When young players get drafted or signed by the Chicago Blackhawks, it is almost always considered a big honor.
The Blackhawks have one of the most talented rosters and deepest organizations in the NHL. They don't just bring players aboard so they can have another body to fill out the uniform.
General manager Stan Bowman is looking for high quality, and he has a proven track record.
But after players like Ryan Hartman (2013 first-round draft pick) and Nick Schmaltz (this year's first-round selection) get done realizing what a compliment they have received, the good times start to fade away. Chicago's talented roster cuts two ways.
It virtually ensures that the Blackhawks are going to be a strong playoff team with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations for years, but it also means it's very difficult for young players to win key roster spots on the big club.
The question of whether young players in the Blackhawks organization have a legitimate chance to make the team or whether they will end up as trade bait has to be asked.
Players like Ben Smith, Brandon Pirri, Stephen Johns, Adam Clendening, Mark McNeill and Jeremy Morin have been in the team's plans for quite a while. Smith knocked down the door last year as he played 75 games and was impressive in the postseason with four goals and two assists.
However, Pirri was traded last year to Florida while Johns, Clendening, McNeill, Morin and others still have work to do before they earn a spot with the varsity.
Brandon Saad is one of the few players who has been able assert himself from the start. Saad was a second-round draft pick in 2011 and already has two full seasons under his belt.
Take a good look at Saad. He is a solidly built player at 6'1" and 202 pounds who is an exceptional skater. He plays with a strong, physical presence and is not afraid to battle in the corners or the dirty areas of the ice. He also has excellent instincts when he has the puck, and he is coming off a productive season in which he recorded 19 goals and 28 assists.
It's quite difficult to find weaknesses in his game, and in playing so effectively, he has set the bar quite high for those who are trying to crack the Blackhawks roster.
The Blackhawks are holding their annual prospect camp this week and the hope is that it will give the team an idea of how their young players have developed and where they stand in the organization.
Bowman told Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times that a standout player can find a way to impress the decision-makers and force them into making a change on the roster. It doesn't happen often.
We’ve seen it, though, with [Andrew] Shaw and Saad—They’ve certainly pushed through from being rookies and inexperienced players to being guys the coaches are comfortable with and can rely on. It’s a progression. It takes time. We’re fortunate we don’t have to rush guys into spots where they may not be prepared. But every year, we’ve seen one or two young guys come in.
Reading between the lines, it seems doubtful that a young player will crack the roster in 2014-15 and win a spot on the team's top four lines or top three pairs of defensemen.
Teuvo Teravainen is at the top of the food chain of the Blackhawks' next generation. The gifted Finnish center had a chance to play in three games towards the end of the regular season and while there was no doubt about his skill level, he needs to get stronger physically and raise his competitive level.
Since Teravainen, the team's top pick in the 2012 draft, still has much to prove, it will make it tougher for any youngster, especially a forward, to make the team.
Defensemen like Johns and Clendening would appear to have a better chance of cracking the roster when the Blackhawks go to training camp. However, it would take a consistent and impressive showing from one or both of them to gain approval from head coach Joel Quenneville.
The Blackhawks head coach has a preference for veterans who are less likely to make mistakes than talented youngsters who may have high ceilings but are unproven. Quenneville often bristles when inexperienced players go through their growing pains in game competition.
The 2014-15 season figures to be a critical one for the Blackhawks. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane signed long contract extensions earlier this month, but the Blackhawks don't start absorbing the salary-cap hit of those deals until the 2015-16 season. That means the Blackhawks will almost certainly be forced to part with some of their other high-priced talent prior to the 2015-16 season.
So you can be sure the Blackhawks will "go for it" in the coming season. They won the Stanley Cup two years ago and were an overtime goal away from playing for the vaunted trophy this year.
They don't want to let another opportunity slip through their grasp. They are unlikely to take on any rookies this year unless Bowman, Quenneville and the other coaches agree that they have a phenom to help them get there.
If those talented young players are not ready in the Blackhawks' eyes, other organizations may just come calling with trade offers prior to the trade deadline next season. Don't expect Bowman to move Teravainen, but nearly every other youngster could be in play.
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