Under tutelage of Campbell and Eaton, Blackhawks groom next generation of defensemen
The continued progress of top prospects Adam Boqvist, Nicolas Beaudin and others, which will be showcased at development camp starting Monday, helped make Henri Jokiharju expendable.
Adam Boqvist might become an instant star, making the CHL-to-NHL transition seamlessly and carrying his elite skill right into the Blackhawks’ lineup.
Or he might be like Brian Campbell.
Campbell, of all people, would know.
“I went through the minors and did all those things, so it wasn’t like everything was just like, ‘Here you go,’” said the NHL veteran, a year into his work on the Hawks’ developmental staff. “That’s great if that happens to those guys, but we all look at the Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews notebook and go, ‘That seems easy,’ but for the majority of players, that’s not how we transition.”
Campbell spent the majority of three seasons in the AHL, yet ultimately finished his NHL career with 1,082 games played. His boss, Hawks player development director Mark Eaton, did the same at the start of his 650-game career.
Campbell and Eaton are now closely mentoring and monitoring the Hawks’ congested entourage of top-tier defensive prospects, headlined by Boqvist —the eighth overall pick in 2018 —but also featuring Nicolas Beaudin (27th in 2018), Ian Mitchell (57th in 2017), Chad Krys (45th in 2016) and newcomer Alex Vlasic (43rd in 2019).
Altogether, they compose arguably the best and deepest defensive prospect pipeline in the league —one which the Hawks will show off at starting Monday at development camp.
It is, without question, an area of great strength for the organization, a fact that GM Stan Bowman quickly cited after the much-criticized trade of its most NHL-ready member, Henri Jokiharju (29th in 2017), on Tuesday. Even sans Jokiharju, the sheer number of A-grade prospects in the group represents the light at the end of the tunnel for what was a dreadful unit at the NHL level last year.
And the intense competition amongst the group, each prospect hoping to align himself as the first potential savior, is not lost on the prospects themselves.
“You’re lying if you say you’re not paying attention to it,” Krys said. “If you’re playing the best [you can] and you’re outplaying other guys, you’re going to get the spot, you’re going to get a chance to play. There’s definitely a little extra motivation.”
That’s where Campbell and Eaton come in, to remind each prospect that the fastest route to the NHL, while exciting, isn’t the only route to a long career.
They’ll get plenty of time to hammer that message home this summer. For the first time ever, nearly a dozen of the team’s top prospects are staying in Chicago for an additional two weeks after development camp to work more closely with the team’s staff. Boqvist, Beaudin and Krys will be among the attendees.
“We thought it would be good for them to spend an extra week around our strength and conditioning staff, because those are the guys they’ll be surrounded by in their pro careers going forward,” Eaton said. “[They’ll be] learning the off-ice training element of things.”
Professional hockey lies ahead for at least Beaudin, after four years in the QMJHL, and Krys, after three years at Boston University. Both plan on reporting to Rockford of the AHL if they don’t make the Hawks’ roster in training camp (which is unlikely).
Boqvist’s 2019-20 destination is more uncertain. The 19-year-old could go to the AHL (he is eligible) or return to the OHL powerhouse London Knights.
After a slow start, his offensive inclinations —“elite passing, elite shot,” Campbell said —appeared in full color with London in his 2018-19 North American debut season, and his defensive reliability improved, too.
“It was hard in the start —you always want to join the rush,” the Swedish blueliner said. “But on the smaller ice, you don’t have that time or that space, you have to make space for you and your teammates, so a little more give-and-gos and stuff like that.”
Boqvist probably has the highest upside of anyone in the defensive pipeline, projecting as a power play quarterback and top-four defenseman in the NHL.
Yet Boqvist’s “TLDR” prospect summary —very talented, slightly undersized, offensively inclined —essentially applies to every notable member of the Hawks’ defensive pipeline.
Campbell, Eaton and Barry Smith, the Hawks’ player evaluation director, have visited each top prospect regularly and sent them videos with advice. Their feedback was largely recyclable between prospects: get more physical, use your stick more, improve your cap control and positioning.
Beaudin told the Sun-Times last week that the Hawks “were pretty happy with the way I was playing with the puck, but it was more without the puck [that they focused on].” But that quote could easily have come from five or six different guys.
That’s where Vlasic, the group’s newest highly touted member, comes in. He’s 6-6, a self-described shutdown defenseman, and he’ll make his development camp debut this week.
“At that size ... a lot of those guys have that built-in natural defense with their size and their reach,” Eaton said. “With him, it’ll be learning to use that reach as effectively as possible to break up plays.”
Vlasic is headed to Boston University in the fall, joining Mitchell —who surprisingly elected to return to the University of Denver for 2019-20 —in the NCAA hockey ranks.
Mitchell said he wanted to feel consistently dominant at the college level before moving on. The Hawks were “very supportive” of his decision.
That’s fitting with the overarching message delivered to Hawks prospects, emphasizing the nonlinearity of the roads toward NHL success.
For the franchise seeking its next defensive cornerstones as Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook age out, that end goal —NHL success — is all that matters.
“Hopefully, Adam is playing for the Hawks this year and he wins Rookie of the Year and everything’s great,” Campbell said. “But those things just don’t happen to every player. I have that textbook for them, and I’m going to continue to work with them and guide them.”