For older Blackhawks prospects, the race is on to establish themselves

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Defenseman Blake Hillman is the lone player at Blackhawks prospect camp this week with NHL experience. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

Blake Hillman is no dummy. As his junior season at Denver drew to a close, he took a deep dive into the Blackhawks’ organizational depth chart. He went online and tracked down contract details and minor-league stats, recent draft picks and future draft targets.

He knew 2017 first-rounder Henri Jokiharju was on the way. He knew there was a good chance the Hawks would take another defenseman with their top-10 pick this year. He saw a future logjam on the blue line and knew that his best move was to leave school a year early, turn pro, get a handful of NHL games under his belt and try to establish himself as an NHL mainstay before it got too crowded.

“I wouldn’t have left college if I didn’t think this was the right time for me to step in and to have my best opportunity to make an impact,” said Hillman, the only player at prospect camp this week with NHL experience. “Obviously, you try to set yourself up with the best opportunity.”

Whether Hillman, who acquitted himself well in four games at the end of last season, can force his way onto the opening-night roster remains to be seen. Jordan Oesterle’s departure for the Coyotes means that — unless Jokiharju breaks through at camp — Hillman is likely competing with Gustav Forsling and Carl Dahlstrom to be the seventh defenseman.

Those four games burned a year of Hillman’s entry-level contract (it’s a common incentive to lure players out of college early) and left him with one year remaining on his deal. So this is a prove-it season for Hillman, to show that he should be in the long-term conversation with Jokiharju, Adam Boqvist, Nicolas Beaudin and his own defensive partner at Denver, Ian Mitchell.

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“I’ve been working with the mental coach here in Chicago, and one of their core values this year is confidence,” Hillman said. “So I’ve really been working with him on making sure I’m confident but not cocky — and I hope I don’t come off like that. But I think it really helps where I have that experience, and it will lead up into training camp.”

Hillman was a mentor and sounding board for Mitchell, a 2017 second-round pick, last year at Denver and is something of an elder statesman at his third prospect camp. But even with his NHL experience, he doesn’t have the same cachet as some of the higher draft picks in camp.

He’s not alone, either. The big four blue-liners have overshadowed a second tier of promising players, both at camp and in the organizational hierarchy. There’s Chad Krys, a 2016 second-rounder entering his junior year at Boston University. There’s 2016 fourth-rounder Lucas Carlsson, who has played well in Sweden. There’s 2015 third-rounder Dennis Gilbert, who turned pro in April after his junior season at Notre Dame.

And each one, like Hillman, surely has noticed how the Hawks keep adding more and more players to the competition. The trick, Gilbert said, is standing out.

“I wasn’t really focused on a lot of the new draft picks and the new guys coming in because I feel I’m a pretty unique player and that they don’t have a lot of the things that I do among their prospects or other players they have,” Gilbert said. “They have a lot of great defensemen, but I feel the grit that I bring and the good defensive play and the size with speed to move and defend is where I can separate myself a little bit.”

Well, several of these players will wind up in the NHL at some point. Only a few might stick. And whoever gets there first will have a major leg up. So the race is on.

“Guys would be lying to you if they say they’re not paying attention to that,” Krys said. “But, look, at the end of the day, you’ve got to play, right? And you have to play well. Anywhere you are, you have to compete. And I welcome that. I think competition is going to elevate guys’ games, so I like it.”

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