Future’s So Bright

After the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, the Kraken front office had to change lanes and immediately start focusing on building the next generation of Kraken through the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. We got our anticipated selection of Matty Beniers out of the University of Michigan in the first round, and 6 more ponies to put in the stable for future years.

I lived and worked in Chicago for most of my adult life, and covered the Blackhawks for a blog similar to this one. The time surrounding the amateur draft was always one of the absolute highlights of any year. Not because of the draft, but because of what came just after it. Seattle doesn’t have enough horses in the corral to pull this off just yet, but in future years you can expect to see this happening for the Kraken.

Prospect Camp

You may have heard a quote from Kraken GM Ron Francis over the course of the amateur draft where he talks about having a rookie camp. What he was discussing is bringing in the recent draft picks a week before the start of the Kraken’s full training camp, to get acquainted, get on the ice, check their fitness levels, meet the NHL roster players, and send them on their way to start their seasons. With the franchise being freshly wiped off and spanked to make sure it’s breathing, there are so few kids in the system that this is probably the best alternative for now. But hopefully in a few years the Kraken will start doing what other teams do.

In Chicago, about 2 weeks after the entry draft the Blackhawks would invite anyone in the system who wasn’t under contract to Prospect Camp. This is where those players, plus some unaffiliated free-agents, would gather at the Blackhawks’ practice facility on the west side for a week-long introduction to the world of professional hockey.

The week would consist of meetings to talk about their play, their current team and coach, and where they see themselves versus where the team sees them; fitness, flexibility, and strength testing; video coach review, to talk about their stride, their shot, and other aspects of their game; dry-land training sessions and coaching; nutrition consultation; and on-ice activities — including daily scrimmages.

Most years, the Blackhawks would invite 60 guys — 54 skaters and 6 goalies — divide them up into Red, White, and Black teams, and rotate them through the various tasks on the agenda. Every day of the week there was an ongoing round-robin tournament between the teams in the form of two-period, running clock scrimmages. The week would end with the 2nd and 3rd place teams facing off for the right to face the 1st place team in the championship game.

And in most cases, the scrimmages were open to the public. Nerdy fans like myself would print out the roster ahead of time, then sit up in the stands taking notes on the various players. It’s a pretty amazing environment to be in, the place is electrified with all the energy the young guys bring to the ice. The event got so big during the championship years that the ‘Hawks moved the opening day to the United Center. The best part: tickets were $5. Proceeds went to Blackhawks Charities, the team’s foundation.

Nirvana

This, for really devoted fans, is nirvana. These are young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed prospects, still raw and brimming with energy and a desire to prove themselves, going head-to-head with the guys against whom they will be competing for jobs down the line. There are future stars among them, and you can sense it.

Plus in this kind of an environment you can really see them shine. They are playing against their peers — not NHL-caliber players — so they have room to play their game and show the coaches what they can do, without having to worry about Jamie Oleksiak squashing them like a bug on the end boards.

I have to admit, part of the fun is seeing the future stars when they first land with the club. If it were happening in Seattle this year, you’d be able to see Matty Beniers take the ice before almost anyone outside of Ann Arbor. Wouldn’t that be a riot? So now is when I get to name-drop about just a few of the players I was able to see in action before they ever took the ice in a Blackhawks uniform, just to show you what’s possible.

Back in 2003 the big mystery in the stands was this mountain of a kid the ‘Hawks had grabbed in the 8th round (back when there was an 8th round). He was listed at 6’4″ and 255 lbs., but that wasn’t the biggest question mark — it was how to pronounce his friggin’ name. “by-FUGG-lee-en”? “BIFF-len”? “BYOOG-len”? Is the ‘g’ silent, or the ‘f’? Both? Neither? Once he took the ice everyone understood that you called Dustin Byfuglien whatever he told you to.

Duncan Keith: the first scrimmage I saw him in, I could see right away he was fast and a good playmaker. But I didn’t think he had the size he needed to become an NHL defenseman. He’s 8 games shy of 1,200 for his NHL career. This is why I did not have, and will never have, a future in scouting.

Corey Crawford: I wrote off Crow the first time I saw him. And the second. His glove hand was vulnerable, he had terrible rebound control, and his up-and-down speed was lacking. By his third go-round he was starting to show promise, and had a season under his belt in Norfolk, the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate at the time. Crawford was drafted in the summer of 2003. He didn’t get the starter’s job until 2010-11, but then went on to win two Stanley Cups with the club. That was when I learned the lesson about goalies’ development: don’t give up on the guys who are getting lit up at age 20. If they have the work ethic and mental stamina, they can still make it. Watch how their fundamentals progress, and if they make strides year over year, be patient.

Kevin Hayes: After the Blackhawks drafted Kevin, they went out and acquired his older brother Jimmy from Toronto. Standing next to each other at prospect camp they looked like giants compared to most of the other attendees. Turns out Kevin was the talented one, Jimmy was the bottom-six workhorse. Jimmy struggled to stay in the lineup, and Kevin saw no future for himself with the Blackhawks (who had Kane, Toews, Hossa, Saad, Shaw, Versteeg, Teravainen, and Sharp at the time), so he waited out his eligibility period and eventually signed with the Rangers.

Teuvo Teravainen: this kid was considered a God (by the fans at least) when he was first drafted; but you’ll quickly find that the vast majority of players come nowhere close to the hype they get during the draft. This was one of those cases. Small, and not as fast as he needed to be to get around that liability. He has settled into a decent NHL career, but he’s no Martin St. Louis, which was the comparison at the time.

Of course there are the disappointments. Mikhail Yakubov, Pavel Vorobyov, Adam Munro, Ty Jones, Kyle Beach, Mark McNeill. Heard of them? No, you haven’t — those were all first round picks of the Blackhawks who never were able to make it stick in the NHL. Then there are the pleasant surprises — Troy Brouwer (7th round), Vinny Hinostroza (6th), Andrew Shaw (5th), and Marcus Kruger (5th).

Occasionally a free-agent invitee will do so well in prospect camp that they get signed to an entry-level contract. Back in 2016 a 19-year-old kid by the name of Alexandre Fortin got invited to prospect camp, went with the rookie team to the prospect tournament, and did so well that he got invited to the full Blackhawks camp in September. After two weeks holding his own with the big boys the ‘Hawks signed him to a 3-year deal. Not every year has a diamond in the rough, but when you do get to see one, it’s a blast, and it’s usually apparent right away.

Prospect Tournament

The other fun thing that some teams do surrounding their prospects is tournament play. For the Blackhawks, it was the Traverse City Tournament, where the Blackhawks would send a full 20-man roster for a week-long tournament against prospects from other clubs.

I didn’t realize, but the tournament had expanded by the last time they held it in 2019: eight clubs sent players, including the Leafs, Wings, Rangers, Blue Jackets, Wild, Stars, and Blues. They split it into two four-team divisions for round-robin play, then a single-elimination tournament to crown a champion.

There is a West Coast version as well — the Anaheim Rookie Face-Off Tournament, which of late has featured prospect squads from the Ducks, Kings, Sharks, Coyotes, and Golden Knights. Expect Seattle to latch on to this once there are enough “rookies” to send, probably about 4 or 5 years down the road. With luck by that time it will even be live streamed.

Warn Your Spouse

So training camp starts in September, then the regular season gets underway in October. That goes through until April, when the playoffs start. Normally (as in, pre-COVID) the playoffs end in early- to mid-June; then comes the entry draft, then free agency opens July 1. Prospect camp for many clubs falls into the mid- to late-July range; you have August off, then training camp starts in September.

So if you’re as into this as I am, warn your spouse; hockey is about to become an 11-month activity for you starting very soon. Mine took an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” stance years ago — she’ll be at Prospect Camp with me. Hope to see you there too!

Author: Tim Currell

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