Wyatt Kaiser’s growth another good sign for Blackhawks’ defensive prospect pool
Kaiser has been relied upon heavily as a freshman and sophomore defenseman at Minnesota-Duluth. He worked this season to improve his shooting and decision-making.
The Blackhawks drafted poorly throughout the second half of former general manager Stan Bowman’s tenure.
But the 2020 class might end up being an exception. The Hawks’ first three picks that year — forward Lukas Reichel at No. 17, goaltender Drew Commesso at 46 and forward Landon Slaggert at 79 — look like possible steals. They’re arguably the best two forwards and best goalie in their pipeline.
And the Hawks’ fourth pick of 2020 — Wyatt Kaiser, taken two spots after Slaggert at 81st overall — also has boosted his stock significantly the last two years.
On a Minnesota-Duluth team that advanced to the NCAA Frozen Four in 2021 and to within one win of the Frozen Four this spring, Kaiser has been immediately trusted as a top-pairing defenseman.
His well-rounded game, which makes it difficult to label him an offensive or defensive defenseman like most of the Hawks’ other prospects, hints at legitimate NHL top-four upside.
He had 10 points in 28 games as a freshman while logging more than 25 minutes per game. He upped his production to 19 points in 34 games as a sophomore this past season, including 11 points in his last 14 games.
“Going into this year, my shot was a big thing that I wanted to improve on,” Kaiser said Wednesday. “[I worked on] taking better shots, being more accurate, making better decisions when I shoot. I definitely improved on that, but it can still get better. Making better decisions in the offensive zone was another big thing.”
In fact, faster and smarter decision-making in all areas was a top priority for him because that’s something that basically comes only through experience.
“Another thing that helped me was looking before I got the puck,” he said. “In the D-zone, I’m always looking, scanning, trying to know where everybody is. As soon as [the puck] crosses the red line going into the O-zone, you get focused in on just the puck, and you don’t see much else. So [by] scanning before I get the puck, you’re able to make better decisions when you have more information.”
Kaiser was part of the U.S. team at the World Junior Championships in December whose run ended after only one game because of a COVID outbreak. He then missed two weeks of the college season in February with a torn medial collateral ligament, which nagged him for weeks after he returned.
“It would hurt pretty bad,” he admitted.
Through those stops and starts, however, he sought to remedy a frequent knock on him in scouting reports: that he could be too impatient and overaggressive in the defensive zone.
“[I was] making sure I’m always responsible in front,” he said. “Freshman year, I was pretty aggressive. If I saw a guy, I was going [to him]. This year was a little bit more [about] assessing the threat. If he’s in the corner and there’s a guy out front, knowing that the guy in the corner probably isn’t going to score, and my guy is in front of the net, [I’d] wait a little bit.”
Kaiser will return to Minnesota-Duluth for his junior year in 2022-23. In the meantime, he plans to work with Minnesota-based skills coach Scott Bjugstad to further improve his shot and to add another 10 pounds or so of muscle to his 6-foot frame, with 190 to 195 pounds being his target weight.
Realistically, Kaiser remains two or three years away from NHL readiness, and he’ll need to beat out a huge crowd of fellow defensive prospects to eventually make it there.
But as new Hawks GM Kyle Davidson initiates the rebuild, growing optimism about the 2020 draft class — from Reichel and Commesso down to Kaiser — hopefully will aid the process.
NOTE: The Hawks announced a two-year contract extension with an $800,000 salary-cap hit for forward Reese Johnson, who was going to be a restricted free agent this summer.