Chicago Blackhawks Prospects Ready to Make an Impact in 2013-14 NHL Season
The Chicago Blackhawks will reload their roster with a few top prospects this season to fill the voids created by the offseason departures of veterans Dave Bolland, Viktor Stalberg and Michael Frolik.
One of the reasons why the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup last season was because of their incredible depth, particularly among the bottom-six forwards where recent draft picks such as Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw made a strong impact.
As the 2013-14 season approaches, Chicago has another wave of talented prospects to bring to the NHL level and establish some much-needed depth for what promises to be a grueling championship defense.
Let's take a look at a list of five prospects expected to impact the Blackhawks during the upcoming season.
Brandon Pirri, Center
As an exceptional playmaker with soft hands and a high hockey IQ, Brandon Pirri is arguably the Blackhawks' top prospect.
The 22-year-old center was the AHL's leading scorer for the 2012-13 season with 75 points (22 goals and 53 assists) in 76 games as the star of the Rockford IceHogs. In addition to his impressive scoring production, Pirri's improvement defensively was also noticeable last year.
The expectation is that Pirri will be one of the players competing for the No. 2 center role next season. Not only does he have the skill set needed to excel in this position, the Toronto native also has seven games of NHL experience under his belt.
In the event that Pirri replaces veteran Michal Handzus as the second-line center, Patrick Sharp would be able to remain in his natural left wing position, which is the ideal situation for Chicago.
He's a confident player with the puck on his stick and should be able to settle into a much larger role without many hiccups. It would be a giant surprise if Pirri fails to make the NHL roster as a second- or third-line center for the 2013-14 season.
Drew LeBlanc, Center
After spending five seasons at St. Cloud State of the WCHA (NCAA hockey), top prospect Drew LeBlanc has polished his skills to the point where competing for a second- or third-line center role on next year's Blackhawks team is the next step in the 24-year-old's development.
LeBlanc enjoyed his best collegiate season in 2012-13 by tallying 50 points (13 goals and 37 assists) in 42 games.
The most impressive parts of LeBlanc's skill set are his ability to excel at both ends of the ice and avoid mistakes with responsible decision-making. He's a smart player who can be trusted in almost every situation, including special teams.
His great vision and soft hands allow him to excel in a playmaking role and make the wingers around him more productive. LeBlanc isn't a phenomenal goal scorer, but he's not afraid to battle in front of the net to score the dirty goals.
He has an excellent chance to make the 2013-14 NHL roster.
Jeremy Morin, Left Wing
With Brandon Saad now a permanent NHL player, Jeremy Morin has become the Blackhawks' top left wing prospect.
The 22-year-old is capable of providing the Blackhawks with impressive speed and goal-scoring skills on the wings this season, which will help replace some of the skills that Viktor Stalberg gave the team before leaving for the Nashville Predators in free agency.
He's not a prototypical power forward, but Morin is able to bring a lot of toughness to the ice and isn't shy about fighting for possession of the puck along the boards.
As the chart below shows, Morin's production improved last season with the AHL's Rockford IceHogs:
With two full years of AHL experience, 15 games at the NHL level and good size, Morin is more than ready for a full-time role on the Blackhawks. He has the potential to be a valuable third- or fourth-line forward who will make a positive impact at both ends of the ice.
Jimmy Hayes, Right Wing
Jimmy Hayes is a physical winger who will bring size, toughness and improving scoring talents to Blackhawks training camp this fall.
The Boston native took a big step forward in his offensive development last season by almost doubling his scoring production from 2011-12.
The 23-year-old plays a typical power forward game and isn't afraid to deliver a huge hit or drop the gloves. As a strong skater who plays a physical style of hockey, Hayes could grow into a penalty-killing role next season, which would be ideal for Chicago because it lost veteran winger and top penalty killer Michael Frolik earlier in the summer.
Hayes is the top right-wing prospect in the Blackhawks organization and should be able to provide valuable truculence and scoring depth in the bottom-six forward group next season. He already has 41 games of NHL experience to build on.
Antti Raanta, Goaltender
The Blackhawks have a lot of goaltending depth below the NHL level, and the highlight of the group is newly signed prospect Antti Raanta.
The 24-year-old led Assat to a SM-liiga title last year after being rewarded for his exceptional regular-season performance (20-10-11 record and a .943 save percentage) with the league's MVP award.
Raanta is likely to play in the AHL next season because the Blackhawks already have two veterans in Corey Crawford and Nikolai Khabibulin on the roster. If he plays at a high level for Rockford this season, expect him to make a few spot starts at the NHL level when Crawford needs a rest or the team has a playoff spot wrapped up.
With two full and successful years of experience playing professionally in Finland, Raanta is definitely ready to make the transition to the NHL.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL columnist at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, the 2012 NHL playoffs and the 2013 NHL draft.