The Chicago Blackhawks have drafted in recent years for the future, not the present.
With Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews among others locked up for years to come, the Blackhawks don’t have a whole lot of immediate needs. Their NHL draft objective lately has been to figure out which players to select to make sure they’re aligned with the Stanley Cup five, 10, 15 years down the line.
With that goal in mind, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman and amateur scouting senior director Mark Kelley have turned to the USHL more than any other league during their run of three Stanley Cups in the last six years. The Blackhawks have selected 19 players who have played or who have gone on to play in the USHL in the last six drafts. The Blackhawks also lead all NHL teams with 27 all-time USHL draft picks.
The Blackhawks haven’t entered each draft planning for their selections to play out that way, but it’s also not a coincidence.
“Only when people tell you [do you realize how many USHL players we’ve drafted],” Kelley said. “When people tell, I’m not surprised because we have a lot of respect for the league. We’re in a good position. We have a very good team. We have a very good [AHL] team in Rockford. We have a very good development program, very good development staff. The USHL, it’s like they play into our hands.”
The USHL is the ideal pond for the Blackhawks to fish for a variety of reasons. For one, they do possess a level of respect for the entire league. It’s not as if it’s home to just one or two potential NHL prospects. It’s full of many, and that makes evaluating players easier.
The Blackhawks also like the fact a majority of the USHL players will go onto college. That helps in development and players being closer to NHL-ready when they sign their entry-level contracts. It also gives the Blackhawks time. With the Blackhawks having so few openings on their roster in recent seasons, it’s luxury for them to have some of their top prospects continuing to develop in college. Not having to rush those players into pro hockey benefits the Blackhawks on the ice and on their financial books in the salary-cap world.
“There’s a lot of things that have happened in the last 10 years,” Bowman said. “College hockey has become a pretty good breeding ground for NHL players. I think like 34 percent of the NHL players are college players now. It wasn’t like that a long time ago. The USHL is the feeder league for colleges.
“If you look at this model 10 or 15 years ago, the major junior route was producing more players than college. As a result, kids as teenagers would lean towards the Canadian junior leagues. Now with kids knowing you can get an education as well as make it to the NHL, that’s why some of these kids have decided to stay home and go and play in the USHL for a year or two and go onto college. I think that’s the biggest reason we’ve been paying attention to it. We’re seeing more talent as U.S. hockey has improved. We’re seeing those kids stay home more than they used to.”
Bowman sends his scouts to the USHL as much as anywhere. The Blackhawks try to be prepared for any scenario at the draft, and their homework has often led them to USHL players. They drafted three USHL players in 2010, four in 2011, one in 2012, five in 2013, four in 2014 and two in 2015. Adam Clendening, Ryan Hartman, John Hayden, Stephen Johns, Luke Johnson, Anthony Louis, Tyler Motte, Fredrik Olofsson, Brandon Saad and Nick Schmaltz are among those draft picks.
“If they’re Americans, they’re staying at home and playing in the USHL,” Bowman said. “If they’re Canadian kids, they’re playing in the Canadian league. We got to scout both of them to an equal importance. I think that’s why you’ve seen not only our team, but other teams draft more out of the [USHL] because the league is improving.”
Vincent Hinostroza is one of the Blackhawks’ USHL success stories. He was drafted in the sixth round in 2012 after playing for the USHL’s Waterloo Black Hawks. He spent three seasons in the USHL, played two years at Notre Dame and signed with the Blackhawks last spring. He made his NHL debut earlier this season.
“It’s a great example,” Kelley said. “When we drafted Vinnie, he went back to the USHL for a year. In all honesty, he was ready. He could have gone to play college hockey that year. It’s a situation where we leave that decision to the player, his family and advisor. He got great advice. He’s where he is at now because they chose a great path and a great plan and it’s worked.”
Hinostroza now looks back at his time in the USHL as something that helped him get ready for his future opportunities.
“I think it’s a great place for young kids to go to prepare them for college and pro hockey,” the 21-year-old Hinostroza said. “I think we really focused on developing and really improving. We always played a lot of games. It’s definitely a fun league to be in. It’s very competitive. Every team is a good team.”
The Blackhawks have also found USHL alumni through trades and free-agent signings. Scott Darling and Tanner Kero, who are both currently in the NHL, played in the USHL. The Blackhawks also have five other former USHL players in the system acquired outside the draft.
Nolan Valleau wasn’t that far removed from the USHL when he signed a pro contract with the Blackhawks this past offseason after impressing them at their prospect camp. He played for the Chicago Steel and Des Moines Buccaneers of the USHL during the 2012-13 season and then spent two years at Bowling Green State University.
“The biggest thing I took away from the USHL was the pace of play,” the 23-year-old Valleau said. “In the USHL, I felt like I was playing against all the other top guys all over the United States. That’s when you started to get players internationally. That was the first time I thought I was playing against the top guys in the world.”
Kelley has scouted the USHL for years. He believes others are beginning to notice what he did before.
“For us in the hockey business, scouts being out there, it’s always been very credible,” Kelley said. “I think it’s starting to garnish the respect it deserves. I think the USHL is presenting its product in a much better way. It’s being presented in HD now. I think it’s a great league. They’re getting the message out and it’s better each year.
“If you look at the players who have come through there all the years and the coaches that have come out of there, not just the coaches who have ended up in the NHL, but the coaches who have turned out to be really good coaches. It’s a breeding ground for hockey for coaches and players in the USA.”
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 14th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2015-16. A record 37 players were chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft and more than 375 players on team rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.