Wednesday, August 15, 2012

One To Watch: Chicago Blackhawks

One of the great NHL stories of the last decade, in my opinion, has been the return to prominence of the Chicago Blackhawks. One of the Original Six, a franchise deep in history and legends had become a bottom feeder in the league without a glimmer of hope for fans to cling to. That changed in the early 2000's and resulted in a Stanley Cup win in 2010. 

The Hawks steady climb back to the top was done mostly from within as the club built through the draft. Strong drafting has continued and so the Hawks remain a franchise to be feared and respected.

Goaltending at the NHL level has become a question mark for Chicago and the Hawks have used a number of draft picks in recent years to stockpile at that position. Chicago has drafted five goalies in the last three years, almost all of them very late in the draft. Brandon Whitney and Matt Tomkins are the two most recent and they join Kent Simpson, Mac Carruth and Swede Johan Mattson in the organization. 

Defencemen have been a particular success story in Chicago going back to Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. More recently, Dylan Olsen (who played 28 games last year), Joe Gleason, Nick Mattson, Adam Clendening, Michael Paliotta and Dillon Fournier have deepened the waiting pool even more.

Fans have their fingers crossed that 2012 1st round pick Teuvo Teravainen becomes the steal many of them believe he could be. 2011 1st rounder Mark McNeill is looking to finish his WHL career in playoff fashion with Prince Albert. Some forwards have already played some NHL games like Brandon Pirri, Brandon Saad and Jeremy Morin

The guy I settled on for this series has yet to play a NHL game although he was selected five drafts ago. Injuries and perhaps salaries have combined to delay his arrival but maybe that will change this year. 

Kyle Beach (LW)

Rockford IceHogs
6'3, 210 lbs
Drafted 11th Overall in 2008

I remember the first time that I saw Kyle Beach play in person. It was the first visit the Everett Silvertips made to Edmonton after the return of the Oil Kings and it was early in the schedule, late October or early November. Beach's reputation had preceded him and I was eager to watch the big power forward on a better than point per game pace and close to 70 PIMs not even two months into the season. 

Beach didn't disappoint. He scored one of the classic, Mike Legg lacrosse-style wrap around goals from behind the net and played his physical game all night long. The Oil Kings actually won the game but it was Beach that I came away remembering. 

Photo: Everett Silvertips
All season long I picked the brains of scouts about Beach, a player eligible for the draft later that year but who some seemingly wanted no part of. I had been told stories that one WHL team's management went so far as to tell their scouting staff not to both even watching him play because there was no chance they would take him - and that was the WHL Bantam draft!

It was much the same with the NHL crowd but far from unanimous. The basic concern was that Beach was such a loose cannon that the fear was he would never mature and would eventually become a dressing room cancer. 

fellow media guys around the WHL including some team broadcasters have shared stories with me about Beach that truly do sound awful. Yet when I speak with Beach or with teammates of his, it's hard to believe the tales are about the same guy.

I have interviewed Beach a number of times over the years and he has been nothing but pleasant and accommodating to me. The most recent was just a couple of weekends ago when he came on the show to reminisce about his WHL career, talk about his days in the AHL and look ahead to the coming season.

Photo: Gary Peterson
He spoke openly about his reputation of being hated throughout the WHL and his nervousness when he was dealt to Lethbridge and Spokane because of that reputation. 
"When I went to Lethbridge I got a long with everybody and it was great, when I went to Spokane it was the exact same thing," Beach insisted, "The only problem [in Spokane] was convincing the fans. I think in the home opener I got booed for the first period and a half. It was definitely a first for me... well, a first at home!"
I remember asking Zack Boychuk (CAR), who was the marquee player in Lethbridge at the time of the trade, about Beach and he echoed that sentiment. He said Beach was "a bit different but he's a good guy". 

After he moved to Spokane, an arch rival from his Everett days, Mitch Wahl (CGY) admitted that he almost reluctantly came to like Beach. Here was a guy Wahl had grown to hate so much on the opposition but actually became very good friends with as teammates. 

Photo: Claus Anderson / Getty
The Blackhawks ended up taking Beach in the middle of the 1st round with thoughts that one day he might be the ideal type of player to line up with the team's stars, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, because not only could he protect them but he had the ability to play with them.

The Hawks sent Beach back to the WHL for two more years and in his final season he racked up 52 goals, 86 points and 186 PIMs in 68 games and appeared ready to challenge for a roster spot.

He didn't make the team as a rookie and spent all of it on the farm in Rockford where he compiled 16 goals, 36 points and  163 PIMs which is a pretty decent year for a rookie in his role. 

Photo: AHL
Unfortunately Beach's follow up season was cut short by a serious shoulder injury sustained in a fight with Peoria tough guy Stefan Della Rovere. He returned late in the year for a few games but in all only played 19 games. Beach says that was an important way to end the season though because it eliminated a mental hurdle that could have carried over to the coming year had he not played.

This year Beach hopes to re-establish himself in the organization whether at the NHL or AHL level. Not long ago the Hawks dealt Troy Brouwer in part because they thought Beach was close to being able to fill that role with the big club. Perhaps that opportunity comes this year.

It's a big season for Beach as he looks to earn another contract with the Hawks, prove that his shoulder injury is behind him and work his way onto the NHL roster in Chicago. For those reasons, I chose Kyle Beach as "One to Watch" in 2012-13.         

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, this was a good read! Nice to see someone covering the hockey world look into things themself. Speaking with players who were opponents AND teammates. Most media types just keep regurgitating what they have heard or read from 2008 or earlier, keeping rumours and half truths alive. Players, coaches, fans all have their own bias. Your blog even had a positive note to it. A nice change. (Please don't post this I just wanted to pass on feedback anonymously.