It’s no secret that the Blackhawks’s once coveted defensive core is waning. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook’s offensive production has fallen off, the pair have lost a step in defending today’s speedy NHL youngsters, and last year’s trade of shot-blocking warrior Niklas Hjalmarsson to Arizona only exacerbated the issue. The team’s defensive woes were one of the main reasons the Hawks missed the playoffs last year, though being without one of the league’s best goalies for most of the season certainly didn’t help.
But having selected two defensemen in the first round of this summer’s NHL Draft (plus another the year before), the Blackhawks have a new wave of highly skilled defenders on the horizon. It’s just a matter of when they play.
Finnish blueliner Henri Jokiharju, a 2017 pick participating in his second Hawks developmental camp this week, could very well be the team’s next defensive prospect on the NHL ice. The 19-year-old stood out with the Western League’s Portland Winterhawks last year, tallying 71 points in 63 games.
“You want to set the bar high,” said the Oulu native. “I want to dream big and that’s the dream.”
Added Blackhawks VP and GM Stan Bowman: “He’s an impressive all-around type player. I think the one thing he did last year, offensively, he had a great season. He learned how to be a two-way defenseman. The biggest jump for him is, ‘are you going to be able to defend?’”
Elsewhere on the ice, 2018 first-rounder Adam Boqvist aimed to leave an impression with Hawks brass in his first camp. His M.O? “Try to work harder than the other guys," said the 17-year-old Swede, who signed a three-year contract with the team earlier this month. “I will play in the NHL one day and win a Stanley Cup,” Boqvist said. “That’s my mindset.” And with 14 goals and ten assists in 25 games in his home country’s SuperElit League last year, he’s on his way.
Also in the mix: 18-year-old 2018 first-rounder Nicolas Beaudin, who led the Quebec junior league’s Drummondville Voltgeurs in assists (57) and points (69) last season, and 2017 second-rounder Ian Mitchell, who at age 19 has more experience than Boqvist and Beaudin, and tallied 30 points and 54 blocked shots in 41 games during his first year at the University of Denver.
One prospect who seems to be flying under the radar is Blake Hillman—the only one of the bunch at camp with NHL experience. Hillman played in four games with the Hawks toward the end of last season, scoring his first career goal in his second game. The Elk River, Minnesota native, who also played at Denver, hopes to join the big club full-time this season, but won’t take it too hard if he starts with the Hawks’ AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs.
“Obviously I’m shooting for opening [night],” Hillman said. “But it doesn’t always go your way, and you have to work hard to get where the big guys are.”
The 22-year-old is no stranger to hard work.
“Growing up in a small town, it’s just, put your nose to the grindstone and work hard,” Hillman said. “Whatever happens happens. You just have to give yourself the best opportunity.”
All told, it will be interesting to see which of the five defenders Bowman and company deem fit for the NHL season. For now, the organization seems most impressed with Jokiharju. But different players have different timertables, and there’s never an NHL season without some surprises.