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The Chicago Blackhawks will drop the puck on the 2023-24 in Pittsburgh tomorrow night. This will be a different kind of year than what we went through last season. There will be more players here that will affect the long-term success of the franchise. The Blackhawks’ prospect pool is one of the top groups in the entire NHL, and there is a ton of excitement about the future. Of course, Connor Bedard is the biggest reason for the buzz and optimism surrounding this team, but a slew of talented young players are making their way through the pipeline.
Today, I will look at five of the most intriguing prospects heading into the 2023-24 hockey season. They aren’t necessarily part of the “top prospects” group, but they have an interesting story to tell over the next several months.
Frank Nazar – University of Michigan (NCAA)
There was a lot of excitement when the Blackhawks selected Nazar 13th overall at the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. We were all happy to see a fast, offensively skilled player added to the mix. However, the post-draft buzz was killed when the young forward needed surgery to repair an offseason lower-body injury. The recovery process kept him out of the lineup until early February. Nazar scored a goal in his second game back and finished his 13 contests with two goals and seven points.
“Not playing hockey for half a year, and then coming in and playing the playoffs, it’s pretty hard to get into game pace,” Nazar told Daily Faceoff. “But that’s a challenge I wanted to do. I could have sat out the rest of the year and just become stronger. But I wanted to come back, and I wanted to help with the Frozen Four push.”
Nazar is entering his first full season with the Wolverines completely healthy. He led all players with eight points in four games at the World Junior Summer Showcase in early August. He was one of the most dangerous players on the ice and should have Michigan and Blackhawks fans excited about what he can do this season.
It’s a shame we didn’t get to see more of the Nazar with last year’s team that included Adam Fantilli and Luke Hughes, who are both now in the NHL. Despite losing a lot of top talent, the season’s Wolverines squad is still loaded and is ranked fifth in the preseason polls. Nazar is one of 10 players on the roster who have already been drafted by an NHL team. A full season with a top program will be fun to watch.
Ilya Safonov – Ak Bars Kazan (KHL)
We give former general manager Stan Bowman a lot of grief, and rightfully so, but his last two draft classes could be the best of his tenure in Chicago. One of those picks, in the sixth round of the 2021 draft, has been overlooked. Safonov had a breakout season in the KHL and is looking to build off it.
The 22-year-old center had 19 goals and 37 points in 64 games for Ak Bars Kazan, setting new career highs in all three categories. He even served as team captain while Alexander Radulov was injured. Safonov saw a major increase in ice time as the season went on, which is very hard to do for young players in the KHL.
The 2023-24 season got off to a slow start for Safonov. He has just one goal in his first 10 games but has picked it up of late with two goals and four points in his last five contests. He brings something to the table that most of the top prospects lack: size. At 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, he would take up a lot of space in the middle of the ice. In addition to his big frame, he brings a physical game and can score a lot of goals from close. He also has good vision and can make the tough pass.
Safonov told Scott Powers of The Athletic that his dream is to play in the NHL for the Blackhawks.
“I keep it in my mind all the time that one day I’d like to hit the ice for the Chicago Blackhawks,” he said. “I know what I have to improve to come and impress everybody with what I can show. It’s every day working, and that’s what I’m thinking about.”
Safonov’s KHL contract runs through the end of the 2024-25 season, so his arrival fits the timeline of the Blackhawks looking to compete. Hopefully, he can start producing more consistently and look more like the player we saw last season.
Antti Saarela – Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
Even though Davidson didn’t draft Saarela, he certainly fits the mold of what the Blackhawks’ general manager has been building his team with. The 22-year-old forward’s greatest attribute is his speed.
“He’s a world-class skater,” director of player development Mark Eaton told The Athletic last March. “His speed is the differentiator for him. He’s had four years over in the Finnish pro league now, and he’s done a great job of honing his speed and learning how to use it effectively. Physically, you can grow a lot in four years as well. He’s become a lot stronger. He’s stronger on pucks and stronger on his skates. And when he doesn’t have the puck, he can knock guys, too, so he’s a tough guy to play against.”
Since being selected in the fourth round (123rd overall) of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, Saarela has played professionally in his native Finland. He has dealt with some injuries the last two seasons but has been effective when healthy. In 78 Liiga games combined for Ilves and Lukko, he has 19 goals and 37 points over the previous two campaigns. He had two goals in six playoff games for Lukko last spring.
Saarela will head to Rockford after training camp and use the season to adjust to the smaller ice and faster speed of the North American game. He will be an interesting player to track throughout the season to see how much he progresses from the fall to the spring.
Adam Gajan – Green Bay Gamblers (USHL)
The Blackhawks had three second-round picks at the most recent draft. The first of those picks (35th overall) was used on Gajan. This selection was a bit of a surprise, considering the Blackhawks are high on top goaltending prospect Drew Commesso. Not many predicted the team would look for another young netminder with this pick.
Gajan spent most of the 2022-23 season with the Chippewa Steel of the North American Hockey League (NAHL), where he went 19-12-1 with a 2.57 goals-against average (GAA) and .917 save percentage (SV%). The NAHL is a second-tier junior league, below the United States Hockey League (USHL), but it has a long track record of producing NHL goaltenders. Connor Hellebuyck, Ben Bishop, Craig Anderson, Jack Campbell, and Collin Delia are among those who have played in the NAHL.
It was at the World Junior Championship where Gajan turned heads. He went 2-2-0 in his four tournament games for Slovakia, posted a 2.40 GAA, .936 SV%, and had one shutout. He was named the Best Goaltender of the tournament, an honor he shares with current Blackhawks’ netminder Petr Mrazek, who won the award in 2012.
“We loved his athleticism, ability to play the puck, big game player, was great for Slovakia in the World Juniors, was excellent everywhere he played this year,” Davidson said at the draft. “Loved his play, but it’s the athleticism that stood out to us.”
Gajan has moved up to the USHL this season, and his first five games for the Green Bay Gamblers have not been stellar. He is 3-2-0 with a 3.38 GAA and .886 SV%. At just 19, there is nothing but time for him to develop. It will be interesting to watch him all season to see why the Blackhawks took him so high with Commesso waiting in the wings.
Roman Kantserov – Metallurg Magnitogorsk (KHL)
The second of those previously mentioned three second-round picks (44th overall) was used on Kantserov, a 5-foot-9 right wing. He made this list because he was an under-the-radar pick, and there wasn’t a lot known about him at the time of the draft. The truth is, he is a very talented forward who can find the back of the net with regularity.
“He can flat out shoot it,” said Blackhawks director of amateur scouting Mike Doneghey shortly after the draft. “He’s accurate, quick release; skating’s really good and powerful. He’s got a thick body on him, plays inside.”
Kantserov has spent the last two seasons in the MHL, Russia’s equivalent to the AHL. In 100 games, he has 56 goals and 111 points. He has been promoted to the KHL for the start of this season and has a goal and three assists in 16 games. As typical for young KHL players, he has not been given a ton of ice time to start the season.
When you watch video of Kantserov, you can see that he fits the Davidson mode. He’s got great speed along with soft hands and elite-level creativity, as you can see with his latest assist.
If Kantserov reaches his potential, he could be another offensive weapon for the Blackhawks down the road. He can both shoot and create plays and will cause defensive matchup nightmares.
It is going to be a much better year for Blackhawks fans. There is a renewed sense of optimism in the club. Nobody will be cringing when the team wins this season, and there will be more than just waiting for the trade deadline. While some exciting young players are already in Chicago, many more are on their way, and we will be keeping tabs on all of them for you.
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