CHICAGO — Paul Ludwinski could feel the nerves when he stepped into the Chicago Blackhawks’ locker room last fall prior to the Tom Kurvers Prospect Showcase. He was meeting new people, including a lot of established NHL players, and entering an environment he wasn’t accustomed to.
A year later, those nerves have vanished. Now, there’s just excitement.
“Now it’s like, it’s time to just come and perform at my best and let that speak into my way into things,” said the 19-year-old Ludwinski, a Blackhawks forward prospect, after the rookie team’s first practice on Wednesday morning.
Ludwinski was letting his play do the talking for him early into the prospect showcase last season. There had been some hype around him and his speed as the 39th overall pick in the 2022 draft, and he was showing why as he buzzed around the ice and was a handful for the Minnesota Wild. But early into the showcase’s game, he collided with another player and suffered a concussion.
It was just the start of a long season for Ludwinski. He didn’t return to play until mid-October. It took him some time to get his game back going. And then later in the season, he suffered a left ankle sprain that ended up being a lot worse than first expected.
“The concussion wasn’t fun,” Ludwinski said. “Like, I obviously went back and things sort of lingered. But you know, I played when I was healthy. I didn’t have the greatest season.”
Ludwinski hopes to change that this season. For one, he’d like to produce more than he did last season with nine goals and 25 assists in 47 games with the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL. But having said that, Ludwinski also realizes he can’t evaluate everything on statistics. The Blackhawks certainly aren’t. The Blackhawks envision Ludwinski likely being a bottom-six center who creates havoc for opponents with his speed and forechecking ability. The Blackhawks would like for that havoc to create scoring chances, but they’re also trying to assemble enough offensive talent throughout the lineup where someone like Ludwinski could complement those types of players well.
Ludwinski is trying to focus on the big picture.
“So for me, I don’t really focus on that,” he said of stats. “It is there, like, a hockey player will always want to produce. But I’ve tried to build that mental strength, like not worry about it and just play my game. And I love getting on the forecheck, be F1, creating for my teammates, and if pucks aren’t going in, you got to look at positive things, like at least I’m creating for my teammates, at least we’re creating momentum and stuff like that. So that’s my game, and it builds up and it affects the rest of the team in a positive way. So, points don’t mean everything to me, but obviously, it helps.”
Ludwinski has been back on the ice since July and has worked to build up strength back in his ankle after missing about four months. He feels good with it now and is ready to get back on the ice with the Blackhawks for their rookie games on Saturday and Sunday in Minnesota.
“I hope to show obviously my best, just be an impact every night, even if it’s not on the scoresheet, just use my speed. create plays, create for my teammates, be hard to play against and just kind of just have fun out there and look like I’m impacting the game,” he said.
Connor Bedard was absent from the team’s practice on Wednesday due to him being one of the Blackhawks’ representatives at the NHLPA Player Media Tour in Las Vegas, but he is expected to join them on Thursday.
There are some people questioning whether the Blackhawks should sit Bedard for the two-game showcase to keep him safe. Bedard was asked about his individual preference at the NHLPA tour.
“I want to play,” Bedard said. “I’m no different. For me, I just want to play games. I’m really excited for that rookie camp and everything. I know a lot of the guys that will be there, so it should be a lot of fun.”
It’s hard to take a lot out of one practice, but I will say, that I continue to be convinced Wyatt Kaiser is going to be a bigger piece to the Blackhawks’ rebuild than most people probably think. He just skates so well and understands how to utilize that ability. I do think he has figured out how to tap into that more in five-on-five play and be more aggressive offensively, but I do believe he can be the Blackhawks’ second-best offensive defenseman beside Kevin Korchinski in upcoming years.
If Korchinski can be the offensive catalyst, Kaiser can be the best two-way defenseman on the team, Seth Jones can sustain his game throughout his contract and as his role lessens, Alex Vlasic can develop into a shutdown defenseman and the Blackhawks can identify two more NHL defensemen out of Isaak Phillips, Ethan Del Mastro, Nolan Allan and company, the Blackhawks could be onto something soon. Connor Murphy could fit in well with that group for the remainder of his contract, too.
Forward prospect Jaylen Lupen isn’t participating in the rookie practices or games due to a lower-body injury, according to a team spokesperson. It was an injury suffered during his offseason training. The Blackhawks will further evaluate him when he joins the team for training camp.
Luypen had shoulder surgery last season and missed a part of the year in the WHL. He played in 44 games for the Tri-City Americans in the WHL and joined the Rockford IceHogs for their final stretch. He was one of the more impressive prospects to join the IceHogs late in the season and was rewarded with three playoff games.
Forward prospect Marcel Marcel was on the ice with the QMJHL’s Gatineau Olympiques recently and thought about how happy he was that he wouldn’t be returning to the team this season.
It wasn’t that Marcel didn’t enjoy his time in Gatineau or anything like that, but when he looked around the ice and saw players half his size (6-foot-4, 245 pounds), he was grateful his competition this season would be much larger players in the AHL while playing with the Rockford IceHogs.
“One day you have to go play big hockey,” said Marcel, who was drafted in the fifth round in June. ” One day you’re going to be too old to play junior. I was excited for that. My size was probably one of the things (the Blackhawks) liked the most. I’m 245, so I can’t play in junior anymore. Last year was so-so. I think this year it would have been even (more) dangerous for them, for the young kids. I joined the Olympiques for their training camp because I stayed the whole summer there. I saw them. I would feel weird if I’d be there next year. When you play hockey, you want to compete as best as you can. At the same time, you don’t want to injure anyone. There were some guys who were like 160 or a hundred pounds less than me.”
Full house of Blackhawks hockey ops watching the rookies practice pic.twitter.com/XxSmu23mFK
— Scott Powers (@ByScottPowers) September 13, 2023
That’s the reason why the Blackhawks opted to sign Marcel to an AHL contract instead of returning him to junior or somewhere else. The Blackhawks feel like they can better gauge Marcel as a player if he’s playing against players similar to his size.
Marcel knows it’s going to be a challenge, but it’s one he’s up for.
“Get better in every single skill set I got,” Marcel said. ” Get everything faster, quicker, even stronger, because the guys are going to be bigger and stronger. It’ll be one of the most difficult things I see because I’ve just been playing with young guys who were way weaker than I was. Now the guys are going to be the same size, guys are going to be even taller than me. I don’t know if heavier, but definitely taller”
IceHogs coach Anders Sorensen, who is coaching the rookie team, thinks Marcel looks the part of an AHL player.
“Physically, the way he looks out there, he looks like he’s ready to play pro hockey,” Sorensen said. “For us, that was a benefit to be able to bring him out. Really excited to see him.”
Blackhawks 2023 second-round pick Martin Misiak will also have a change of scenery last season. After playing in the USHL for the Youngstown Phantom last season, Misiak decided to join the Erie Otters of the OHL for this upcoming season.
“I talked with the staff here and we made the decision to go to Erie,” Misiak said. “They believe it’s best for my development. So we made the decision together and I think it was a good decision.”
Misiak has bounced around the last few years going from playing in Slovakia, his home country, in the 2021-22 season to the USHL last season to now the OHL.
“It’s never easy to switch three leagues in less than a year, so it’s been tough,” Misiak said. “But from the games I’ve played in the OHL (in the preseason), it’s really fast and lots of goal-scoring opportunities, so I like it. I think I’ll be playing great.”
If the season goes that way, it’s always possible the Blackhawks sign Misiak for next season. He turns 19 on Sept. 30 and will be 20 in 2024.
Drew Commesso and Mitchel Weeks will be the two goalie prospects in the Blackhawks’ games this weekend, but Jaxson Stauber will also join them on the ice for the three practices leading up to the games. Arvid Söderblom was among a group of mostly NHL players holding an informal practice on the other ice sheet at Fifth Third Arena on Wednesday morning.
Cole Guttman, who had shoulder surgery in the offseason, also participated in the informal practice on Wednesday and looked like he had no restrictions. The Blackhawks will have some tough roster decisions this training camp.
These 11 forwards feel like probable NHL players.: Andreas Athanasiou, Connor Bedard, Colin Blackwell, Jason Dickinson, Ryan Donato, Nick Foligno, Taylor Hall, Tyler Johnson, Philipp Kurashev, Corey Perry, Lukas Reichel, Taylor Raddysh.
And then these five forwards are probably bubble players: Joey Anderson, MacKenzie Entwistle, Cole Guttman, Reese Johnson, Boris Katchouk.
If Guttman plays well in camp, I’m not sure how the Blackhawks could leave him off the roster, though. He has more of a likely future with the organization than a lot of the players on the roster.
(Photo of Paul Ludwinski: Robert Lefebvre / OHL Images)