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We have reached the point of the offseason where things for the Chicago Blackhawks will slow down to a grind as the NHL Draft, Prospect Camp, and the opening of NHLfree agency are all behind us.
What a whirlwind month this week has been.
From the Alex DeBrincat and Kirby Dach trades, to making three picks in the 2022 first round, to making some very obvious short-term deals in the first 24 hours of free agency, the Blackhawks are putting the writing on the walls, in big bright red paint, that the rebuild is fully in motion. With the conclusion of prospect camp, here are a few notes on the newest new guys in town and the direction in which the team is headed now into the 2022-23 season.
Top prospects play like top prospects
It’s a simple, dumb little sentence, but it is true and it is the best thing you can hope to see at prospect camp. As a Blackhawks fan, you want to see the players who are supposed to be the best of the group, look like the best of the group.
Under the microscope this week included the entire 2022 NHL Draft class, headlined by Kevin Korchinski, Frank Nazar, and Sam Rinzel, Colton Dach, Wyatt Kaiser, Nolan Allan, Ethan Del Mastro, Drew Commesso, and Landon Slaggert, just to name a few. All of those players had their moments throughout the week, but it’s hard to make any hardline judgments throughout the week based on watching teenagers run through drills.
What you did see, was the individual skillsets on display that made all of these (hopefully) future Blackhawks stand out and become part of the organization.
Frank Nazar’s speed and hands stood out.
Drew Commesso’s calmness in net was evident.
Ethan Del Mastro’s individual strength came through loud and clear in the battle drills.
And so on down the roster.
This was the first in-person and on-ice prospect camp since the summer of 2019. The were only four players who were in camp this week from that 2019 camp including Alex Vlasic, Jake Wise, Dominic Basse, and Parker Foo. Of that returning group, pretty unsurprisingly, Vlasic stood head and shoulders (no pun intended) above the rest.
Alex Vlasic leads camp
It’s no surprise the guy who has played three full NCAA seasons and has 15 NHL games under his belt looked like the best player at prospect camp. But that is what is supposed to happen. Vlasic’s size, which used to make him the biggest at a camp like this at 6-foot-6 and 200+pounds, was clearly evident in battle drills and one-on-one settings. But it was his improved skating and mobility that also made him one of the best performing and most notable players though the week.
On the ice is one thing, but off the ice, Vlasic’s leadership in the young locker room took over. Speaking with players like Nolan Allan and Ethan Del Mastro this week, both of whom are not much younger than the 21-year-old Vlasic, they both made it a point to talk about his ability to take some of the younger players under his wing during the week. Being from Wilmette doesn’t hurt either for Vlasic as he played pseudo-tour guide for the young group as they enjoyed the summer week in Chicago, some for the first time.
Vlasic will likely going to push for a regular role in the NHL lineup this season after finishing last season strong. His offseason growth and development was a major positive from prospect camp, so translating that into training camp in late September will be key if he is to begin the season on the Blackhawks roster.
Frank Nazar? More like Frank NaSTAR in the making, amirite?
Of the newest guys at camp, the biggest standout to me was 2022 13th overall draft pick Frank Nazar. The Blackhawks very clearly stated that they wanted to become a faster team, not just at the NHL level, but throughout the prospect system. By selecting Nazar, they brought in one of the fastest skaters from the 2022 draft class. That speed was very evident throughout camp and his creativity in his hands also was on display this week.
What will make Nazar a fan favorite in Chicago is his off-ice personality. “Sinatra,” as we are going to nickname him here on CHGO, has his quirks, including singing to himself during practices and games, and being able to juggle. He was always seen smiling through the week and seemed to be making quick friends with the group. If his skill-set reaches its ceiling, Chicago is going to have another star hockey player on their hands.
Nazar is headed to the University of Michigan next season and will have a real chance of playing for Team USA at the upcoming Men’s World Junior Championships in August. There is ample opportunity to get to see him play this upcoming season if you get tired of watching the NHL product.
Blackhawks sign Max Domi, Andreas Athanasiou, and other short-term free agents
Speaking of the NHL product, the Blackhawks made a number of additions to their organization on Wednesday and Thursday as the free agency period opened up. Again, without saying it so directly, the rebuild is fully in motion. The major additions for Chicago included Max Domi, Andreas Athanasiou, Colin Blackwell, and Alex Stalock. Except for Blackwell, all of those players who will be slotted into the NHL roster are on one-year deals with Chicago. The deals are cheap. The contracts are extremely flippable at the NHL trade deadline. That’s the goal.
With Domi and Athanasiou, Chicago is rolling the dice that both players will slot into the top-six group and have the chance to revitalize their careers in time to maximize on their potential return in a deadline trade. Both players are on one-year deals worth $3M and if they don’t pan out the way the Blackhawks hope, it won’t cost them anything. They both will get a chance to play alongside Patrick Kane at different points this season, one would imagine, so the opportunity to put together favorable stats will be there.
Kyle Davidson’s conversations with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Seth Jones
Blackhawks General manager Kyle Davidson spoke to the media on Thursday and addressed the topic of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Seth Jones’ “buy-in” to the rebuilding plans. He didn’t say much that we already haven’t heard before, but the sense is that right now, all three of those players are willing to see how the rest of the plan is laid out and how the season begins. Davidson said he has had numerous “healthy” conversations with the trio at different points this offseason, including the lead-up to the NHL Draft and opening of free agency. While he didn’t tell those players the specific plans, like the team actively trading Kirby Dach and Alex DeBrincat, it was communicated that “difficult decisions” were going to be made. So Kane, Toews, and Jones cannot say they didn’t see any of this coming.
Now it comes down to if they want to be around for what is next in Chicago. Kane and Toews are future first-ballot Hall of Famers, legends in Chicago, and on the final year of their identical eight-year, $10.5M AAV deals signed way back in the summer of 2015. It appears very likely that both of them begin the season on the Blackhawks roster, but how long that lasts is up to them. Both hold full no-movement protection and Davidson has said he will not ask them to waive those protections for a trade. Only if they want to leave Chicago on their own accord will Davidson actively look for trade partners. Same can be said for Seth Jones, but his eight-year contract extension with a $9.5M AAV cap hit takes effect this season. Moving that deal will be extremely hard to do for the first-year GM, and extremely costly to do so.
Expectations for 2022-23
With all this said, the expectations for the Blackhawks this season should be very, very low. Maybe the lowest they have been since before both Toews and Kane ever stepped on the United Center ice in a Blackhawks sweater. The rebuild is fully on and the players you will be watching this season will mostly be ones that you will not be required to put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into as fans. Well, maybe there will be tears, but that’s O.K.
The wins and losses this season will not be the focal point of the season. The focus will be on maximizing the development potential of young players and maximizing the trade value of players that could be and should be traded in-season. Watching Lukas Reichel, Alex Vlasic, Alec Regula, and Ian Mitchell take the next steps in their career development will be important. Watching which players take the next steps from Rockford to Chicago will be important. Watching Luke Richardson develop as an NHL head coach will be very important. Watching the Blackhawks win the NHL Draft Lottery next May will be important. That’s the goal off the 2022-23 season.
I encourage all Blackhawks fans to enjoy the small victories when they happen and do not live and die on every one of the 82 games this season. It’ll probably be bad for your health. Instead, keep the long-term goals in your view. Try to understand that the 2022-23 and 2023-24 seasons will likely be painful. But the hope is that those seasons after 2024, 2025, 2026, etc., are filled with lasting memories of meaningful Blackhawks hockey being played at the United Center deep into April, May, and June once again. If in a decade, we are all enjoying another Stanley Cup parade through the street of downtown Chicago, this whole process will have all been worth it.
Hop on the ride.
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