The beauty of those working in hockey is that their passion for the sport runs just as high as those who cheer on the teams. It’s the middle of the summer, and even while some were relaxing at a cottage or in the mountains, they took a moment to answer one question fans love to debate: If you were starting a franchise from scratch and could choose from any current player in the NHL, who would be your top choice?
Who is, in essence, the NHL's top "franchise player"?
I asked a dozen NHL executives, coaches and players to send in their top five franchise picks, in order, then assigned point values for each vote to come up with an overall ranking.
They didn't disappoint.
“We have this debate on our staff,” one Eastern Conference executive said. “For me, there’s no clear-cut answer. I kept changing my list. If you called me tomorrow, this list might change.”
Some wanted to factor in contracts. One assistant GM wanted to turn back time in coming up with his final list.
“Can I get a young Pavel Datsyuk?” he joked.
To keep things simple, there were no other factors brought to the table. It was simply a request to pick the five best players to build a franchise around. In all, the panel is made up of four current team executives (assistant GM or GM), one former GM, four current head coaches, one respected assistant coach and a player from each conference. The ballot of one of the coaches was excluded from the point total because he preferred not to rank them in any particular order. (The excluded ballot looked like this: Jonathan Toews, Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Shea Weber and Jamie Benn.)
Here are the overall results
Kevin Hayes, the Chicago Blackhawks' 2010 first-round draft pick, likely will not sign with the organization before the Aug. 15 deadline and become an unrestricted free agent, the forward's agent said Tuesday.
"We're likely going to wait until Aug. 16 and see where things are at that point," agent Robert Murray said. "It's absolutely nothing against the Blackhawks. We just feel this gives Kevin some options.
"This has been a difficult decision for Kevin. He's identified himself with the Blackhawks. He was drafted by them. His brother [Jimmy] played for them. But after his college career, he had a chance to step back and look at everything."
Hayes, a 22-year-old forward, was selected by the Blackhawks as the No. 24 pick of the 2010 draft, and Chicago has held his rights since then. He has been eligible to sign with the Blackhawks since completing his senior season at Boston College in April. He was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, which is given to the NCAA's top player, and finished second in the nation with 65 points last season.
Murray said Hayes used the July free-agent period to evaluate where all the NHL teams stood with their rosters. Murray said Hayes could still sign with the Blackhawks if he becomes a free agent, but Murray expects Hayes to have other teams interested in him.
LW Pierre-Cedric Labrie -- C Teuvo Teravainen -- RW Mark McNeill
LW Garret Ross -- C Alex Broadhurst -- RW Joakim Nordstrom
LW Matt Carey -- C Phillip Danault -- RW Ryan Hartman
LW Drew LeBlanc -- C Dennis Rasmussen -- RW Cody Bass
Additional depth: Ryan Schnell (AHL contract)
Klas Dahlbeck -- Stephen Johns
Viktor Svedberg -- Adam Clendening
Kyle Cumiskey -- Trevor van Riemsdyk
Additional depth: Mathieu Brisebois, Dillon Fournier, Zach Miskovic (AHL contract), Kirill Gotovets (AHL contract)
No. 1 Scott Darling
No. 2 Kent Simpson
No. 3 Mac Carruth
Summary: The IceHogs were a young team last season and just missed the playoffs. That shouldn't be a problem this season. Even if they were to lose Teravainen, Nordstrom and a few of the defensemen to the NHL, they'll still have plenty of depth and experience. McNeill, Broadhurst, Ross, Danault and LeBlanc will be entering their second professional seasons. Hartman, their 2013 first-round pick, got a taste of the AHL late last season. Carey has a lot of upside after coming out of college early. Rasmussen, Labrie and Bass are experienced pros.
Defensively, the Blackhawks are loaded. Dahlbeck, Johns and Clendening are on the cusp of the NHL. Svedberg was playing well before he got hurt last season. Cumiskey, who has NHL experience, and van Riemsdyk could have gone to other organizations but chose the Blackhawks. Fournier and Brisebois are capable defensemen, as well.
As for the goaltending, the Blackhawks added a key piece to the IceHogs by signing Darling. He played in only 26 AHL games last season, but he had six shutouts. The IceHogs' goaltenders didn't record a single shutout last season. There's a good chance the Blackhawks will still add a two-way goaltender with NHL experience. Simpson and Carruth are still young and need time to develop.
In the first of two parts, here are projections for the NHL level:
LW Patrick Sharp -- C Jonathan Toews -- RW Marian Hossa
LW Brandon Saad -- C Brad Richards -- RW Patrick Kane
LW Bryan Bickell -- C Andrew Shaw -- RW TBD (Jeremy Morin/Kris Versteeg)
LW TBD (Peter Regin/Brandon Mashinter/Morin/Versteeg) -- C Marcus Kruger -- RW Ben Smith
Projected defenseman pairings
Duncan Keith -- Brent Seabrook
Johnny Oduya -- Niklas Hjalmarsson
Nick Leddy -- Michal Rozsival/David Rundblad
No. 1 Corey Crawford
No. 2 Antti Raanta
Summary: The Blackhawks' top-6 forwards are easy to project. The unknowns come after that.
Bickell and Shaw are likely to remain on the third line, and it makes sense for Kruger and Smith to be on the fourth line again. It should be interesting to see who that final person is on each of those lines. You could make cases for Versteeg and Morin on the third line. Versteeg may not have had a tremendous playoff run, but he still played a top-9 role for much of last season. The Blackhawks are hopeful he'll be a different player after rehabbing his knee this offseason. Morin was promised a larger role when he re-signed in June, and he could be best suited for the third line with his offensive ability.
Teuvo Teravainen and Joakim Nordstrom could also be in the mix for spots, but it's hard to see where they fit in with so many one-way forwards on the roster now and with their cap situation. If the Blackhawks move a forward or two, Teravainen could start in the NHL. Quenneville was certainly impressed by him on the final day of the prospect camp. Teravainen could very well play a center or wing role on the third line to begin the season.
With the defensemen, there likely won't be many changes from last season. Keith-Seabrook and Oduya-Hjalmarsson will again be the top two pairs. Leddy should again be the mainstay as the fifth defenseman, and he'll likely have a rotating partner again. Rozsival should have a similar role to last season where he plays about half the games. Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman traded a second-round pick for Rundblad, and Bowman expects him to be utilized more this season. The Blackhawks also have three prospects in Adam Clendening, Klas Dahlbeck and Stephen Johns who are close to being NHL ready. If the Blackhawks move a defenseman or two, those players will likely be the first to get crack at the NHL. Kyle Cumiskey, who they recently signed, also has NHL experience.
Finally for the goaltenders, the Blackhawks will start the season as they ended the last one with Crawford as the No. 1 and Raanta as the No. 2. Raanta struggled in the backup role last season and will aim to be more consistent this season. The Blackhawks recently signed Scott Darling for some organizational depth at the position. Darling showed some promise last season in the AHL, but he doesn't have any NHL experience. The Blackhawks are still looking to add another two-way goaltender with NHL experience, according to a source.
Schmaltz is only 18 years old and heading into his freshman year at North Dakota, so he won’t be joining the duo anytime soon. But with Kane and Toews signing their eight-year extensions and Schmaltz showing off some rare offensive ability at the Blackhawks prospect camp last week, it’s not a complete reach to envision Schmaltz complementing one of their lines down the line.
“He's got obvious top-six potential for sure if he pans out,” ESPN's NHL Draft and Prospects analyst Corey Pronman said of Schmaltz. “His puck skills and vision are the clear strengths of his game.”
Schmaltz displayed those skills throughout the six-day Blackhawks prospect camp last week. He made defenders miss with his stick-handling. He was able to create space and time for himself, but he also generated chances for his teammates with his deft moves. Alongside forwards John Hayden and Anthony Louis, Schmaltz had one goal and four assists over the camp’s first three scrimmages.
It’s that upside that motivated Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman to get on the phone during the NHL draft last month and negotiate a trade with the San Jose Sharks to be able to move up seven spots in the first round to draft Schmaltz. The Blackhawks gave up their 27th and 62nd picks to select Schmaltz.
“At the time I saw Nick Schmaltz play, I was very impressed with his skill set,” Bowman said at the Blackhawks convention last weekend. “He was a guy we had very highly ranked. You look at the potential that he has to fit in the way we play, and we were really excited. You can compare his skill set to a lot of players, but you look at what he was able to accomplish this year and the way our team plays, I think giving him some time to fill out his frame a little bit, he’s got those abilities you just can’t teach.”
Blackhawks amateur scouting director Mark Kelley did a majority of the evaluating of the 6-foot, 172-pound Schmaltz and had him high on the list of the offensively-skilled players in the NHL draft. One of Schmaltz’s skills especially stood out to Kelley.
“His hands, they’re fast,” Kelley said at the NHL draft.
Schmaltz isn’t a finished product, and that also attracted the Blackhawks to him. The Blackhawks weren’t looking for someone in the first round they could rush to the NHL. They sought someone with a high ceiling, but who would need time to get there.
Derek Lalonde coached Schmaltz for three seasons on the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League and believes Schmaltz fit exactly what the Blackhawks were searching for in the draft. Lalonde praised Schmaltz’s offensive game, especially his quick hands, but also pointed out his weaknesses.
“The quick hands Mark [Kelley] alluded to, you just don’t see it often,” Lalonde said in a recent phone interview. “You see it a little bit with Patrick Kane. I’m not going to compare him to Patrick. He’s a special world-class talent.
“But you think you’re going to defend it and get a stick on it, and all of a sudden he takes it away and make a play with it. He can create off any situation. He makes every player around him better. He has a high, high IQ.”
The occasional knocks on Schmaltz have been over his consistency and effort away from the puck. Those were areas Lalonde was sure Schmaltz would concentrate on in college.
“I’m really confident he was a top-6, top-7 talent this year, but it was his lack of consistency that dropped him to where he was,” Lalonde said. “It’s something he knows. I think he’s going to the perfect school at North Dakota. He’ll be held accountable. The good thing about Nick is he’s an elite talent. At the pro level, his evaluation is good. He’ll improve in those other areas.”
Schmaltz, a Wisconsin native and lifelong Blackhawks fan, was hopeful he began that process during the prospect camp.
“It was a great experience, a lot of new coaches and I learned a lot of new things,” Schmaltz said on the final day of the camp. “I've just got to work on all areas of my game and hopefully bring that to North Dakota, and just improve every day and every year.”
For the most part, that's a good situation to be in. But one of the potential issues has come to light this year. As seen in the case of Kevin Hayes, the Blackhawks' 2010 first-round draft pick, their prospects have the option of waiting out the period the organization owns their rights and when they can decide to become free agents.
One reason Hayes hasn't signed with the Blackhawks is because he doesn't see a place for himself in the NHL in the immediate future. Twenty-two years old and coming off a stellar senior season at Boston College, Hayes believes he can be in the NHL sooner rather than later. But with the talent the Blackhawks already have in the NHL and with more NHL-ready players waiting their turn in the AHL, Hayes would have to likely wait at least a season or two before he could be an everyday NHL player.
This may not be an issue going forward for the Blackhawks. It is uncommon for an organization's prospect to decline an entry-level contract and wait to become a free agent. Stephen Johns had the same option out of Notre Dame this year and signed with the Blackhawks.
CHICAGO – The Chicago Blackhawks wrapped up their annual prospect camp Friday. The camp entailed mostly skill work and practice for players under entry-level contracts, but unsigned prospects had a number of chances to compete throughout.
Here are some of those prospects who stood out during the six-day gathering at Johnny’s IceHouse West:
John Hayden, forward, third-round pick in 2013: Hayden made an impression with his size and offensive ability during the week, including on Chicago general manager Stan Bowman, who mentioned him first after the camp. Hayden is one of the Blackhawks’ bigger forward prospects at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds. He showed he has more than size, displaying some skating ability and a knack for scoring goals (four over three scrimmages). He’ll be a sophomore at Yale next season.
Nick Schmaltz, forward, first-round pick in 2014: Schmaltz hit the ice as a Blackhawks prospect for the first time since being drafted in June, and he didn’t disappoint. The 18-year-old Wisconsin native has some elite offensive skills. He has quick hands and knows how to create space for himself -- and turned in a handful of highlight plays during the week. If he continues to develop, it’ll be difficult for the Blackhawks to keep him in college for four years. He’s set to be a freshman at North Dakota next season.
Anthony Louis, forward, sixth-round pick in 2013: Louis could be one of those late-round steals for the Blackhawks. His size (5-7, 150 pounds) is always going to be questioned, but he’s a tremendous playmaker. He was on a line with Hayden and Schmaltz throughout the week, and there was magic at times between them. Louis created something out of nothing, and it often led to goals for his linemates during the camp. He’ll be a sophomore at Miami (Ohio) next season.
Nick Mattson, defenseman, sixth-round pick in 2010: Mattson was attending his fifth prospect camp and will likely have one more in his future. The Blackhawks have liked his development since they drafted when he was in the USHL. He caught people’s attention with his ability to maneuver with the puck and see the ice during the week. His defensive game has also improved over the years. He’ll return to North Dakota for his senior season.
Vince Hinostroza, forward, sixth-round pick in 2012: Hinostroza arrived to the camp late because of school obligations, but made up for it by the end of the week. He has taken some steps in his game since last season and put on some muscle. He was stronger with the puck and scored three goals over the final two scrimmages. He had a productive freshman season at Notre Dame, and the Blackhawks like where his game is headed. He’s set to return to the Fighting Irish for his sophomore campaign.
Michael Paliotta, defenseman, third-round pick in 2011: Paliotta is another defenseman who has been around the block a few times at the prospect camp and has made some strides. He has quality size at 6-3 and 198 pounds and can skate. He has more of a shutdown defenseman, but he does possess offensive ability. He scored a goal on a big shot from the blue line during the second scrimmage. He’ll be a senior at Vermont next season.
Robin Norell, defenseman, fourth-round pick in 2013: Norell looked further ahead than the organization’s other Swedish defensemen at the camp. He was solid all week. He was able handle the puck and be defensively responsible. He’s still only 19, but he’s coming along. He’s expected to play in Sweden again next season.
Beau Starrett, forward, third-round pick in 2014: Starrett can’t be missed as a 6-5 forward. He’s a long-term project and won’t even begin college until 2015, but he could be worth the wait. He displayed a powerful shot and scored twice during the scrimmages. He’s expected to play in the USHL next season.
CHICAGO -- Stephen Johns is an old pro when it comes to the Chicago Blackhawks prospect camp.
Johns, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound defenseman, attended his fifth prospect camp this past week since being selected by the Blackhawks in the second round of the 2010 draft.
This year’s prospect camp did have a different feel for Johns than the previous four. Unlike the other ones, this year’s camp wasn’t leading into another year at Notre Dame for him. Instead, this camp represented a launching pad for his campaign to prove himself NHL-ready for the upcoming season.
“Obviously I don’t know what’s going to happen this fall,” the 22-year-old Johns said on the final day of the camp on Friday. “Years prior I knew I was going back to school. It was a little different, a little bit more focus on playing as good as I can be. Impress them as much as you can every chance you get. Yeah, it was a little different. I was one of the older guys for this year. It was fun, though, a lot of fun.”
Just never as high as he did after watching the 19-year-old Teravainen play Friday.
Teravainen especially caught the attention of his future coach during a scrimmage on the final day of the Blackhawks prospect camp. Teravainen was a threat to create scoring chances nearly every time he touched the puck during the 60-minute, running-clocking scrimmage.
“Today you get to see him play in a game situation, you see his abilities jump out,” Quenneville said Friday. “I thought he had a special day today. Over the course of the week, you can see his skills. When you put a puck down and you’re playing for real, you see his vision, anticipation and how he’s creating with the puck, and his anticipation offensively is excellent.
“He’s only going to get better with both sides of the puck as he gets over here and familiar with our game. Certainly fun watching him play and envision him playing where he’s going to be at some point in his career at the top end of the game. That’s an exciting guy to watch.”
Teravainen has often been considered the Blackhawks’ second-line center of the future, but he showed off his versatility to play wing Friday as well. He played left wing alongside Dennis Rasmussen at center and Ryan Hartman at right wing. Teravainen set up Rasmussen for a goal during the scrimmage.
That’s the reality of the Blackhawks' salary-cap situation. The Blackhawks are around $1.3 million above the $69 million cap for next season and must get under it before they set their roster. To do so, they will have to trade at least one player.
Blackhawks players acknowledged the team’s salary-cap issue prior to their fan convention on Friday.
"Yeah, I know," Blackhawks winger Bryan Bickell said about someone having to go before the season. "I haven't really looked too much into it. There's a couple adjustments that need to take part to get through this cap thing, but I’m not hearing anything, which is good. It's going to work out the way it is, and, hopefully, it will work for the best."
A number of Blackhawks have been associated with trade rumors throughout the offseason. Defenseman Johnny Oduya has been one of those players. Oduya said Friday he expected to return for another season, but he also has been around long enough to realize anything can happen. He has one season remaining on his contract and has a cap hit of $3.375 million for next season.
"I wouldn’t say nervous, but you know the reality of the business," Oduya said. "And I’ve been around it for a couple of these situations where you might be a little bit over. Or, on the other hand, you’re the cheaper player and you can fit in in a different way. It’s not really much you can do but realize the situation and you prepare for the season the same way.
"I think they’re happy with my play from last year. Like I said, it’s a new situation for next year. We’ll see what happens. I’m very, very happy to be here. This is the place where I really enjoy playing hockey, and I’ve loved it here so far. And I think I’ll like it in the future, too. If that’s not the case, I'll go somewhere else."
Forward Patrick Sharp also was rumored to be on the trading block this summer. His agent, Rick Curran, said recently the Blackhawks would not be trading Sharp.
Sharp addressed those rumors himself on Friday.
"There’s going to be talk, discussion, rumors," Sharp said. "It’s part of the business. But I think what my agent said was pretty self-explanatory. I’ve been able to get away from hockey and kind of relax a little bit. Just got back from Connecticut with my family yesterday. Looking forward to training and playing a great next year."
So, who’s going to be traded?
Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman wouldn’t reveal that, but he said he wasn’t concerned about it.
"We certainly have to be ready to go by October," Bowman said. "That’s the goal. A lot of things change between now and then. You have to display some patience.
"Like I said all along, we have some ideas of what we’re going to do. A lot of things happen once camps open both for us and for other teams, in terms of players maybe you expect to meet expectations don’t quite do it and certain teams are looking around trying to find players. I always think you're always in a good position when you have a lot of established players. I think that’s better than the other way around."
Saad, 21, is set to become a restricted free agent after the 2014-15 season. He said Friday he and his agent haven’t had any contract negotiations with Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman.
“Obviously, it was pretty busy with the deals we got done, and that’s huge for our team,” Saad said at the Blackhawks Convention on Friday. “Really just focused on preparing for this season, and we’ll deal with that when it comes. If it happens, great. It’s always nice to have that security and feel comfortable that you’ve re-signed.
“You play hockey and you focus on hockey. To get it out of the way, it’s always nice instead of having to wait until next summer. We’ll see how that goes. Right now I’m just focused on preparing for the season.”
Saad is coming off his second full season with the Blackhawks. He had 19 goals, 28 assists and was a plus-20 in the regular season last season. He played on the first, second and third lines at different times throughout the season.
Bowman wouldn’t set a timetable for Saad’s new contract, but it was on his to-do list going forward.
“We’ve tried to be consistent with when we identify players who are a big part of what we’ve done, [and then] we start talking about that,” Bowman said on Friday. “It’s been a busy time for us. We had the draft and free agency, and we’re just finishing prospect camp. We’re going to have some other things to look at over the next few weeks.
“Brandon’s come in at a young age and played a big role on our team and obviously that’s something we want to continue going forward,” Bowman continued. “He’s a special player ... to be able to accomplish what he’s done at his age. The exciting thing for all of us is that he just keeps getting better. We certainly haven’t seen the best of Brandon Saad. yet.
“He had a great season, and I would expect he would be one of the players who take an even bigger step next year in terms of a bigger role and asserting himself as a top player in the league.”
Bowman has re-signed players during the season in the past. Just last season, he re-signed Andrew Shaw and Brandon Bollig before they were able to become restricted free agents.
Saad played some of his best hockey alongside Kane at the end of last season during the Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Kings. Saad had four goals and five assists during the series. He’s expected to join Kane and center Brad Richards on the second line to start next season.
Oduya, who was wearing a walking boot Friday, said he suffered the injury late in the third period against the Los Angeles Kings on June 1 and likely wouldn’t have been able to play in the Stanley Cup finals if the Blackhawks had advanced.
"Yeah, I broke it [the] last game, and it’s healing pretty good," Oduya said at the Blackhawks Convention at the Chicago Hilton. "I feel good, and I’ll be good to go [for training camp].
"[It was a] shot from the point, end of the third period, Game 7. I played the rest of the game. Usually not that bad. Once you take the skate off, it blows up on you. It would’ve been tougher afterward [if we advanced]."
Oduya’s name has been tossed around as someone the Blackhawks could trade this offseason to get under the salary cap, but Oduya said he expects to return to the team for another season.
"I think they’re happy with my play from last year. Like I said, it’s a new situation for next year," Oduya said. "We’ll see what happens. I’m very, very happy to be here. This is the place where I really enjoy playing hockey, and I’ve loved it here so far, and I think I’ll like it in the future, too. If that’s not the case, I'll go somewhere else.
"I wouldn’t say nervous, but you know the reality of the business, and I’ve been around it for a couple of these situations where you might be a little bit over or, on the other hand, you’re the cheaper player and you can fit in in a different way. It’s not really much you can do, but realize the situation and you prepare for the season the same way."
CHICAGO -- Inside a tucked-away club at the United Center, at a long table where the bottled water had the Chicago Blackhawks logo facing out to the cameras, five of the six most important members of the organization (no room for coach Joel Quenneville, who sat nearby) met the media to bask in their own good fortune on Wednesday afternoon.
The occasion was to formally announce the twin eight-year, $84 million contract extensions signed by Toews and Kane that will presumably keep the pair here through their mid-30s.
It's money well spent.
When Toews (the No. 3 pick in 2006) and Kane (No. 1 in 2007) were drafted as teenagers, the Blackhawks were a shell of a franchise. No crowds, no buzz.
Back then, Bowman was a front-office worker bee anonymous to 99 percent of Chicago and the son of a famous man. McDonough was dreaming of a World Series with the Chicago Cubs. And Wirtz was working for the family booze business.
Kane had more hair and less of an Internet rap sheet, and Toews, well, was a younger version of his current self.
Now, almost seven years later, the Blackhawks have two Stanley Cups, a season-ticket waiting list and a city full of rabid fans.
Time has been good to these men, as they've all grown rich and successful together.
"It's crazy to think it's been seven years already," Toews said. "It's amazing to think we're going to have a chance to continue this ride we've been on for another eight years, at least."
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