After free-agent frenzy, Blackhawks walk a line between win-now, win-later at development camp

CHICAGO — Mark Eaton’s primary job as the Chicago Blackhawks’ assistant general manager for player development is to make sure the prospects in the pipeline make it to the NHL. Kyle Davidson’s primary job as general manager is to make the Blackhawks as competitive as possible.

This week, those two jobs seem to be at odds.

On the same day the Blackhawks opened development camp for all those prospects, Davidson went out and signed seven veteran free agents aged 29 or older, leaving precious few spots for younger players. The Blackhawks got a lot better, but the rebuild might have gotten a year or two longer.

Eaton didn’t seem too concerned. Fewer spots means fiercer competition.

“It’s about competition,” he said. “That’s what we have tried to create as our prospect pool gets deeper. It’s creating more competition. … That’s the foundation of the Blackhawks, a high compete level. So when you have more competition, it allows the cream to rise to the top and push each other in a positive way — get more out of each other. To me, that’s the greatest benefit of having maybe less spots and more guys competing for less spots. It allows the cream to rise to the top and take themselves to a different level.”

The biggest beneficiary of that increased competition might be Rockford IceHogs coach Anders Sorensen.

“Everything has to be earned,” Sorensen said. “So if there’s somebody ahead of you that’s older, or playing better than you, it’s up to you to find a way to push that guy out.”

The Blackhawks have learned the value in a player over-ripening in Rockford through the rise of Alex Vlasic, who went from a fringe NHL prospect to a bona-fide top-four defenseman on a six-year contract after spending three seasons at Boston University and a season in Rockford. And if they all marinate together, they can reach the NHL with good chemistry already built in, something that benefitted the recent championship eras of the Blackhawks and the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“As players, you need to kind of grow up together,” Sorensen said. “And if you have a core of guys that can grow up together, that’s really beneficial. If you watch Tampa and how they’ve done things, they kind of brought a core group of guys up together. And we’ll see if that happens.”

Three days into the Blackhawks’ second all-off-ice development camp, here are some other quick takeaways:

Levshunov’s fate

The Blackhawks and Artyom Levshunov have yet to decide where the No. 2 pick will spend the next hockey season. Is he better off potentially dominating college hockey as a Michigan State sophomore or starting his pro hockey career in Rockford under the watchful eyes of the Blackhawks staff?

Eaton clearly has a preference.

“Obviously, being able to be hands-on every single day is a huge bonus,” he said. “That is the line that we walk with our amateur prospects — the realization that they all play for other coaches, they all play in different systems. So if we have the ability to have him in-house (with) our great staff in Rockford, our development staff working with him on a daily basis, to start to close that gap between where he is and where he needs to go — I think it’s only a bonus.”

Levshunov said he’s still talking things over with his family and his advisers but said it’ll be a mutual decision between him and the Blackhawks, not a unilateral one. He also snuck in there that he had one other possibility for next season.

“Maybe NHL,” he said with a quick smile.

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Artyom Levshunov speaks to members of the media after being selected by the Blackhawks at No. 2. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

Söderblom’s setback

The Blackhawks entered last season believing that Arvid Söderblom was their goaltender of the future and that he’d be able to handle a relatively even split with incumbent veteran Petr Mrázek. He wasn’t. Söderblom won just five of his 29 starts, posting an .879 save percentage and allowing nearly four goals per game. Out of 96 NHL goaltenders, only Ottawa’s Joonas Korpisalo had a worse goals saved above expected than Söderblom’s minus-12.99.

The signing of veteran backup Laurent Broissoit means Söderblom will be headed back to Rockford next season to compete with Drew Commesso to not only be the IceHogs’ No. 1 goalie but potentially the Blackhawks’ No. 1 goalie down the road.

Sorensen suggested that the irregular routine of being a backup exacerbated Söderblom’s struggles last season. The worse he played, the less frequently he played, the even worse he played.

“For Arvid, (it’s) just finding his game again and finding a rhythm to play in and just knowing that he’s going to play the next game even if he has a little hiccup,” Sorensen said. “I think when you’re in the NHL, it’s all performance-based, and if you don’t have a good couple of games, you’re not going to see a few games for a while. I don’t think it’s the same by us. I think just getting him in a rhythm is going to be key.”

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Arvid Soderblom had a 3.92 goals-against average in 2023-24. (Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

Martinez the mentor

Kevin Korchinski, the No. 7 pick in the 2022 draft, has graduated beyond development camps at this stage of his career, but as a 19-year-old who has barely scratched his ceiling, he’s still very much a prospect in a lot of ways.

One of the veterans the Blackhawks acquired in free agency is Alec Martinez, who’ll turn 37 later this month. There’s a decent chance Martinez (or TJ Brodie) is Korchinski’s defensive partner this season. In his introductory Zoom on Wednesday, Martinez said he was ready to take on that mentor role.

“I can’t stress it enough, and I told Kyle the same thing: I’m not going to sit here and act like I know everything, by any means,” Martinez said. “I make as many mistakes as the next guy. But I thought it was a pretty unique chance to play with some younger players with a lot of talent. And if I can help them in any way, I’m more than willing to do so and I’m excited to do so.”

That said, Martinez looks around at all the additions — Tyler Bertuzzi, Teuvo Teravainen, Pat Maroon, Craig Smith, Brodie, Broissoit, Ilya Mikheyev and himself — and doesn’t see a rebuilding team playing for another top-five pick.

“I don’t know about you guys, but when you see some of those names, the kind of guys, the pedigree, the quality of human beings — I’m pretty excited,” Martinez said. “I think we’re going to be pretty good, too.”

For the record, it took all of two questions for Martinez to be asked about his goal for the Kings in overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference final at the United Center.

“I’m surprised it took until question two,” he said with a chuckle.

Rockford’s dilemma

The glut of veterans in the NHL likely means plenty of NHL-caliber players in Rockford. That’s good for Sorensen, but the Blackhawks will want him focusing as much (if not more) on developing all those young players as he does on winning. Often, the best AHL teams are laden with former NHL veterans. Rockford has lost in the first round in three straight seasons, winning just one of 10 games in those series.

It’s a fine line for a coach who wants to win but who first has to do right by his parent organization.

“I do think you can marry the two, for sure,” Sorensen said. “Younger teams seem to have a good start and then they kind of hit a speed bump somewhere around Game 20 or so. I think that’s when the veterans are important. … There’s a balance, for sure, but I think I think you can marry development and winning if you do it the right way. We haven’t really found the sweet spot yet, but I think we’re getting closer.”

Camp classes

Johnny Oduya, one of the fittest Blackhawks ever, taught the prospects a class on how to control your breathing on Wednesday. Among the other activities was a cooking competition and a game in which everyone carried around a tennis ball all day and tried to steal other players’ tennis balls. No tackling recent first-round pick Marek Vanacker, though, since he’s rehabbing from shoulder surgery.

Lessons from Forsling

Is there a lesson to be learned from Florida Panthers defenseman Gustav Forsling, who was traded away by the Vancouver Canucks at 19, by Chicago at 23, and waived by the Carolina Hurricanes at 24, before blossoming into a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman and Stanley Cup champion with Florida at 28?

Maybe not for the Blackhawks front office. Forsling’s path is obviously an unusual one. But there is something to be said for patience with prospects, particularly defensemen. And Forsling can be an inspiration for those toiling away in the minors, waiting for their big break.

“It’s a reminder,” Eaton said. “Everybody’s path is different. Some guys make it early. Some guys it does take them five, six, seven years. Maturation happens at a different speed for everybody. For Gustav, the talent and the skill was always there, but maybe the adjustment to North America, the maturity level with him, getting comfortable over here, didn’t happen until four or five years later.

“You hope it’s not the case, but sometimes young players with a lot of talent, their biggest wake-up call is when they do get traded or get put on waivers. It’s a big part of what we do, is to say, ‘Don’t wait for that moment. Have that sense of urgency now because sometimes you don’t get a second chance.’ Fortunately for Gustav, he did get a second and third chance, and he made the most of it.”

Prospect catch-up

Let’s wrap this up with very quick thoughts from some of the other top prospects:

• 2022 first-rounder and Minnesota rising sophomore Sam Rinzel on filling out his frame, one of the things that made him a longer-term project: “I’m around that 190 mark, I would say. Hopefully get to 195 or 200 going into next season, and after that, hopefully 200-plus. … Eat as much as you can. Make sure you’re eating a lot before you go to bed, but making sure it’s good food and not just a bunch of fat. Making sure it’s good muscle and good fat.”

• 2022 second-rounder Ryan Greene on why he’s going back to Boston University rather than turning pro: “My freshman and sophomore year, losing in the Frozen Four, it still stings. I still really can’t fully forget it. There’s definitely a revenge factor a little bit. You want to get another crack at that and hopefully win a national championship.”

• 2023 first-rounder Oliver Moore on the challenges of his freshman year at Minnesota, where he had nine goals and 24 assists in 39 games: “College is different than junior. You’re doing more school work, the lifestyle’s a little different. There’s a lot of things to handle at once. I feel like I’m really preparing for my sophomore season and having a little bit more time to do that will help me get off to a better start.”

• 2023 third-rounder Nick Lardis, on the role he played in getting his Brantford teammate Vanacker drafted in the first round by Chicago: “During the year, they asked me about Marek and how he was as a person, player. And he’s obviously a guy (where) there’s nothing negative about him. He’s such a positive, great guy around the room and on the ice.”

(Top photo of Artyom Levshunov and Connor Bedard at the NHL Draft on Friday: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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