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Chicago Blackhawks Rebuild Report: College prospects turn pro as European playoffs roll on

Greg Boysen Avatar
March 16, 2023

This is a great time of year all across the world of hockey. The college ranks have entered the postseason as well as the top professional leagues in Europe. The CHL is gearing up for their playoffs as the teams start their quest for the Memorial Cup. As seasons come to an end, some prospects begin their journies into the pro ranks, as was the case for two recent Chicago Blackhawks draft picks. The weekly Rebuild Report takes you around the globe to keep you up to date on the future of the Blackhawks. Mario Tirabassi covers the amateur ranks in North America, while Greg Boysen is keeping tabs on those prospects playing in the AHL, ECHL, and Europe.

Mario’s Notebook: NCAA Signings, Conference Tourneys Continue, Knies > Fantilli?

  • If you had to take a guess at which Blackhawks prospect was going to score the most points in their respective junior league this season, my bet is that Gavin Hayes would not have been the pick by most fans. But here we are in mid-March and Hayes, a 2022 third-round pick that was acquired in the Kirby Dach trade, is atop the leaderboard in Chicago.
  • Hayes is currently riding a 17-game stretch of play where he has recorded at least one point in 16 of those games and eight of those 16 outings have been multi-point efforts. Helping propel the Flint Firebirds offense this season, Hayes ranks second on his OHL club in goals (36) and points (73) in 63 games played.
  • The Firebirds clinched an OHL playoff spot this past week, making Hayes just the latest Blackhawks prospect headed to the postseason in the CHL. Hayes joins the trio in Seattle of Kevin Korchinski, Nolan Allan, and Colton Dach, along with Ethan Del Mastro with Sarnia, Samuel Savoie with Gatineau, and Jalen Luypen with Tri-City to all clinch postseason berths.
  • Also heading to the postseason in the CHL is Connor Bedard. At one point this season it appeared that his Regina Pats club in the WHL was going to be a bust, even with him on the team. But sitting in sixth in the WHL Eastern Conference with a five-point cushion over Medicine Hat with just a handful of games left to play makes it look like a lock for the top prospect in the 2023 NHL Draft class to be playing postseason games.
  • Good thing too, because it would be a shame to not have him playing meaningful WHL playoff games to end his junior career.
  • The Blackhawks currently sit in 30th in the NHL, giving them an 11.5% chance to land the top pick in the 2023 NHL Draft Lottery.
  • Wrapping up CHL talk with this note from the QMJHL. It appears the league will be heading towards a rule change that looks to curb fighting, if not eliminate it from the league.
  • In the NCAA ranks, several Blackhawks prospects are still playing in their respective conference tournaments. Here’s who is still going for their conference titles and when they will play next:
    Ryan Greene (Boston vs Providence) – Friday, March 17 (3:00 p.m. CT)
    Drew Commesso (Boston vs Providence) – Friday, March 17 (3:00 p.m. CT)
    Taige Harding (Providence vs Boston) – Friday, March 17 (3:00 p.m. CT)
    Connor Kelley (Providence vs Boston) – Friday, March 17 (3:00 p.m. CT)
    Slava Demin (Merrimack vs UMass-Lowell) – Friday, March 17 (6:30 p.m. CT)
    Aidan Thompson (Denver vs Colorado College) – Friday, March 17 (4:00 p.m. CT)
    Dominic Basse (St. Cloud State vs North Dakota) – Friday, March 17 (7:30 p.m. CT)
    Frank Nazar (Michigan vs Minnesota) – Saturday, March 18 (7:00 p.m. CT)*
    *Big Ten Championship
  • All winners on Friday will play in their respective conference championship games on Saturday. Meaning that, in addition to Frank Nazar and Michigan playing for the Big Ten title, the Blackhawks will have at least two more prospects playing for the Hockey East title with four players in the semi-final on Friday.
  • Plus, I like Aidan Thompson and Denver’s chances to advance over Colorado College.
  • Speaking of Michigan and the Big Ten, the conference sent out its season awards this past week with a few Blackhawks prospects getting honors.
  • One interesting note came out of the Big Ten awards when Adam Fantilli, who was named the conference Freshman of the Year, was not named the Big Ten Player of the Year. No, that honor went to Minnesota’s Matthew Knies, the top prospect in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ system. Puzzling, since no one out-produced Fantilli in the NCAA this season and the gap between him and Knies was substantial.
  • Still can’t wrap my head around the idea that Fantilli, who might win the Hobey Baker award as the Best Player in the NCAA, wouldn’t be considered the best player in the Big Ten.
  • Speaking of the Hobey Baker, the top-ten finalists for the award were announced this week.
  • None of the Blackhawks prospects who were named to the award shortlist initially made the top 10, but Fantilli is there, of course, as is Barrington, IL-native and Boston University teammate of Ryan Greene and Drew Commesso, Lane Hutson. Go get some short king!
  • Speaking of Boston, former Terrier, and current Blackhawks broadcaster Colby Cohen helped shed some light on a slew of current and former BU players who are with the Blackhawks prospect system now. Check it out from WTBU.
  • Moving to the NCHC, one of the top programs in the country and a producer of a number of Blackhawks prospects in recent years, Denver has an opportunity to move on to the conference championship game this weekend with a win over Colorado College. They’ll likely need more of this from Aidan Thompson that we saw in the first round to move beyond their rivals in the semifinal.
  • In the other NCHC semi-final, Dominic Basse and St. Cloud State have a tough matchup against perennial powerhouse North Dakota. Basse helped get St. Cloud to the semi-final by eliminating Minnesota-Duluth with fellow prospects Wyatt Kaiser and Dominic James.
  • That wasn’t before the two of them did their best to try to upset St. Cloud.
  • With Minnesota-Duluth eliminated though, the opportunity presented itself for the Blackhawks to sign one of their top prospects in defenseman Wyatt Kaiser.
  • Kaiser was a third-round pick by the Blackhawks in the 2020 NHL Draft and played the past three seasons at Minnesota-Duluth as part of their top pair on defense. He set career-highs this season in goals (5), assists (18), and points (23). In his NCAA career, he skated in 97 games and tallied 52 points.
  • The defenseman joined the Blackhawks today on their current five-game road trip and is expected to make his NHL debut this weekend.
  • Also signing with the Blackhawks after his season finished this past week was Notre Dame’s Ryder Rolston.
  • Rolston was a fifth-round pick by the Colorado Avalanche and was acquired by the Blackhawks in the infamous Carl Söderberg trade. You remember?
  • Before his 2022-23 season was cut short because of a broken collarbone that required surgery, Rolston was leading the Irish in scoring. He had seven goals and 20 points in 27 games for Notre Dame when he went down with his injury. In his NCAA career, he played in 93 games and tallied 53 points.

Greg’s Notebook: Rockford IceHogs Get Back in the Win Column, European Playoffs in Full Swing

  • Rockford has gone through a ton of roster turnover the past couple of weeks, and it is starting to take its toll in the standings. Lukas Reichel, Cole Guttman, David Gust, Brett Seney, Dylan Sikura, and Adam Clendening have all missed time due to injury, NHL recalls, or were traded recently. The lack of offensive firepower was evident throughout the week.
  • Before the IceHogs began their busy weekend on the road, they made some off-ice moves. First, defenseman Filip Roos was recalled by the Blackhawks on Thursday as Connor Murphy left the team to attend to a family matter. Later that day, forward Luke Philp agreed to a one-year, two-way contract with the Blackhawks for the 2023-24 season worth $775,000.
  • The IceHogs were in Michigan Friday night for a matchup with the Grand Rapids Griffins and earned a point in a 2-1 overtime loss. Joel L’Esperance gave the home team a 1-0 lead late in the first period with a power-play goal off a rebound. Bobby Lynch knotted the game with a through-the-legs tally on the man advantage midway through the final frame. Rocco Grimaldi picked up his first point for the IceHogs with the primary assist. After a scoreless third period, the IceHogs headed to overtime for an AHL-leading 21st time this season. The Griffins and defenseman Jared McIsaac needed just 17 seconds to score the game-winning and earn the extra point. Arvid Soderblom made 31 saves in the losing effort but was outdueled by Alex Nedeljikovic, who stopped 29 of 30 shots.
  • Things got much worse for the IceHogs and their Saturday night trip to Rosemont to take on the Chicago Wolves. The offensive woes continued as the reigning Calder Cup champs knocked them around 5-1. Wolves blueliner Max Lajoie beat Jaxson Stabuer less than three minutes into the game to open the scoring. Zach Senyshyn doubled Chicago’s lead with a shorthanded goal moments later. Neil Shea and Senyshyn scored early in the second period to make it 4-0 before Joseph LaBate scored the Wolves’ second shortie of the night. Michal Teply scored his seventh goal of the season on a breakaway in the third period for the IceHogs’ lone tally.
  • Between Saturday’s loss and Wednesday’s return to the BMO Center ice, the IceHogs made a bunch of roster moves. First, Philp, Roos, and Anton Khudobin all returned from their short stint with the big club. On Monday, the Blackhawks recalled forwards Buddy Robinson and Mike Hardman for their tilt against the Boston Bruins. Later that day, the Blackhawks signed Rolston to a three-year entry-level contract. His deal with the Blackhawks doesn’t kick in until next season, so he signed a professional tryout contract (PTO) to play the rest of the season with the IceHogs. Since Rolston was not on the NHL roster at the trade deadline, he is eligible to play in the Calder Cup playoffs.
  • Grimaldi made his home-ice debut on Wednesday and was the hero in a 4-3 overtime win over the Manitoba Moose. The visitors struck first when Henri Nikkanen scored off a deflection midway through the first period. Philp answered for Rockford less than two minutes later before Dominic Toninato gave the Moose a 2-1 lead ahead of the first intermission. Lynch, who set up Philp’s goal, tied the game near the halfway mark of the second period with a power-play one-timer. Philp gave the IceHogs their first lead of the night 30 seconds later by tipping home a shot from defenseman Andy Welinski. The goal was his 20th of the season, joining Gust and Grimaldi in the 20-goal club. Jansen Harkins evened the score five minutes later, and the two teams remained knotted at 3-3 through the end of regulation. Grimaldi put the home team on his back two minutes into extra time by stealing the puck inside his own blue line, then beating goaltender Oskari Salminen for the extra point. The game-winning goal was his first for the IceHogs and 28th on the season. Soderblom made 33 saves for his eighth AHL win on the season.
  • As far as the legit Blackhawks prospects still in Rockford go, defenseman Jakub Galvas leads with 24 points. His 22 assists are the most among defensemen and third on the team. Isaak Phillips has four goals and 20 points in 38 games. Alec Regula leads all blueliners with five goals and has 19 points in 40 games. Teply, who was so vital for the IceHogs in the second half last season, has been a disappointment. He has seven goals and 19 points in 46 games. Alex Vlasic has not been producing many points in his first full professional season, with two goals and 15 points in 48 games, but he is tied for second on the team as a plus-11.
  • The IceHogs are in the fifth and final playoff spot in the Central Division. They have a 10-point cushion on the Wolves and Griffins, so they aren’t in any real danger of missing the postseason. The Iowa Wild also have 65 points as these two teams would face each in the best-of-three First Round, while the top three teams get a bye into the Division Semifinals. The Central is still up for grabs, as just two points separate the top three teams.
  • The Colorado Eagles will make a rare trip to Rockford for a pair of games on Friday and Saturday. The IceHogs will then head north of the border to take on the Moose in Manitoba Wednesday night.
  • The Indy Fuel lost two of their three games last weekend, but Chad Yetman continued his big ECHL season. He had an assist in Saturday’s 3-1 loss to the Toledo Walleye, then picked up three helpers in a 6-2 victory over the Fort Wayne Komets on Sunday. The 2020 sixth-round pick has 23 goals and 51 points in 48 games for the Fuel. It has been a bit of a surprise that the IceHogs haven’t given him a look as they struggled to find offense. The Fuel is in third place in the Central Division with 74 points as they look to lock down a postseason berth.
  • The KHL playoffs are in full swing, and both Blackhawks’ draft picks playing in Russia have advanced into the second round. Captain Ilya Safonov helped Ak Bars Kazan, the Eastern Conference’s top seed, knock off Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk in six games. The Blackhawks’ 2021 sixth-round pick had a goal and an assist in the series. Ak Bars will take on the seventh-seeded Admiral Vladivostok in the Conference Semifinals after they upset Salavat Yulaev in six games.
  • In the Western Conference, 2016 second-round pick Artur Kayumov and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl locked down the third seed. He had a goal and an assist in a five-game series win over HC Vityaz Moscow. Lokomotiv will play CSKA Moscow in the Conference Semifinals.
  • In Finland, Antti Saarela returned from injury last Thursday and picked up an assist in his first game back. The 2019 fourth-round pick played in Lukko’s final two regular-season games after missing a month. Lukko finished third in the standings with 105 points and have a bye into the Quarterfinals, where they will take on HIFK in a best-of-seven series.
  • Riku Tohila wrapped up his final junior season with JYP. The 2022 seventh-round draft pick had a career-high 18 goals and 24 points in 42 games. He also played in Mestis games, Finland’s equivalent to the AHL, and had a goal and three points. The 6-foot-8 center will be an intriguing prospect to watch over the next few seasons.
  • Victor Stjernborg scored his first SHL goal of the season in the Växjö Lakers’ regular-season finale last week. He finished with a goal and eight points in 42 games. Växjö had the best record in the regular season and had a bye in the first round. They will play 10th-seeded Lulea in a seven-game series that starts today.

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