Through the work of general manager (GM) Kyle Davidson and his scouting staff, it’s important to remember just how deep the Chicago Blackhawks‘ prospect pipeline has become over the last two years. For all the hype surrounding Connor Bedard and Kevin Korchinski, the organization has several young players progressing well in their development.
Of course, the NHL is a different beast than the junior/collegiate levels, and not everyone will hit, but there are many signs of hope. With the rebuild in full swing, let’s discuss three prospects who have stood out early this season.
One of the Blackhawks’ more recent additions, forward Nick Lardis has been a driving force for the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Brantford Bulldogs. This year’s 67th overall pick is tied for the team lead in points (19) while leading the Bulldogs with 14 goals. Lardis has tallied nine points (five goals, four assists) in his last five games, including back-to-back two-goal outings in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Peterborough Petes (Nov. 12) and a 6-3 win against the Sarnia Sting (Nov. 15), in which he also recorded an assist. His 14 goals are tied for third-most league-wide, too.
It’s good to see consistency from Lardis, especially after having a mixed 2022-23 campaign. He began last season with Peterborough, where he recorded 19 points (12 goals, seven assists) in 36 games. Though by all means, those are good numbers, the Petes moved Lardis to the then-Hamilton Bulldogs at the 2023 OHL trade deadline, and he had an incredible jump production-wise. In 36 games with the Bulldogs last season, he tallied 46 points (25 goals, 21 assists).
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Despite not having the same name recognition as Frank Nazar or Oliver Moore, Lardis is more than capable of making an impact offensively. Some have said his strength and physicality are areas of improvement; however, with patience and the right development, those are issues that can be resolved over time. For now, the upside is there, and I’d love to see him become part of Chicago’s top-nine forward group in perhaps three to four years.
Speaking of Nazar, the 2022 13th overall pick is redeeming himself after missing much of 2022-23 due to a hip injury. The 19-year-old forward underwent surgery last fall and didn’t make his season debut until Feb. 10 against Michigan State before recording seven points in 13 games. However, Nazar has taken his production a step further this season, having recorded 13 points (six goals, seven assists) through 12 games. Being at full health has allowed him to grow and gain more confidence, he said in an interview with The Athletic (from “A weekend with Blackhawks first-round draft picks Frank Nazar, Oliver Moore, Sam Rinzel,” The Athletic, 11/15/23).
Along with his offense, Nazar brings impressive speed, a trait Davidson’s eyed in his drafting. Off the ice, the Detroit area native has a great personality and shares many similarities with Bedard, which fans will undoubtedly love. When speaking with College Hockey News, he said hockey is a “drug and addiction.” Before joining Michigan, Nazar spent two seasons with the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP), tallying 70 points in 56 games for the U18 team in 2021-22.
Once Michigan’s season ends, I wouldn’t be shocked if Nazar joined the Blackhawks to end the 2023-24 season. The team has followed a similar path, with Alex Vlasic and Wyatt Kaiser coming straight from college the past two seasons. I could see Nazar becoming a full-time NHLer as early as 2024-25, but no matter when he debuts, he’s on an excellent track to becoming a stalwart in the Blackhawks’ top-six and likely their first power-play unit. Barring possible free-agent signings/trades, both he and Moore seem like prime candidates to become the Blackhawks’ second-line center behind Bedard in a few years.
From Arvid Söderblom to Drew Commesso, the Blackhawks have some solid options in net long-term. That said, let’s highlight the group’s newest addition: Adam Gajan. Chicago took the 19-year-old goaltender 35th overall in this year’s draft, and he’s posted impressive numbers so far for the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League (USHL). Through 13 games, Gajan’s shined with a 9-3-1-0 record, along with a .917 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.84 goals-against average (GAA). Last season, he split time between the Gamblers and the Chippewa Steel of the North American Hockey League (NAHL) while also having a successful run for Team Slovakia at the 2023 World Juniors.
Gajan’s far from his NHL debut, and it’s tough to project his ceiling this early in his development. There’s much to like about his game, however. He brings a nice frame at 6-foot-3 and 181 pounds, and some of his biggest strengths are his athleticism, positioning, and puck control. He’s expected to head to the University of Minnesota-Duluth for 2024-25, and gives the Blackhawks another choice in net beyond Söderblom, Commesso, and Jaxson Stauber, all of whom have turned pro.
No matter how things play out, the Blackhawks’ pipeline is in a great place, and these three players are just a few names who’ve impressed. Beyond Nazar and Lardis, there are Moore, Colton Dach, Ryan Greene, and Gavin Hayes at forward. On defense, Nolan Allan and Ethan Del Mastro are adapting nicely to the American Hockey League, and both Commesso and Gajan continue to progress in net. It remains to be seen how long the rebuild takes or whether it even becomes successful, but there’s a lot to like right now.