Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said change is necessary, even for a team with a proven group of players good enough to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
"If you bring the exact same team back year to year, it's awful tough to push through the grind of a schedule and a season," Bowman told NHL.com during the Stanley Cup Final. "If you have a few guys who didn't win it and they want to get there, I think it brings some energy to the group. I don't mind the fact that you have to make some changes."
Some of the changes the Blackhawks are contemplating for this season involve prospects they've been marinating in the American Hockey League. Training camp could be a graduation of sorts for at least five of the top prospects in the Blackhawks' system.
Here is a look at Chicago's top 10 prospects, according to NHL.com:
1. Brandon Pirri, C: After leading the American Hockey League in scoring last season (75 points in 76 games), Pirri could become the Blackhawks' No. 2 center this season. At the very least he'll be in the group that will be given the chance to earn that job in training camp in September. It's a coveted spot playing between Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa.
Pirri is 21 years old and was chosen in the second round (No. 59) of the 2009 NHL Draft. He has appeared in seven games with the Blackhawks and has two assists. He had 56 points in 66 games in the AHL during the 2011-12 season.
"I think he's improved in the puck area, strength in the puck area," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville told NHL.com. "Offensively we know he can do the right thing. He sees and makes plays. That awareness defensively is something we'll be keeping an eye on."
2. Ben Smith, RW: Smith is 25 years old and has been on the cusp for a while. The Blackhawks have plans for him to be in the lineup this season. Quenneville said he could see Smith taking over Michael Frolik's duties as one of the team's top penalty killers along with Marcus Kruger.
Smith has four goals in 20 NHL games over the past three seasons and three goals in eight games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. When Hossa was a late scratch in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, Quenneville surprisingly turned to Smith, who handled himself well in more than 10 minutes of ice time.
He had 27 goals and 47 points in 54 games with Rockford last season.
"You look at the game when Hossa couldn't go, who Joel went to and that tells you right there what kind of confidence Joel has in him," Blackhawks director of amateur scouting Mark Kelley told NHL.com. "He plays with persistence. He was injured in the minors, lost a good portion of the year in 2011-12 and this past season he just put it all together."
3. Jeremy Morin, LW: Morin, 22, was tied for fifth in the AHL last season with 30 goals. He had 58 points in 67 games for the Rockford Ice Hogs. It was by far Morin's best professional season and there may be an opening for him on the NHL roster this season. He played three games with the Blackhawks last season and had a goal and an assist. He has five points in 15 NHL games over the past three seasons.
"He's another one that's just knocking on the door," Kelley said. "He's going to play. He's going to get that opportunity this year. Whether or not he can seize it and run with it we'll see. Jeremy offers so many things. He's got a great stick, shoots the puck and plays with a lot of character. He can play on any of the forward lines."
4. Adam Clendening, D: Clendening was an AHL All-Star in his first professional season after playing two seasons at Boston University. He had 46 points in 73 games, with 37 assists, second on his team behind Pirris' 53 and tied for 11th in the AHL.
The Blackhawks expect Clendening, 20, to play some games in the NHL this season.
"It's hard to crack the 'D,' but I think this year on an 82-game schedule, looking at our team, I think Joel is going to have the luxury of being able to play some players during periods of the season where in that short season and the year we were having, with the start that just wouldn't stop, your best laid plans get altered," Kelley said. "This year, we know there is going to be a graduation for some players coming up from Rockford and deservedly so."
5. Drew LeBlanc, C: When discussing candidates for the second-line center opening, Quenneville surprisingly mentioned LeBlanc, who has played two professional hockey games. Chicago signed LeBlanc to a one-year contract in April, after he finished his senior season at St. Cloud State. He played two games with the Blackhawks at the end of the regular season and was a minus-3 with zero points.
LeBlanc, 24, may need some time to learn what being a pro is all about, but the Blackhawks are high on him. If Pirri makes the NHL roster, don't be surprised to see LeBlanc quickly take over as the No. 1 center in Rockford.
"I wouldn't say he's a long shot," Kelley said. "With his circumstances, when he was signed, he couldn't play in Rockford. He played at the World Championships [for the United States]. We have to give him a little bit of time to adjust to the speed of the pro game, but for him it could happen soon."
6. Stephen Johns, D: Johns, a 6-foot-4 stay-at-home defenseman, is entering his senior year at the University of Notre Dame after putting up 14 points on a goal and 13 assists in 41 games as a junior. He was a plus-12, led the Fighting Irish with 62 penalty minutes and had 45 blocked shots. Johns, 21, was a second-round pick (No. 60) in 2010.
"When [Notre Dame's] season ends he could go right to Chicago," Kelley said. "He's right in that mix because of what he adds. He is big and mobile. The defensemen who go out after him have it a lot easier because the forecheck is not quite as strong. Right now he probably gets penalties because he makes too much noise when he hits. He's a big hitter."
7. Teuvo Teravainen, C: Teravainen, Chicago's first-round pick in 2012 (No. 18), will be in training camp next month but is expected to spend his third straight season playing for Jokerit in the SM-Liiga, Finland's top professional league. Bowman said Teravainen, 18, likely will be Jokerit's No. 1 center. He had a career-high 31 points in 44 games last season after 18 points in 40 games in 2011-12.
"The real plan is for him to play another year in Europe," Kelley said. "He'll get ice time obviously with the under-20 team. He might get some looks with the national team. With Teuvo, we have the luxury of being patient with him. It's let him mature physically. For us, the excitement is that he's just an elite talent. He'll get there."
8. Antti Raanta, G: Raanta, a 24-year-old goalie from Finland, signed a one-year deal reportedly worth up to $1.4 million, but he likely will start the season with Rockford because the Blackhawks signed Nikolai Khabibulin to be Corey Crawford's backup. Raanta is someone the Blackhawks are eyeing for future years provided he can learn the North American game.
"He's 24 years old and hopefully he can adjust to North American [hockey] quickly," Bowman said. "Sometimes that takes a little bit of time, so we're not trying to rush him into anything."
9. Phillip Danault, RW: Danault, Chicago's first-round pick in 2011 (No. 26), is entering what should be his first full professional season after finishing his junior career in the QMJHL last season. He split time between the Moncton Wildcats and Victoriaville Tigres and had 85 points on 23 goals and 62 assists in 56 games.
He played five games in Rockford at the end of the season and did not register a point. Danault, 20, played for Canada in the 2013 World Junior Championship and had one assist in six games.
"He's very good along the walls, he has a great stick, good body position and loves to take it to the net," Blackhawks director of player personnel Barry Smith told the team's website. "He's not afraid of traffic and he really competes. I like his chances. I like his game. I think he's really going to improve."
10. Mark McNeill, C: McNeill, like Danault, was a first-round pick in 2011 (No. 18) and went to Rockford last season after his junior career wrapped up. He likely will be in Rockford on a full-time basis after completing four seasons with the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League. McNeill, 20, had 67 points in 65 games last season and finished his WHL career with 243 points in 276 games, including 217 points in 206 games over the past three seasons.
"We project him as a third-line player, but with that size and he has puck skills, he could slide up and play with your skill players because of the skill he has," Kelley said.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer
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