The Chicago Blackhawks will challenge to be the best in the Western Conference this season, that much we know. What's scary to think about is how Stan Bowman's cupboard is stocked full of talent for the Hawks' future.
As most teams should, the Hawks are being very careful with the development of their prospects. Some of these young men could be starters on other NHL teams, but in the Hawks system they are working their way up.
There are up to 20 key players in the system that have a future in hockey. Narrowing the list a bit, here are 12 players in the organization that may have the best shot to break into the league wearing red, white and black.
After training camp, nobody should be surprised to hear how well Brandon Saad is doing against kids his own age.
Since heading back to the Saginaw Spirit in the Ontario Hockey League, Saad has 13 points and has buried eight goals in five games.
The feel good story of training camp is arguably the most NHL-ready prospect the Hawks have. Today he turns 19 and you may see this 2011 second-round pick as a regular in a Blackhawk uniform next season.
Andrew Brunette is on a one year stint in Chicago. If the Hawks choose not to resign the 38-year-old winger, Saad may be counted on to be a staple in the Hawks line-up in 2012-2013.
Ben Smith is still young and would be considered a rookie in the NHL and therefore is still considered a prospect with the Blackhawks.
After six regular season games with the Hawks in 2010-2011, Smith appeared in all seven of the Blackhawks' first round playoff games against the Vancouver Canucks and will always be remembered for his overtime goal in Game 6.
Smith has a big heart and plays hard. It is too bad he got hurt in a preseason game against the Detroit Red Wings as it looked like he had a roster spot coming his way.
If Viktor Stalberg is inconsistent, which would hardly be a surprise, you may see the Westminster School product moved up from Rockford.
The other thing to consider is Smith's hustle and ability to get to the net, but there is not much about his game that distinguishes him from other players. He may be a bargaining chip come the trade deadline.
The young man can skate, play center or wing, and had a dynamic training camp. Brandon Pirri is back in Rockford for his second full season with the Ice Dogs, and for now that is the best place for the 20-year-old.
He played one game with Chicago last season and could be recalled if there is an injury problem or if the Hawks decide Marcus Kruger needs some fine tuning in the AHL.
For the time being, the Hawks are rolling through four lines and Pirri will most likely have a full year to develop. He has time and hopefully Stan Bowman can solve the Rostislav Olesz crisis this year to make room for players like Pirri.
Another young Blackhawk prospect who came a long way this year was Dylan Olsen. Dale Tallon's first round pick in the 2009 draft will have his first full year as a pro in Rockford this season.
Olsen played 42 games in Rockford last year after leaving Minnesota-Duluth in the middle of the season. Duluth went on to win the NCAA Championship. Oops.
Olsen is a stay-at-home defenseman with good size and a balanced game. He will be a solid NHL player in due time.
With Sean O'Donnell's one-year deal up after this season, he may retire or the Hawks may let him walk. That may enable Olsen to step in as a member of the Hawks' defensive corps for the 2012-2013 season.
Jeremy Morin is finally back from a concussion that many thought could alter the trajectory of his bright future.
The jury is still out and we'll see if symptoms return.
After missing training camp, Morin has played five games for Rockford this season and has potted two goals.
Morin still possesses a quick release, skates well, but his decision making needs time to develop. Although he played nine games on a depleted Chicago roster last year, I would not be surprised if Morin is not called up at all this season.
A full season in Rockford will help his game and it would be unwise to throw him into the physicality of the NHL after coming off his head injury.
Many, myself included, thought it was time for the Hawks to sever ties with Kyle Beach. Well, guess who is leading the Rockford Ice Hogs in scoring this season?
Kyle Beach is off to a good start with three goals and three assists in his first seven games. This is good news for Chicago fans, but there are still a lot of question marks surrounding Beach.
He comes with baggage, has a volatile personality, yet was as soft and complacent as one could be in training camp.
If he can continue to produce and have a 30-plus goal season in Rockford, it will only help his confidence.
I am sure Stan Bowman and company are still unsure as to what to do with Beach. If he plays as early as next season with the Hawks, it will be a $1.1 million dollar cap hit under his current contract. If the Hawks are willing to part ways with the likes of Jamal Mayers next season, then maybe...and that is one huge "maybe."
There are a lot of "ifs" with Beach, which seems to always be the case. Let's hope he can continue to have a good season.
The older of the Hayes brothers, Jimmy Hayes had a solid training camp for the Hawks. Hayes was not predicted to make the big club this year, but there is plenty of upside to his game.
He still needs to fill out a little bit. At 6'5", he is 210 pounds, but skates well and has a good shot. Hayes played at Boston College for three seasons before joining Rockford in March of last season.
Currently, Hayes plays for the Ice Hogs and has posted three assists in his first five games in Rockford.
There is a good chance Hayes is a year or two away from a being a regular in the NHL. Hopefully, Hayes will adapt well to his first year of professional hockey.
The younger brother of Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes was the Hawks first round pick in 2010.
Rumored to be the better prospect of the two, Kevin is off to a hot start in his sophomore campaign at Boston College. In the Eagles' first six games he has two goals and five assists.
Similar to his brother, Kevin is big at 6'3" and 205 pounds, is crafty with the puck and has a nose for the net. Scouts have indicated that he needs to improve his skating, but he will be an NHL player in the not so distant future.
Although the Hawks have an arsenal of wingers in their system, Kevin Hayes will make an impact.
Adam Clendening is one of, if not the best defenseman in Hockey East this season. Clendening had 26 points in 39 games for Boston University last season and has four assists in four games for the Terriers thus far in 2011-2012.
A puck moving asset, Stan Bowman may have another second round steal with this player. There is a solid chance that he will be part of the U.S. World Junior Team come holiday time.
He needs some work and will ultimately spend time in Rockford. If the Hawks lose Nicklas Hjalmarsson to free agency following the 2013-2014 season, or if the Hawks do not to resign Steve Montador a year later, that could be the time for Clendening to be a regular fixture on the Blackhawks' blue line.
Mark McNeil is physically built for the NHL and that is a big reason the Hawks took him with their first round pick in June of 2011.
At 18, McNeil is 6'2" and a bulky 210 pounds. Right handed in the face-off dot, McNeil is a prototype two-way center. He may never be a super scorer, but in a league where centers are critical, McNeil will play a role in the Hawks' future.
It is hard to tell when or where, but as more players shift around on the Hawks' roster in coming years, McNeil could find himself as the Hawks' fourth line center in two or three years.
When the Blackhawks acquired Alexander Salak in the summer of 2011, he was ready to come in and compete for an NHL job. The reality is that the Hawks made the right choice employing Ray Emery as their backup to Corey Crawford.
Still, Salak has a bright future ahead of him in the Chicago organization. There is a good chance this will be Emery's one and only season with the Hawks.
When the door opens for the back-up job, it will be Salak's to lose in 2012-2013. A full year of being the main man in Rockford will only improve his game.
Under contract at a modest $612K for the next two years, he could be a very thrifty option as the Hawks' second man in goal next season.
Shawn Lalonde is coming off of his first full season as a professional and registered 32 points in 73 games with Rockford last year.
Like a lot of defenseman, Lalonde may take a while to blossom. He may not be the best skater, but at 21 years old can still be a decent fourth or fifth defenseman in the NHL. His lateral movement is good and he plays his angles well.
Lalonde will benefit from another full AHL season and if he continues to grow as a professional, he could make it.
The Blackhawks blue line is crowded and if Lalonde is not in the Hawks' immediate plans, he could catch the eye of another suitor in a potential deal.