Blackhawks prospect updates: Ryder Rolston brings speed to Rockford while Landon Slaggert stays in college

Rolston and Slaggert, two Hawks forward prospects who finished their junior years at Notre Dame, made different decisions about when to turn pro. Plus, updates on Antti Saarela, Ilya Safonov, Jake Wise and Paul Ludwinski.

SHARE Blackhawks prospect updates: Ryder Rolston brings speed to Rockford while Landon Slaggert stays in college
Ryder Rolston at Notre Dame.

Ryder Rolston left Notre Dame after his junior season to sign with the Blackhawks this spring.

Robert Franklin/AP file photo

SEATTLE — When Blackhawks forward prospect Ryder Rolston broke his collarbone at the end of January while playing for Notre Dame, it was reported that he would miss the rest of the season.

Well, not so fast. Rolston, 21, did miss the rest of the college season, but after forgoing his final year of NCAA eligibility to sign with the Hawks in March, he has fully recovered. He might make a few appearances for Rockford during the last stretch of the AHL season.

Plus, his injury had no effect on his most valuable asset: his legs. His skating ability is by far the most highly touted attribute in his repertoire.

“My biggest strong suit as a player has been my speed,” Rolston said. “That has been the difference-maker for me. But I like to shoot the puck, too. My shot’s an asset that flies under the radar. For me right now, being able to adjust those two things to the pro level is going to be my main focus, but I’m confident going into this next chapter.”

Hawks assistant general manager Mark Eaton offered a similar assessment.

“His game is sheer speed,” Eaton said. “He’s a pretty dynamic skater. The progression has been learning how to use that speed all over the ice.

“When he has the puck [or] when he doesn’t have the puck, how can he change gears and be more of an offensive threat consistently? But also [he uses] that speed to get on the forecheck and create havoc for opposing defenders. He’s taken strides in that area of his game.”

At the time of his injury, Rolston was the leading scorer on a generally low-scoring Fighting Irish team with 20 points (including seven goals) in 27 games.

“[We had] ups and downs as a team,” Rolston said. “But personally, I had a really good season. The development I showed on and off the ice — becoming stronger, becoming more confident — that’s what helped me have individual success.”

He probably won’t become a major top-six offensive weapon in the NHL, but he could become a versatile bottom-six winger with some offensive pop if his development continues on the current track.

That would be a pretty favorable outcome, considering that he was merely a fifth-round pick by the Avalanche in 2020. His rights were traded to the Hawks in 2021 for Carl Soderberg, who played 15 games from that point on, then bolted for Sweden.

Confidence-wise, Rolston appears fully pro-ready already. The son of 1,256-game NHL veteran Brian Rolston, he sounds and looks completely at home in Rockford.

Slaggert chooses differently

Landon Slaggert, Rolston’s former Notre Dame teammate and a fellow Hawks prospect, plans to return to college for his senior season in 2023-24.

That opens up the possibility that Slaggert could reject the Hawks’ offer next summer and become an unrestricted free agent. But he would be hard-pressed to find another organization that could provide an easier path to NHL playing time, and the Hawks don’t seem overly concerned about potentially losing him.

“We’ve communicated to him how we feel about him,” Eaton said. “He could be a big part of what we’re trying to build. We don’t worry too much. Obviously, we’d love to have Landon at the end of next year, but we’re going to just continue to do our job to support him and give him all the resources he needs to continue to develop.”

Slaggert had a somewhat disappointing season from a production standpoint with only 13 points in 35 games (after notching 26 in 40 last season), but the Hawks aren’t overly concerned about that, either.

He, like Rolston, also projects as a bottom-six NHL forward, perhaps without any one trait as elite as Rolston’s skating but with more well-rounded skills.

“He’s not one [where] you can look at points and let that determine how he’s played,” Eaton said. “He has an ability to impact the game in many different ways, and we thought he played some really good hockey this year.”

More prospect updates

Antti Saarela is another forward prospect the Hawks signed in March, and although he’s not joining Rockford until next season, Eaton believes his speed will also make a difference when he arrives.

“He’s a dynamic skater,” Eaton said. “[He] has a good, strong lower core that makes him hard to knock off pucks. And he can be hard to play against as a defensive center, as well.”

He’ll turn 22 in June having already logged basically four-and-a-half full seasons of pro hockey in Finland. But he switched teams this past season (from Ilves to Luuko), which allowed him to grow into a larger role minutes-wise. His North American adjustment should be relatively seamless.

Ilya Safonov, previously a little-known prospect taken in the sixth round in 2021, exploded in Russia this season. The Hawks are now “really high” on the 6-4 center, Eaton said.

Safonov, 21, still has two years left under contract with his Russian team, Ak Bars Kazan, but the Hawks will try to sign him as soon as that expires. He assumed Ak Bars’ captaincy and tripled his production from 12 points last season to 37 points this season while playing alongside former Stars forward Alex Radulov.

Jake Wise is an interesting case since his Hawks rights are set to expire in August. Originally a 2018 third-round pick, Wise turned out to be a late bloomer, averaging nearly a point per game the last two years at Ohio State after struggling through three years at Boston University.

He’s on the older side now at 23, and even though he could definitely be a quality AHL scorer, whether or not he’s worth an NHL contract is up for debate. The Hawks have communicated with Wise’s agent but things are “up in the air,” Eaton said.

Paul Ludwinski, a second-round pick last summer, signed a slide-eligible contract in March and has temporarily joined Rockford on an amateur tryout contract.

He remains out indefinitely with an ankle injury, though, that he suffered while tallying 34 points in 47 games for Kingston of the OHL.

“He had some ups and downs with injuries, and he probably would’ve wanted to produce a little more offensively, but we don’t see any negatives from his season,” Eaton said. “[It was his] first year after being drafted, so it’s all part of the progression.”

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