This spring has become one of the most fun in recent memories for Chicago Blackhawks fans and it has nothing to do with the NHL product on the ice. The Blackhawks are once again at the very bottom, 32nd out of 32 teams, in the NHL after a loss to the St. Louis Blues in their most recent outing. All the hype, buzz, and attention is being pointed towards the prospect system and there’s plenty of fun to go around. From the CHL playoffs beginning, to the Frozen Four, to the IceHogs pushing for the postseason, there’s a lot to watch over the next few weeks as the future of the Blackhawks gets put on full postseason display.
Mario’s Notebook: P’loffs
It’s playoff time in the CHL as the Canadian Junior leagues of the WHL, QMJHL, and OHL begin their postseason. For the Blackhawks prospect system, pretty much everyone besides Paul Ludwinski is playing in the postseason. Which is great news for those young players to get time now in even more meaningful games, vying for a league championship and a spot in the Memorial Cup in Kamloops, British Columbia this summer.
Starting with the Flint Firebirds in the OHL with Blackhawks prospect Gavin Hayes, their matchup with the Saginaw Spirit began last night with the Firebirds getting on the board first, but then the Spirit scored the next seven (!) goals in a 7-1 Game One win.
Game Two is tonight again in Saginaw.
The Sarnia Sting begin their first round matchup with the Guelph Storm tonight. Blackhawks prospect Ethan Del Mastro looks to help the Sting advance beyond the first round of the OHL playoffs for the first time since 2018. The Sting have never played for an OHL title.
Del Mastro set career-highs in points with 59 this season in 52 OHL games between his time in Mississauga and Sarnia.
In the QMJHL, Samuel Savoiue is the lone Blackhawks prospect. He and the Gatineau Olympiques open their first round matchup against the Saint John Sea Dogs tonight in Gatineau. The Olympiques have two QMJHL championships under their belt in 2004 and 2008, but have not reached the QMJHL Final since 2011.
Savoie finished the season ranked fifth on the team in points and set career-highs in goals (26), assists (33), points (59), and PIMs (90) this year.
Moving to the WHL, the Tri-City Americans and Blackhawks prospect Jalen Luypen begin their first round matchup tonight as well, taking on the Prince George Cougars. The Americans have reached just one WHL Final in their team history back in 2010 and this is their first playoff appearance since 2019 after missing last season and having no WHL playoffs due to COVID in 2021 and 2020.
After missing the first half of the season due to offseason shoulder surgery, Jalen Luypen roared back as an over point-per-game player for Tri-City this season with 39 points in 38 WHL games. He was one of four players for Tri-City to reach the point-per-game pace this year.
Also in the WHL postseason, and likely to make the most noise in the playoffs of any of the CHL teams with Blackhawks representation, are the Seattle Thunderbirds. Highlighted by prospects Nolan Allan, Colton Dach, and Kevin Korchinski, the Thunderbirds enter their first-round matchup against the Kelowna Rockets as the top-seed in the Western Conference. Seattle won the WHL championship in 2017 and lost in the WHL Final last season to Jalen Luypen when he was with the Edmonton Oil Kings.
Korchinski lead the Thunderbirds defensemen this season with 73 points in 54 games. He set career-highs in goals (11), assists (62), and points this season on his way to being named the team’s best defenseman.
Colton Dach missed multiple portions of this season due to concussions and a shoulder injury sustained at the World Junior Championships. Between his time with Kelowna and Seattle, he still finished the season playing over a point-per-game pace with 27 points in 23 regular season games.
Nolan Allan was another player who split time between two WHL clubs this season, being acquired early in the year by Seattle from the Prince Albert Raiders, where he served as Captain. Allan finished the season with 23 points in 57 combined WHL games, well off his production pace last season (41 points in 65 games), but he was playing a much different role last season, so you kind of can make the exception for him.
In case you missed it, all three Blackhawks prospects with the Thunderbirds joined us on the CHGO Blackhawks podcast earlier this week. You can see the full episode here:
Great chatting with the guys ahead of their postseason. Hope the BBQ was worth the wait!
Also beginning postseason play in the WHL is top 2023 NHL Draft prospect Connor Bedard with the Regina Pats. They open their first round matchup against the Saskatoon Blades tonight.
Bedard finished this season with a ridiculous 71 goals and 143 points in 57 WHL games. Adding his World Junior Championships performance, he played in 64 games this year and produced 166 points combined.
Here’s a look at the final WHL regular season goal Bedard scored this season. No. 71 on the year. 71!
And for the WHL playoffs, Bedard is rocking an awful/awesome mullet, inspired by Patrick Kane.
Quite the look.
Before moving on to the NCAA prospect landscape, can’t forget that while Paul Ludwinski will not be playing in the OHL playoffs, he has signed his entry-level contract with the Blackhawks.
Well earned for Ludwinski in a tough year for him and Kingston.
In the NCAA landscape for Blackhawks prospects, a few players who have had their seasons end and decisions have had to be made about their playing futures.
In Ohio State, Jake Wise was a fifth-year senior and has his draft rights with the Blackhawks expiring on August 15, 2023. After a disappointing and injury-plagued start to his college career, Wise put together two good seasons at Ohio State after transferring from Boston University. I still feel like the organization could go either way on him. It doesn’t hurt them at all to give him an entry-level deal as an option, but at the same time, is there room for him to be more than just an AHLer in the organization? It’s a weird spot to be in.
Another prospect who has their draft rights expiring on August 15, 2023 is defenseman Slava Demin from Merrimack. Demin was acquired by the Blackhawks in 2020 as part of the three-way trade that sent Robin Lehner to the Vegas Golden Knights. I don’t force the Blackhawks extending a contract to Demin.
We do have an answer on Notre Dame’s Landon Slaggert. On Friday, Scott Powers of the Athletic reported that Slaggert would be returning to Notre Dame for his Senior season. Not a surprising decision by Slaggert, given that his Dad is the head coach and his younger brother Carter is going to be a Freshman at Notre Dame next season.
On to the Frozen Four!
We were very close to having three of the four teams in the NCAA Frozen Four coming from the Big Ten, but Quinnipiac had to go and ruin that by beating Penn State. Oh well.
With Michigan, Blackhawks fans have plenty to pay attention to in the Frozen Four with 2022 13th-overall pick Frank Nazar and potential first-round targets Adam Fantilli and Gavin Brindley on the roster.
Nazar missed almost the entire year after having surgery on a lower-body injury before the beginning of the season. He joined the Wolverines late and has skated in 12 games with two goals and seven points for his freshman season.
Outside of Nazar, most Blackhawks fans have been watching Michigan hockey this year to get their eyes on Adam Fantilli. And for good reason, the Freshman has been producing at an incredible rate and should be a shoo-in for the Hobey Baker Award last the top player in the NCAA.
Going to be a lot to watch next week regarding the Hobey Baker as there is a chance that all three finalists, Adam Fantilli, Matthew Knies, and Logan Cooley, could play each other in the National Championship game.
Trying to make sure that top-seed Minnesota doesn’t reach the Nation Championship game are Blackhawks prospects Ryan Greene and Drew Commesso with Boston University.
Commesso has been a rock for the Terriers down the stretch this season, leading them in net through the Hockey East tournament and through their region in the NCAA tournament leading up to the Frozen Four. He’s won his last nine starts for Boston with two shutout performances over that span of games. In the Hockey East and NCAA tournament combined, so far, Commesso has a .939 save-percentage and a 1.54 GAA.
Here’s two other 2023 NHL Draft prospects to watch for Blackhawks fans: Gavin Brindley with Michigan and Luke Middlestadt with Minnesota.
Brindley looks to be a late-first round prospect that has been having a tremendous season with Michigan, playing alongside Adam Fantilli. With 12 goals and 38 points in 40 NCAA games this season, he ranks ninth in the NCAA among Freshman in scoring and second among NHL Draft-eligible players in the NCAA in scoring,. only behind Fantilli.
Luke Middlestadt is the younger brother of Buffalo Sabres forward Casey Middlestadt and a 2023 draft-eligible defenseman. He’s likely to fall in the late-second to early-third round this summer, but Middlestadt has put together a solid Freshman season at Minnesota, the top program in the country. In 36 NCAA games this season he has three goals and 18 points, ranking tied for third in the country for undrafted U21 defensemen and leading all U18 NCAA defensemen in scoring.
Greg’s Notebook: Rockford IceHogs Get Reinforcements, European Playoffs Roll On
The Rockford IceHogs played their only game of the week in Canada as they wrapped up a two-game set with the Manitoba Moose. Arvid Soderblom got the start, and he didn’t make it out for the second period after getting torched for four goals on 18 shots. Leon Gawanke scored in the opening minute, and Alex Limgoges made it 2-0 just three minutes after the opening draw. Greg Meireles and Daniel Torgersson scored late to make it 4-0 before the first intermission. Jaxson Stauber took over to begin the second period but gave up a breakaway goal to Jansen Harkins 54 seconds into the frame. Luke Philp got the IceHogs on the board with a power-play goal four minutes later. The tally extended his point streak to five games, giving him a new AHL career-high 45 points. Defenseman Isaak Phillips cut the deficit to 5-2 with his fifth goal of the season before the second break. Limoges’ second goal of the night was the only scoring of the third period. Stauber was strong in relief, allowing two goals and 20 shots.
On Saturday, the IceHogs signed forward Kyle Maksimovich to an AHL contract and assigned him to the ECHL’s Indy Fuel. The 25-year-old had 14 goals and 29 points in 26 games for the University of Prince Edward Island.
Buddy Robinson was reassigned to Rockford the following day after a six-game stint with the Blackhawks. He has nine goals and 19 points in 45 AHL games this season.
Wednesday was a busy day in Rockford’s front office. First, Brett Seney was rewarded for his All-Star season with a new one-year, two-way contract from the Blackhawks worth $775,000. Next, Mike Hardman was reassigned to the IceHogs after eight games in Chicago. He has four goals and 16 points in 49 AHL games this season. Finally, Ludwinski was inked to an amateur tryout contract. It will be interesting to see if he makes his AHL debut at any point between now and the end of the season.
Rocco Grimaldi leads the team with 29 goals, 33 assists, and 62 points, with two goals and six points coming in his seven games with the IceHogs. Of the IceHogs who have been here all season, David Gust leads with 26 goals and 55 points. He and Seney are tied for the team lead in assists with 29. Jakub Galvas, an overlooked defensive prospect, leads the blueliners with 24 assists and 26 points. Phillips and Alec Regula are tied for the most goals among defensemen with five.
The Texas Stars and Milwaukee Admirals sit atop the Central Division with 81 points. The Moose are secure in third place with 77 points, followed by the Iowa Wild with 72. Rockford is in the fifth and final playoff spot with 69 points, six ahead of the Chicago Wolves. If the Calder Cup Playoffs started today, the Wild and IceHogs would meet in the best-of-three play-in series. The IceHogs return to the BMO Center Friday to host the Laval Rocket, the Montreal Canadiens farm team. They will make the hour-plus drive east to Rosemont to take on the Wolves on Saturday before returning home Sunday for a late-afternoon tilt with the Grand Rapids Griffins. None of these teams are currently in a playoff spot, so this is a chance for the IceHogs to improve their spot in the Central Division.
We will start our trek through Europe in Finland, where Antti Saarela and Rauman Lukko were knocked out of the Liiga playoffs by HIFK. Saarela had one goal in the six-game defeat. However, the sting of the defeat didn’t last long as the Blackhawks signed him to a two-year entry-level contract on Tuesday, kicking in next season. Drafted in the fourth round back in 2019, the 21-year-old forward has 32 goals and 73 points in 190 games in Finland’s top pro league.
In the KHL, Ilya Safonov and the Ak Bars Kazan have advanced to the Conference Finals against Avangard Omsk by beating Admiral Vladivostok in six games. The Blackhawks 2021 sixth-round pick had two goals in the series, including one in the 3-1 series-clinching victory. He has three goals and four points in 12 playoff games.
Meanwhile, Artur Kayumov’s season ended after Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was knocked out in seven games by CSKA Moscow. He had three assists in the series and finished his playoff run with a goal, five points, and 30 shots on goal in 12 games. The 25-year-old was in the final year of his KHL contract, so if he is ever going to North America, next season is the ideal time to do it. We shall see whether he is still in the Blackhawks’ plans.
Victor Stjernborg and the top-seeded Växjö Lakers received a scare in the SHL Kvartsfinal as they needed seven games to beat 10th-seed Lulea HF. The 19-year-old forward dressed in all seven games and picked up three assists while averaging around 11 minutes a night. Växjö will take on Frölunda HC in the semifinal round.
Speaking of the SHL semifinals, top 2023 draft target Leo Carlsson and Örebro HK will face Örebro HK in the other half of the bracket. The teenage sensation had five assists during the seven-game series win over Timrå IK.
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