The Chicago Blackhawks have been stockpiling talented youngsters over the past few seasons. Several prospects from Rockford will be looking to make the leap to a spot on the 'Hawks roster this fall.
With some higher-priced contracts being moved or expiring, it looks like general manager Stan Bowman is ready to move some of the young talent into roles on next season's squad. Depending on how active Chicago is in free agency, we could see several players in training camp looking to win jobs.
Here are a few of the players to keep an eye on as the roster begins to take shape. Some will be familiar, having had a cup of coffee with the 'Hawks in previous seasons. All these kids will be looking to stick with Chicago in the 2013-14 campaign.
Ben Smith can look forward to having his name on the Stanley Cup, having taken the ice for Game 3 when Marian Hossa was unable to skate. Smith has been knocking on the door for a permanent roster spot. His summer priority—stay healthy.
Smith could well have made this team in each of the last two seasons. However, a concussion suffered in the last preseason game on the 2011-12 campaign and a hand injury in Rockford back in January sidetracked the former Boston College standout.
It is going to be hard to keep Smith off the roster come fall. Chicago is going to need his tenacity in the lineup. He's a versatile skater who can camp out at the net. He'll help out on the penalty kill, and he can win draws if needed.
Smith's contract will be a one-way deal as of next season, suggesting that the Blackhawks plan on him being in Chicago. If healthy, he'll have no problem making the team in camp.
Brandon Pirri, the 'Hawks second-round pick in 2009, has gotten better in each of his three seasons in Rockford since leaving RPI after his freshman year. He capped off the 2012-13 regular season as the AHL's leading scorer.
With 75 points (22 goals, 53 assists) in 76 games, Pirri has to merit consideration for the ever-vacant second-line center position. He's no Dave Bolland or even Marcus Kruger defensively, but he has improved in his own zone while in Rockford.
At 22, Pirri has put himself into a position to compete to stay in Chicago full-time in 2013-14. If free agency doesn't yield a veteran to center the second line, look for Pirri to get a long look.
Jeremy Morin had what was his breakout season as a pro with Rockford. He led the IceHogs with 30 goals and had 58 points. The player who was a piece of the trade that sent Dustin Byfuglien and other 2010 champs to what's now the Winnipeg organization has had quite a journey to get to this point.
Morin had an impressive nine-game stint with Chicago back in 2010-11 and soon after suffered a concussion in Rockford that kept him on the shelf for over a year. Morin spent the second half of 2011-12 shaking out the cobwebs but returned strong with Rockford last season.
Morin added some grit to go with his hands over the course of the year. He has shown no further effects from head-related issues and has played his way into possible full-time work with the 'Hawks.
The only question for Morin is the number that adorns his sweater. Morin has had to yield numbers 27 (Johnny Oduya) and 26 (Michal Handzus) to veteran skaters. He would up with number 11 in his most recent appearances with Chicago.
Look for Morin to bid for a permanent sweater number in training camp.
With a deep rotation on the back end, there may not be any advancement for Chicago's defensive prospects. Depending on how free agency plays out, the 'Hawks may go with a younger skater as a sixth or seventh defenseman.
If that happens, expect to see Ryan Stanton over higher-regarded prospects like Dylan Olsen and Adam Clendening. Those players aren't ready quite yet, and Stanton, a free-agent signee in 2010, is the better fit.
Stanton has developed into a solid, rugged defender. At 6'2" and 196 pounds, he has the size to handle NHL forwards. He is by far the most advanced defensive prospect in the system right now despite Clendening's scoring potential and Olsen's first-round pedigree.
Jimmy Hayes has had some success in short doses with the 'Hawks, including nine points in 31 games in 2011-12. Chicago experimented with the 6'6" Hayes at center in Rockford last year. He struggled at times but had a huge second half to finish 2012-13 with 25 goals and 20 helpers.
Hayes is not a natural banger, but he did improve his skating last summer. I'd like to see Hayes skate top-line minutes with the IceHogs be it at center or wing. He has shown he can hold his own at the NHL level, though.
Hayes could certainly win a spot on the roster with a solid showing in training camp.
...Drew LeBlanc? He is currently a restricted free agent, though it seems that Stan Bowman will get him re-signed. He will compete with Pirri for the second-line center spot.
...Kyle Beach? He wasn't terrible in Rockford (16 goals, 10 assists), but his contract is up and Bowman will have to decide if the 11th overall pick in the 2008 draft is worth another spin on the dance floor.
...Adam Clendening? Great rookie campaign. Now he needs to learn to defend.
...Dylan Olsen? Last year was one the big defenseman would like to forget. He's capable of having a bounce-back season, though.
Of course, you can expect at least one player to upset the balance by working hard over the summer and surprising people in camp. We will just have to wait and see how the offseason develops.