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By Sean Ambrosia
Chicago Blackhawks Writer
For the better part of the past decade, the Chicago Blackhawks have established themselves as a salary-cap era dynasty by building around a consistent core of all-star talent. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Brent Seabrook have all been major pieces of a team that has won 3 of the past 7 Stanley Cups. But cap considerations, caused largely by the contracts that Hawks have given to these stars, have forced the team to fill out the back end of their ’16-17 roster with unproven young talent. This summer, Chicago has lost Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teräväinen, Bryan Bickell, and Andrew Ladd, all of whom played important roles on cup winning squads with the franchise, to trades and free agency. The reacquisition of 2010 Cap winner Brian Campbell will help with defensive depth, but beyond the 37 year-old blueliner the Hawks haven’t really made a major move to replace their departing role players. GM Stan Bowman has shown confidence in the NHL readiness of his prospects, and if the Hawks are going to make a serious run at their 4th Cup in 8 years, they’ll need several of those prospects to step into impact roles and prove him right. Here are 4 of those NHL ready prospects who have the best chance of being significant pieces on the ’16-17 Blackhawks:
Nick Schmaltz– FWD
The Hawks’ 2014 first round pick signed a 3-year entry level deal in June, forgoing his junior year at the University of North Dakota, whom he lead to a national championship last season, to go pro. Schmaltz is widely considered the best prospect in the Hawks system, and in February was ranked the 36th best NHL prospect by TSN. Schmaltz impressed scouts with his performance for Team USA during the World Juniors last season. Like fellow UND alum turned Chicago Blackhawk, Jonathan Toews, Schmaltz is a Centerman who plays both side of the puck with grit, and shows the potential to develop into one of the team’s leaders. Known for his versatility as a forward, Schmaltz can also play on either wing as needed.
If Joel Quenneville decides to pair Marian Hossa with Marcus Kruger on the third line, as he experimented with at the end of last season, Schmaltz might be asked to fill a major hole next to Jonathan Toews on the first line. If not, Schmaltz is likely to make the team as a 3rd or 4th liner to start the year.
Tyler Motte– FWD
Like Schmaltz, Tyler Motte signed an entry-level contract with the Hawks this summer, rather than returning to the NCAA for his Senior year. The University of Michigan Wolverine was the 121st pick in the 2013 NHL draft, and his first two seasons in Ann Arbor were lackluster. Last year however, Motte exploded on to the scene putting up 56 points in 38 games, good for 3rd in the nation (behind his two Michigan linemates). His efforts last season won him a spot as a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the nation’s best college hockey player. Motte also played briefly for the AHL Rockford IceHogs on an amateur try-out deal last season, posting up 5 points in 5 games. In addition to his point production, Motte’s defensive game is one of the best among Hawks forward prospects. In 2015, he lead all NCAA forwards in shot-blocks with 70.
If Motte starts the season in the NHL, the 5’9″, 190 lb winger would likely slot into the bottom 6. Despite his size howver, Motte eventually projects to crack the top 6, possibly replacing Richard Panik on the Toews line.
Ville Pokka– D
The Finnish D-man was a piece in the 2014 trade that sent Nick Leddy to the New York Islanders. The 24 year-old Pokka is a former 2nd round pick and an alum of the top Finnish Professional League. Pokka will represent his country in the World Cup of Hockey this fall, making him one of 12 Hawks players selected to World Cup rosters. Pokka has been described by scouts as an offensive-minded Defenseman with an excellent hockey sense who excels at moving the puck in transition. His talent for positioning and puck handling will fit very well with what Joel Quenneville wants out of D-core.
Pokka has spent the past two season in the AHL with Rockford, but the Hawks’ depth issues may afford him the chance to play at the NHL level next season. However, with 4 of the defensive spots set going into the season, Ville will be competing for the remaining two starting slots with 3 or 4 of his teammates including Trevor van Riemsdyk, Victor Svedburg, and the newly acquired Michal Kempany.
Ryan Hartman– FWD
The Hawks have been hoping for their 2013 first round pick to break out for the past couple of seasons. The Chicago-area native has spent most of the past 2 years in the AHL, playing a grand total of 8 NHL games since he debuted in February of 2015. In Rockford, Hartman has scored 79 points in 139 games. Hartman is also known as one of the most penalized players in the AHL, racking up 257 minutes over the course of his time in Rockford. Hartman also has international experience; he won a gold medal as a member of Team USA at the 2013 World Juniors. Last August, ESPN ranked Hartman as the 66th best NHL prospect.
The Hawks are hoping that Hartman, who plays a gritty, versatile game, will develop into a top-6 version of Andrew Shaw. If Hartman makes the squad out of camp, Coach Q would probably to fit into the 3rd of 4th line to start the year.