A year ago, the Blackhawks’ annual summer stint at Johnny’s IceHouse West wasn’t so much a prospect camp as a pre-training camp. The camp roster was loaded with NHL-ready talent, with a whopping eight players making it to the NHL last season, all of them in significant roles.
Ryan Hartman, Nick Schmaltz, Tanner Kero, Vinnie Hinostroza, Gustav Forsling, Michal Kempny, Tyler Motte and John Hayden were prospects in name only. In everyone’s case except for the college-bound Hayden, they were competing not for spots in the organizational depth chart, but spots on the opening-night roster.
This year, it’s truly a prospects camp. In fact, it’s entirely plausible that not a single player at this year’s camp plays in the NHL this season, though wunderkind Alex DeBrincat and a handful of others might have something to say about that.
“It’s a little different, obviously,” said forward Dylan Sikura, who hopes to take a Hayden-like path straight to the NHL after he completes his senior season at Northeastern. “The older guys aren’t here this year. But it’s still a good group of guys. It’s nice to see some young guys and be an older guy for once.”
The change is evident in the different approach the team is taking to the camp. Gone are the daily scrimmages, replaced by more individual development on the ice, along with more mental-skills work off the ice, including the O2X “human performance” program. The only game play will come Friday morning in a camp-ending scrimmage.
“It’s a little different,” fourth-year participant Matheson Iacopelli said. “They changed up the camp a lot from the last three years.”
That’s not to say there’s no NHL talent on the ice this week. The Hawks are high on many of these players. But while last year’s camp was about sorting out who would comprise the next wave of Chicago Blackhawks, this year’s camp is more about finding out will comprise the next wave of Rockford IceHogs. The Hawks largely tapped their prospect pool last season, but a flood of players on the first year of their entry-level contracts are coming in.
For older players with new contracts, such as Iacopelli, there’s a bit more urgency as they jockey for the front office’s attention.
“It’s a different feeling coming in this year, knowing I signed a contract and I’m not heading back to school in the fall,” said defenseman Luc Snuggerud, who played 13 games with the IceHogs last spring after turning pro following his junior season at Nebraska-Omaha. “It’s a little bit of a different mindset, knowing I’m competing for a job and I’m her to stay now. It’s exciting, though.”
Other players looking to turn heads as first-year pros include Matthew Highmore, a high-scoring undrafted forward; forward Graham Knott, a second-round pick in 2015; and forward Alexandre Fortin, last year’s breakout performer who is only participating in off-ice work this year because of an injury.
Despite being one of the younger players in camp at 19, DeBrincat might be the closest to making the team. The 5-7 juggernaut had 65 goals and 62 assists in 63 games for the OHL’s Erie Otters last season. While most of the players in camp demur when asked how close they feel they are to the NHL, DeBrincat isn’t shy.
“That’s the goal,” he said. “Obviously you’re playing against men in the NHL, and if they feel I need time in Rockford, I’ll go to Rockford and do whatever they ask. But my goal is to make the team.”