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The NHL season is drawing to a close. I know I just heard a collective sigh of relief from everyone reading this. This Chicago Blackhawks season has been one of the most exhausting both on and off the ice as a fan and as a member of the media/blogosphere that I can remember. For the Blackhawks, it ends on April 29 in Buffalo. But there’s a lot to keep an eye on around the organization outside of how the NHL club ends their miserable season. Regarding the Rockford IceHogs, top Junior prospects, and much more, here are some news, notes, and thoughts on key members of the Chicago prospect pipeline.
Pesky Pigs Playoff Push
As I write this on April 18, the Rockford IceHogs’ magic number in the Calder Cup playoff race is down to five. Meaning they need five more points in the standings to clinch a spot in the AHL postseason. Currently, the IceHogs are in fourth place in the Central Division, comfortably, and missing the playoffs looks near-impossible. This would be Rockford’s return to the postseason for the first time since the 2018 Calder Cup playoff run that ended in the Western Conference Finals.
Here are the players to watch as they make this this final push:
Lukas Reichel: Playing in his 10th NHL game of the season on Saturday, Reichel burned the first year of the entry-level contract and will become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2024, rather than 2025. Every way you slice it, there are pros and cons to this move by the Blackhawks. In the end, the goal is to make Reichel, who has been to the best player on the IceHogs this season, a part of the Blackhawks for a long, long time. He registered his first NHL point on Saturday and will return to Rockford for the remainder of the season on Tuesday.
Alec Regula: Maybe not the first player that would have come to mind to have played the most in Chicago down the stretch out of the Rockford blue-liners, but Regula has been given significant ice-time with the Blackhawks in the final games of the season. Regula registered his first NHL point with a goal on Monday night against the Flames. He’s been quite the difference-maker at the AHL level this season and will also return to the IceHogs before the postseason begins.
Ian Mitchell: At one point in time, Ian Mitchell was thought to be a can’t miss NHL defenseman. But his progression in the NHL did not immediately materialize and his extended stay in the AHL this season has put him back on the right track. He’ll be a huge factor in the IceHogs’ playoff run and should be in the running for an NHL spot again next season.
Mike Hardman: One of the forgotten fourth-liners from the Blackhawks earlier this season, Hardman went to the IceHogs and has played an underrated key role offensively. He has a two-year extension kicking in this summer and I would like to see Hardman get another crack at the NHL lineup next Fall.
Josiah Slavin: Another underrated contributor to the IceHogs’ success this season, Slavin has been one of the most used and most effective penalty-killers in Rockford. From seventh-round pick to playing in the NHL just two years later, if Slavin’s development trajectory continues on its current path, we might be seeing the next under-the-radar centerman blossoming for the Blackhawks.
Pro Prospect Contract Musings
There are major contract situations that will need addressing this offseason for the Blackhawks, but some minor ones are still on the table and of considerable note.
Andrei Altybarmakyan: With two full seasons in the AHL under his belt, “Alty” has been a great fit on the normal top-line for the IceHogs this season along with Reichel and Michal Teply. He’s a restricted free agent this summer, but I can’t imagine Chicago doesn’t bring back the former third-round pick on a two-way deal.
Wyatt Kalynuk: Once thought to be a lock to be in the top-six on the blue-line for the Blackhawks, Kalynuk has fallen behind a number of young defensemen in Rockford. He could very easily come back on a cheap two-way deal for the Blackhawks, but how buried is he on the depth chart heading into next season?
Kirby Dach: A restricted free agent this summer, Dach is going to be offered a bridge-deal from the Blackhawks at a much cheaper rate than most of us expected prior to this season. If it was a one-year deal even, would you be shocked? I wouldn’t.
Philipp Kurashev: Hard to read where the Blackhawks value Kurashev. He’s supposed to turn into a top-six option, but outside of a handful of games in recent weeks, he has not been used that way. On the CHGO Blackhawks Podcast recently, interim head coach Derek King said that he had been using Kurashev the wrong way this season, but after posting three points in two games in a top-six role, he was scratched on Saturday. What gives? A restricted free agent as well this summer, I’d expect a one-year deal to be offered to Kursahev in a “prove it” sense. If it’s beyond one-year, good for him and probably the better decision by Chicago.
Along with the AHL postseason to keep and eye on, the Canadian Junior leagues will have plenty of Chicago representation to keep fans interested. All of the Blackhawks’ prospects in the CHL leagues made the postseason this year.
Colton Dach: The younger Dach and 2021 second-round pick by the Blackhawks finished his WHL season on a strong tear. He ended the year leading the Kelowna Rockets in points (79) and tied for the lead in goals (29) in 61 games played. Kelowna is headed to the postseason to face the Seattle Thunderbirds. It’s probably in his and the Blackhawks’ best interests to learn from the mistakes of rushing his older brother to the NHL and have Colton return to the WHL next season.
Jalen Luypen: A seventh-round pick by Chicago in 2021, Luypen looks to have a ton of “steal” potential for the Blackhawks. He finished this season on a stacked Edmonton Oil Kings team with 29 goals and 64 points in 66 games this season. His 29 goals were good for third on the club. They will take on the Lethbridge Hurricanes in the first round of the WHL playoffs.
Nolan Allan: Chicago’s first-round pick from 2021 narrowly made the WHL playoffs this season with the Prince Albert Raiders. Playing on the top pair this season, Allan finished the year with seven goals and 41 points in 65 games, ranking second on the team in points for a defenseman. Prince Albert, the still-defending WHL champions from the 2019 season, face the Winnipeg Ice in the postseason.
Ethan Del Mastro: The only OHL prospect for the Blackhawks, Del Mastro captained the Mississauga Steelheads to the postseason while tallying seven goals and 48 points in 68 games this season. He finished the year as the top-scoring defenseman on the team. Del Mastro and the Steelheads will face the Barrie Colts in the opening round of the OHL playoffs.
Louis Crevier: A towering defenseman at 6-foot-8 and well over 200-pounds, Crevier and the Quebec Remparts have already clinched a spot in the QMJHL postseason still with a handful of games to play to end the regular season. So far in 57 games, Crevier has scored ten goals and 33 points with 145 shots on goal, the most among defensemen on the club. As it stands right now, Quebec is the top seed in the QMJHL, leading the Eastern Conference with a 45-11-2 record and 92 points in the standings.
Outside of North America, there have been a few Blackhawks prospects that have shown some promise and some that have contract decisions to make this summer.
Artur Kayumov: His contract is up in the KHL and the former second-round pick from 2016 might have his best opportunity to come to North America and have a shot with the Blackhawks now. After six seasons in Russia with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, Kayumov has expressed interest in joining the Blackhawks this summer. He finished this season with ten goals and 19 points in 42 games in the regular season, adding three assists in four KHL postseason games.
Ilya Safonov: Also known as the player who broke Kirby Dach’s wrist at the 2021 World Juniors, Safonov had an impressive season with Ak-Bars Kazan in his second full KHL year. In 43 games, he scored eight goals and 12 points, playing in a mostly third-line center roll. He’ll have a lot of time to develop overseas, but the six-foot-three centerman could find himself with a great opportunity to come to North America and be a part of Chicago’s rebuild for young center depth.
Niklas Nordgren: The former third-round pick from 2018 finally had a healthy season in Finland. After playing a combined 47 pro games in the Finnish Liiga between 2017-2021, Nordgren played a combined 45 games between Pelicans in Liiga (19) and Peliitat in Mestis (26) this season. He recorded three goals and 22 points in 26 Mestis games with Peliitat, while adding two goals and an assist this season with Pelicans. His draft rights expire on June 1 and the Blackhawks have to figure out what they want to do with the undersized winger.
Victor Stjernborg: Another prospect who had to deal with injuries this season, Stjernborg recorded just two assists in 15 SHL games with the Växjö Lakers this year as a rookie. He missed most of this season with a lower-body injury, but when he returned to health, he had a Swedish minor-league stint with IF Troja-Ljungby that saw him record five goals and 11 points in seven HockeyAllsvenskan games. He’s very young (turns 19 in May), but is a sturdy power-forward in a compact frame. I’m intrigued by his future.
NCAA Transfer News and College Contract Musings
In the college ranks, the NCAA season came to a close recently and the transfer portal was active with three Chicago prospects changing schools. There are also a number of contract decisions that need to be made and some that will impact the rebuilding plans of the Blackhawks soon enough.
Dominic Basse: The “other” goaltending prospect for the Blackhawks in the NCAA, Basse played the last two seasons at Colorado College, but will transfer to St. Cloud State for next season. With a career .891 save percentage and a 3.21 GAA in his college career, the former sixth-round pick from 2019 will have a lot to prove at St. Cloud State to get his foot into the door with the Blackhawks’ goaltending situation.
Slava Demin: Transferring for the second time in his college career, Demin will be moving on from UMass and heading to play his fifth NCAA season with Merrimack. Demin played three seasons with Denver before transferring to UMass this season and playing 22 games with three points recorded. Hard to see a future in Chicago for him.
Connor Kelley: Another defensive prospect on the move in the NCAA, Kelley is leaving Minnesota-Duluth to join the program at Providence. In two seasons with the Bulldogs, Kelley played in 64 games and recorded five goals and 16 points. He and fellow Blackhawks prospect Wyatt Kaiser were part of the Minnesota-Duluth program that reached the NCAA Championship game last season.
Josh Ess: After playing 173 NCAA games and recording 38 points over five seasons with Wisconsin, Ess, a former seventh-round pick, will most likely not be given a contract from the Blackhawks this summer.
Jake Wise: Once thought of as part of the future in Chicago, Wise had fallen out of favor in the prospect system after a string of injuries derailed his college career at Boston University. After transferring to Ohio State prior to this season, the former third-round pick finally put together a healthy season and an impactful one for the Buckeyes. In three seasons with Boston, he played in 50 games and recorded just three goals. This season with Ohio State, Wise recorded ten goals and 28 points in 35 games and was called for just one penalty all season. His draft rights expire this August, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Wise gets a one-off opportunity to make an impact professionally in the Chicago system.
Wyatt Kaiser: Arguably one of the defensive prospects with the highest perceived potential ceiling, Kaiser has been one of the top blue-liners for two seasons at one of the premier programs in the NCAA. While his numbers will not “wow” you, his impacts defensively have stood out throughout his college career. Kaiser will most likely be part of Team USA at this summer’s World Junior Championships re-do and he may play one more NCAA season with the Bulldogs before entertaining the idea of turning pro.
Landon Slaggert: Another likely teammate of Kaiser with Team USA this Summer is Notre Dame’s Landon Slaggert. His game reminds me and a lot of others of former Blackhawks Andrew Shaw and Brandon Hagel. Slaggert plays with high energy and has an edge to his game. He also can produce at the same high rates with skill players around him. He goes back to Notre Dame for next season and may likely go back for a fourth year after that, but I don’t doubt that he has a future in the Chicago organization.
Drew Commesso: Also very likely to be playing with Team USA at this Summer’s World Junior Championships is top Blackhawks goaltending prospect Drew Commesso. He’s going to go back to Boston University for a third NCAA season, and rightfully so. Even though his NCAA career .915 save percentage is impressive through 39 games, as is his inclusion with Team USA at the World Championships last year and his performance at the Winter Olympics last February, taking time for Commesso to develop into an NHL-ready goaltender is the right path for Chicago. He’s the best goaltending prospect since Corey Crawford and with the rebuild happening, rushing him to the professional ranks is foolish. Play a third season, hell, play a fourth season at Boston if you want. Just don’t throw him into the fire too early and stunt his growth.