Blackhawks Prospect Camp 2012 gets underway today, offering fans who are willing to stand in a pretty cold ice rink for a few hours the chance to see the next generation of Chicago Blackhawks. The boys have arrived and have completed their physicals and fitness testing, and they’ll be taking to the ice during the lunch hour today at Johnny’s Ice House West, 2550 West Madison Street, in Chicago.

The full Prospect Camp roster is available here, with the on-ice schedule for all five days here. Prospect Camp is free, and open to the public. If you’re serious about going, go at least a half-hour before the guys take the ice. There is VERY limited seating, and it goes fast.

In all, 52 players will be on the ice during camp, usually divided into 2 groups either for practice or scrimmage. There is a Team A and a Team B, one would expect each to contain 22 skaters and 4 goaltenders. There will be practices Monday through Thursday, and scrimmage days are Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

With so many players — more than a third of whom are not even the property of the Blackhawks — how do you know who is worth watching? I’ve narrowed the field for you below: you’ll get the most “bang for your buck” by paying attention to the following 12 players.

FORWARDS

Teuvo Teravainen, LW/C, jersey #29: Teravainen was the Blackhawks’ first-round draft pick last month in the NHL Entry Draft, and is considered an all-or-nothing choice by the pundits. He is also the youngest player in attendance at this year’s camp, with his 18th birthday still 2 months down the road. Teravainen is said to possess some of the most remarkable play-making skills, light years ahead of the rest of his draft class. But he’s small, and he’s young. The jury is still out on whether this kid is going to make it in North America, but I can almost guarantee he is going to put on one hell of a show here among players his own age.

Brandon Saad, LW, #43: Saad was last year’s Wunderkind, coming into Blackhawks training camp as a freshly-drafted 18-year-old and knocking the socks off of coaches and management. He wound up playing in all but one pre-season game, spending time on the top two lines and logging solid minutes, then stuck around for one regular season game before being returned to his Junior team. Barring some setback in his development (which is highly unlikely, he pounded home 34 goals in just 44 games with Saginaw last season), he is nearly a lock to make the club in October. He should be very exciting to watch this week.

Mark McNeill, C, #11: Here’s another strong contender to make the Blackhawks come fall, and there’s a reasonable chance that he’ll be nipping at Marcus Kruger’s heels for that 2nd line center job. He has a solid frame at 6′ 1″ and 211 lbs, and is a right-handed shot which the ‘Hawks are lacking. After 71 points in 69 games with Prince Albert, he was moved up to Rockford to spend the last part of the regular season with the IceHogs. He’s a strong skater who uses his size well, has a good shot with nice touch, soft passes, and plays in the “power forward” style that Chicago is looking for. He is likely to stand out among his peers this week.

Kevin Hayes, C, #15: Kevin Hayes is the younger brother of Jimmy Hayes, who made his mark on the Blackhawks with 31 games logged during the 2011-12 season. Kevin is smaller and more slight of build, if you can call 6′ 3″ and 205 lbs. “slight” — he’s got 2 inches and 6 pounds on Patrick Sharp! Kevin just finished his sophomore year at Boston College, winning the NCAA National Championship this past season. With little left to prove at the college level, I expect we will see Kevin start the year in Rockford in the fall.

 

DEFENSEMEN

Adam Clendening, jersey #8: This is the power play quarterback the Blackhawks are hoping will turn into a viable NHL prospect. You won’t get a chance to see him do that this week, but you will when he hits Rockford in the fall — the ink is just now drying on his shiny new contract with the Blackhawks. At 5′ 11″ and 187 lbs. he won’t be rocking anybody’s world, but he’s built in the mold of Nick Leddy, except with some better defensive instincts.

Klas Dahlbeck, #64: This is another blueliner who will be needing to find an apartment in Rock Vegas in September. At 6′ 3″ and 203 lbs, we hope he throws his weight around as well. He is a pretty consistent stay-at-home defenseman, staying in the “plus” column during his 3 years in the Swedish Elite League. Whether he can adjust to the North American game is the question: this week will start to give us the answer.

Braden Birch, #2: It’s make-or-break time for the 6′ 3″ defenseman, and the answer is likely “make.” Having just finished an impressive Junior season at Cornell, the only thing standing between him and a spot on the roster in Rockford is signing a contract. That will be the goal coming out of Prospect Camp, as other players his age already have their contracts in hand. Birch will be looking to earn that this week.

Joe Gleason, #7: The news may not be so good for the diminutive Gleason. He’s a leftover draft pick from 2008, 7th round, and he, too, is just off his third season at university (North Dakota, for those interested). But unless he can make a huge impression on Blackhawks brass this week, it is likely the last we will see of him. So expect Gleason to take the ice with something to prove.

 

GOALTENDERS

The overall situation with Blackhawks netminders is a lot more murky. The collapse and release of Alexander Salak, following the signing and re-signing of free agent nobody Carter Hutton to fill the resulting void, both have contributed to a depth chart that is essentially a game of 52-card pick-up. Neither Alec Richards nor Kent Simpson have shown the capability to play consistently at the AHL level, so the other four goaltending prospects at this week’s camp will be evaluated very closely in the hopes that one of them is ready to step into a backup role in Rockford.

Lanky Johan Mattsson (no jersey number assigned) went 23-11 with Sudbury last season, and at 6′ 4″ seems a good candidate to step up in the fall. Keep an eye on his post-to-post movement, and his ability to get down and up quickly — that will likely determine his future. Also tall and also a solid candidate is Mac Carruth (#85), who notched 42 wins with the Portland Winterhawks in the 2011-12 campaign. Both Mattsson and Carruth have aged out of Junior hockey, and will be eager to join the IceHogs in the fall. Carruth signed his contract with the Blackhawks earlier this summer; so far no dotted line to sign on for Mattsson.

The youngsters you will see are 2012 7th-round draft picks Matt Tomkins (#40) and Brandon Whitney (#32). Both are just 18 years old, and unless they demonstrate Dominik Hasek-like impenetrability, they will likely return to their respective Junior clubs for the 2012-13 season. But one of these two may be the next “heir apparent” for the starting job down the road, so take a good hard look — sometimes that’s half the fun of Prospect Camp: getting to say, “I remember when that kid was getting shelled by Brandon Saad when he was just 18!”

 

On top of those 12 there are also some curiosities at camp this year: Chris Calnan (jersey #20) is the nephew of former Blackhawk and future Hall of Fame center Jeremy Roenick; Jake Chelios (#17) is the son of former Blackhawk and future Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Chelios; the biggest man on the ice will be Viktor Svedberg (#65) at a giraffe-like 6′ 9″; the smallest player is 5′ 7″ Mihail Plotnikov (#76). All but Calnan are free-agent invitees to camp this season, and none are expected to be signed.

Finally, if there is one dark horse among the free agent invitees that might get a long look from the Blackhawks coaching staff, my pick is Ferris State winger Aaron Schmit (#49), He finished the season with 8 goals and 3 helpers, adding 40 penalty minutes and 3 power play goals. But at 6′ 4″ and 229 lbs. he could be a force to be reckoned with. If he can match the speed of the smaller, faster forwards and isn’t afraid to use his size to his advantage, he might just find himself with an AHL contract for his trouble.

Follow us on Twitter and keep an eye on your Facebook timeline for updates from Prospect Camp throughout the week.

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