Blackhawk roster taking shape: Forwards

Last week the Hawks made a few minor moves that will have some affect their roster this fall. Jack Skille, a restricted free agent and former first round draft pick (7th overall in 2006), re-signed to a one-year deal worth $600,000. I feel like a broken record writing this, but Skille should have every chance in the world to leave training camp with the Blackhawks. His cheap price tag guarantees that. Skille will have a Versteeg-like role on the third line, but is bigger (6’1” 215).

The other transaction was the signing of Russian forward Igor Makarov to a two-year entry-level contract worth $1,105,000 (a $552,000 cap hit). Makarov made an impression at prospect camp two years ago, but hasn’t backed that performance up in two seasons in the KHL. He split the 2009-10 season between St. Petersburg SKA and Moscow Dynamo, and in 51 games between the two clubs, Makarov had five goals and four assists with 61 penalty-minutes. The 22-year-old Russian will compete for a spot on the Blackhawks’ roster as a bottom-six forward at training camp, but he’ll likely land in Rockford come October.

If Skille and Makarov don’t get you excited, maybe Bryan Bickell will. There have been whispers that Bickell (RFA) is close to signing a multi-year contract with the Hawks. It’s a matter of when. The Blackhawks will re-sign him to a cap-friendly deal at $550,000 – a slight raise from last year. Once Bickell is inked, the Hawks will have twelve starting forwards locked-up.

Prospect review: North Dakota 4, Minnesota-Duluth 2

Saturday afternoon the NHL Network aired the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs vs. North Dakota Fighting Sioux game that took place the night before. It was the first of a two-game weekend series, and the Fighting Sioux came out on top 4-2 by handing the Bulldogs their first loss of the season.

Three Blackhawks prospects laced up their skates for the game. Defenseman Dylan Olsen and forward Daniel Delisle for Minnesota-Duluth, and defenseman Joe Gleason for North Dakota. It was Gleason’s second game of the season, and the guys in the booth mentioned that injuries were the reason why he was in the lineup. So let’s start there.

Gleason is a decent defenseman, but is limited at the position because of his small stature (5’9” 171). He got knocked off the puck rather easily the few times he attempted to carry it out of his own zone. Gleason attempted to muck-it-up in the crease with the much bigger Daniel Delisle (6’4” 222) after the whistle blew in the first period. The refs broke it up before anything it escalated above a shoving match.

Gleason rounded out the third pairing for the Fighting Sioux, and was virtually unnoticeable. His biggest contribution to the game came in the second period when he was able to keep the puck from leaving the offensive zone, which eventually led to North Dakota’s first goal.

On the other side of the puck, Delisle was on the ice for the Bulldogs when the scoreless tie was broken. He stood just above the hash marks in his own zone, and watched the Fighting Sioux run a cycling clinic around him, offering very little in the way of defense.

If you don’t know much about the kid, the best word I’d use to describe him is awkward. He reminds me of a 14-year-old skating after he shot-up five inches over the summer, trying to gain his balance with every stride. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the point is that he’s a poor skater. Despite limitations that stem from his lack of speed, Delisle knows how to use his size. He will go into board-battles knowing he can come away with the puck, and causes problems for defenders in front of the net.

I’m always impressed with how refined Dylan Olsen is as a defender. He was lined up on the second paring, and saw time on both the power play and the penalty kill. Olsen’s ability to gain position on opposing players in his own zone, take the body and either knock him off the puck or the puck off him is text-book. Forwards had a tough time getting off a good shot while he was on the ice, and Olsen had a plus-one rating on the evening.

Of the three Hawks’ prospects, Olsen was the only one to scratch the score sheet. He had an assist in Minnesota-Duluth’s first goal of the game, which came in the second period. Olsen got a wrist-shot from the point on net in an attempt to catch the goaltender out of position. The save was made, but left a juicy rebound for Travis Oleksuk on the open half of the net. It was his sixth assist on the season, just nine games in as of Friday.

A few more notes about Olsen before this post abruptly ends. He awareness away from the puck is above average, often negating the cross-ice pass on a two-on-two rush with how well he has his man covered. Olsen will pinch and jumps in the offensive zone when need be. He’ll leave the collegiate ranks this spring.

Mathis Olimb made AHL debut Wednesday

Norwegian forward Mathis Olimb made his AHL debut against the Lake Erie Monsters at home Wednesday night. It was also his first professional game on North American soil. He missed the first portion of the season recovering from a shoulder injury he sustained in a fight with fellow IceHog Kyle Beach at prospect camp this summer. Olimb skated on the third line with Brandon Bollig and Igor Makarov. He was held scoreless, with a minus-one rating and four penalty minutes.

Olsen and Pirri invited to Canadian WJHC selection camp

Hockey Canada announced their 39-man World Junior Hockey Championship selection camp roster on Monday. Two Blackhawks prospects – defenseman Dylan Olsen and forward Brandon Pirri – will be in attendance starting December 12 in Toronto, Ontario. The roster will need to be trimmed down to 22 players before the championship tournament begins in Buffalo, New York on December 26.

This is Olsen’s second consecutive year at Team Canada’s camp. He didn’t make it past the final round of cuts last December, but has a great shot to make the team this time around despite the competition on defense. Three blue liners are returning from 2010′s silver medal squad (Jared Cowen, Ryan Ellis and Calvin de Haan). Olsen is having his best collegiate season to date with the top-ranked Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (WCHA).

Pirri has spent the majority of the season with the Rockford IceHogs (AHL), and will be made available by the Blackhawks for the selection camp and World Junior’s if need be. This is his first invite to a Canadian national training camp.

Dylan Olsen makes Canada’s junior team

When the Canadian World Junior training camp closed up shop last year, defenseman Dylan Olsen didn’t survive the final round of cuts and was sent packing. This time around, the outcome was more desirable for the Blackhawks’ first round pick (28th overall) in 2009, as it was announced Wednesday morning that he was selected to the 2011 squad. He is just one of the two players that made the team from the collegiate ranks.

Forward Brandon Pirri, who was also invited and attended the training camp, was one of the nine players released this morning. He will no longer experience the hoopla that surrounds the Canada’s selection process to their national junior team, and return to the not-so glamorous surroundings of Rockford, Illinois

Olsen and Co. will have 11 days to prepare for their first match of the World Junior Hockey Championship against the Russians on Boxing Day (December 26) in Buffalo, New York.

On the American front

Forward Jeremy Morin and defenseman Nick Leddy were invited to Team USA’s selection camp, which begins Thursday, and will compete with 27 other players for a spot on the 22-man roster. Morin was a member of the 2010 gold medal winning team, but whether he’ll attend the camp is still up in the air. Injuries to players such as Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane could keep him in Chicago indefinitely.

Where do the Blackhawks go from here?

It was a big night for Captain Jonathan Toews ended the Hawks’ two game skid Saturday as Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel and Ben Eager hosted their old team in Atlanta. Toews contributed to every goal in his team’s 5-4 (OT) win over the Thrashers. He has two goals, two assists and netted the first shoot-out goal. With all of the issues the Blackhawks had coming into this game, it was nice to see the face of the franchise finally step up. Patrick Kane scored two goals of his own, and added an assist.

Saturday’s game in Atlanta was more than just the Toews and Kane show. The whole team played with an edge they lost when Marian Hossa went down with an upper-body injury at home to Los Angeles five games earlier. In his stead, role players such as Viktor Stalberg, Jack Skille and Jake Dowell stepped up, but due to the lack of effort from star players, the Blackhawks went 1-3 before Saturday’s win over the Thrashers.

Over that span we learned a few things about how this organization will be run with Stan Bowman as general manager. We already knew from last year that he’ll shuffle players back-and-forth from Rockford to save a dime, but to force Coach Quenneville to field a fourth line consisted of two defenseman centered by a winger in New Jersey was a little excessive. He saved a few thousand dollars by demoting forwards Ben Smith and Ryan Potulny before the game, which they lost in impressive fashion.

Anyways, the edge that the Hawks played with on Saturday was gone by Sunday. They gave up a one goal lead in the third period when the Oilers were able to score two goals fourteen seconds apart. The Blackhawks were unable to return the favor, and handed Edmonton a 2-1 victory at the United Center. Any sort of optimism following the narrow defeat over the Thrashers vanished, and not even Marian Hossa‘s return to the lineup yesterday inspires hope. The issues that surfaced in his absence are still in the forefront.

Management appears to be detached, constantly spewing the tired rhetoric that they are pleased with the state of their team. The players have become complacent, losing yet another game they took the lead into the third period. And for some reason Quenneville continues to pencil John Scott into the lineup over more talented players. First it was Jordan Hendry on defense, and now it’s Bryan Bickell on the fourth line.

Quenneville’s reactionary move is to always meddle with line combinations, but it’s going to take more moving Tomas Kopecky from the second line to the third or abruptly ending a practice session to incite change. Getting this team to play better hockey in their own zone is like teaching a man how to fish. They will win more games as a result, and the other issues become trivial.

Jeremy Morin replaces Marian Hossa, tallies assist

In case you’ve been living under a rock or missed tonight’s 7-5 victory over the much loved St. Louis Blues, the news regarding Marian Hossa‘s health is of the breaking variety. Hossa was helped from the ice after colliding with defenseman and perennial whipping-boy Nick Boynton at Monday’s practice. It was announced today that he will miss up to three weeks with a lower-body injury.

This is the second time this season Hossa will miss a handful of games due to injury. A clean hit by Jarret Stoll in the October 27 match against the Kings forced him to miss five games. In his stead, the Blackhawks re-called forward Jeremy Morin from Rockford (AHL) this morning.

In his third game with the Blackhawks this season, Morin tallied his first NHL point against the Blues. He assisted on Troy Brouwer’s power-play goal in the second period. Morin dumped the puck into the offensive zone, which took a favorable bounce off the boards, leaving the net wide-open for Brouwer to tap it in. The 19-year-old had a plus-two rating, a five-minute fighting major and had 11:38 of ice-time (a career high).

Now we wait on Bowman and Co.

We are somewhere in the middle of the 48-hour window that the Blackhawks have before a decision needs to be made regarding Antti Niemi and the one-year, $2.75 million contract he was awarded in arbitration. The number is a little higher than expected, but it’s do-able. Once again, the Blackhawks can accept the deal, move him via trade or walk away from it making him an unrestricted free agent. Expect Bowman and company to take their time before announcing their decision whether to keep or move the 26-year-old netminder.

If the Blackhawks opt to keep Niemi, they might have to move yet another body to field a roster of 20 to 21 players. However, there have been rumors that Marty Turco has a tentative deal in place at a cheaper price tag. With Turco in net, the organization would have more wiggle room with the roster.

Three Blackhawks at US World Juniors developement camp

Three Blackhawks’ prospects – Jeremy Morin, Kevin Hayes and Stephen Johns – were invited to Team USA’s development camp that began today in Lake Placid, New York. The camp will encompass practice sessions, inter-squad scrimmages and scrimmages against the Swedish and Finnish squads. There were a total of 42 players invited to the development camp, and the roster will be cut down prior to the first international scrimmage against Sweden on August 3rd. USA Hockey also has a World Juniors blog up so fans can follow the happenings from home. The camp runs through August 7th.

Morin was on the USA Junior national team last year. This is the first time for Hayes and Johns at the Team USA development camp. Nick Leddy was supposed to attend the camp as well, but was pulled after he signed a professional deal with the Hawks earlier this week. Not too sure why, but he is at the Blackhawks Convention this weekend.

Meanwhile, north of the boarder…

Dylan Olsen in the Blackhawks lone prospect invited to Team Canada’s development camp next week. Competition for a roster spot will be stiff this year. Three defensemen from the 2010 squad are returning – Jared Cowen, Calvin de Haan and Ryan Ellis. Olsen – along with Shawn Lalonde – was one of the last players cut from last year’s silver medal squad.