In June of 2011, the Blackhawks used their two first-round draft picks to select forwards Mark McNeill and Phil Danault. McNeill finally made it to the NHL — for exactly one game — nearly five years later, in January of 2016. Danault played two games in the 2014-15 season before finally entrenching himself in the NHL this past season.
In the meantime, Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw — picked in the second and fifth rounds of that same 2011 draft — have won two Stanley Cups in Chicago and then earned lengthy and lucrative NHL contracts with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens.
So this whole prospect thing isn’t an exact science.
Not everybody can be a Saad or a Shaw, each of whom reached the NHL mere months after being drafted. For every meteoric rise, there are countless slow burns — guys who spend years on the cusp of the NHL without ever fully breaking through. Vinnie Hinostroza will wrap up his fifth Hawks prospect camp on Friday. Ryan Hartman will finish his fourth. For Nick Schmaltz and Dylan Sikura, it’s their third.
It’s time to find out if they’re NHL ready.
The Hawks have holes to fill up front this season — lots of them. Andrew Ladd, Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen, Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann are all gone. It’s why Schmaltz decided to turn pro. It’s why Hartman thinks he has a real chance to start the season in the NHL. It’s why Hinostroza has been extra focused this camp. There are jobs to be had. And if the Hawks are wise, they’ll give the kids the first crack at them.
It’s time to find out if Hartman can be the do-it-all agitator that Shaw was. It’s time to find out if Schmaltz and Tyler Motte can bring their dynamic playmaking to the NHL level. It’s time to find out if the 5-9 Hinostroza can withstand the punishment he’s going to take around the net. It’s time to find out what you really have in Kyle Baun and Tanner Kero. It’s time to find out who’s going to be the next part of the core.
Because here’s what we know for sure: It’s not going to be Jordin Tootoo, a 33-year-old veteran known more for his hard fists than his soft hands. It’s probably not going to be Brandon Mashinter, a soon-to-be 28-year-old journeyman who had a solid but hardly awe-inspiring run with the Hawks last season. And it’s not going to be a cheap leftover from the July 1 free-agency frenzy (Kris Versteeg, anyone?).
But it might be Schmaltz or Motte. It might be Hartman or Hinostroza. It might even be McNeill, who is still without a contract but is likely to be re-signed. But the only way to find out for sure is to play them. Not just a game here or there, not just six minutes a night — but actually play them. It might leave Joel Quenneville tearing out his mustache in frustration some nights, but he and Stan Bowman need to give the Hawks’ best young prospects extended auditions at the NHL level, to let them make mistakes and learn from them.
With their core players still locked up and in their prime, and with Brian Campbell and Michal Kempny bolstering the defense, the Hawks enter the 2016-17 season as true Stanley Cup contenders again. But they won’t do anything with two-and-a-half lines. And they won’t have the salary-cap space to go on a spending spree at the trade deadline.
Even in the Central Division, even with Nashville getting better with P.K. Subban and Minnesota getting better with new coach Bruce Boudreau, a playoff spot seems inevitable for the Hawks. So the smart thing to do is to spend the months leading up to April figuring out who’s the next Teravainen, and who’s the next Jeremy Morin; who’s the next Saad, and who’s the next Brandon Pirri; who’s the next Marcus Kruger, and who’s the next Drew LeBlanc. And the only way to do that is to play them, and see what happens — for better or for worse.
Because while we don’t know yet if the Hawks’ kids are all right, we do know they’re all they’ve got.