to Saad’s in 2013-2014, the loss of the latter will be quickly forgotten in the Second City. This trade has the potential to go down as one that restructured the Blackhawks’ top six in a very positive way.
1. Teuvo Teravainen, C/W
It feels a bit odd to still be counting Teravainen as a prospect, but the Finnish Flash has played just 37 regular season NHL games. The hypothetical idea of Teravainen’s upside became somewhat of an established reality in the most recent playoff run, as he produced 10 points in 18 games.
He came up huge in key moments quite a few times. Most notably, he was the driving force of Chicago’s come-from-behind win in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. Teravainen’s goal and assist in the final seven minutes were both monumental in a dramatic 2-1 victory.
Teravainen has already been a huge playoff contributor on a Stanley Cup champion, but there’s still a lot of room for him to grow. He’ll be given every opportunity to succeed as a top six forward this season, and even in the event that he doesn’t, there’s little doubt that he’ll eventually be capable of stepping into that sort of role at some point in the future.
There’s very little separating these five prospects. One could easily have flipped Pokka and Schmaltz and been perfectly justified in doing so, and the same goes for the top three.
Regardless of how you want to rank them, Chicago Blackhawks fans can rejoice in the litany of success just barely in the rear view mirror and a youth movement featuring these top five prospects approaching very shortly.