Blackhawks prospect updates: Frank Nazar likely to return to Michigan next season

When the Blackhawks selected Frank Nazar 13th overall last summer, the most likely timeline was that Nazar would spend one year at the University of Michigan and then turn pro.

But a hip injury that required surgery back in October has changed that timeline.

Nazar finally resumed skating a few weeks ago, progressing to the next stage of his rehab, but he has yet to play a game this season.

Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said Tuesday on a local radio show he’s “optimistic” Nazar will debut before season’s end, but that realistically might depend on how deep a postseason run the Wolverines make. Their regular-season finale is scheduled for Feb. 25.

From a Hawks perspective, however, Nazar’s long-term health and stability is far more important than a few crammed-in games this spring.

“We just want to make sure he’s 100% and not rushing back,” said Mark Eaton, the Hawks’ assistant general manager who oversees player development. “If he is [healthy] and able to play, that’s just an added bonus. But our main concern is making sure the hip is feeling good and he’s ready to have a great summer.”

Either way, the Hawks are leaning toward sending Nazar back to Michigan in 2023-24, pushing his rookie pro season to 2024-25.

“Whether he plays games for Michigan this year or not, it would be a hard transition for him to go right to the pro level,” Eaton said. “My thoughts at this point are that he certainly could benefit from a full year of college hockey next year.”

The Hawks nonetheless remain excited about his future potential. He looked fantastic in development camp last summer, with his relentless energy and work ethic adding extra dimensions to his offensive skills.

“I don’t see [this year] as a setback,” Eaton added. “This was something that was going to need to be taken care of at some point. Better now than three, four, five years from now. It’s an unfortunate thing that some guys have to go through, but it is a part of development, learning how to handle injuries and recover.”

More prospect updates

Speaking of longer timelines, defenseman Sam Rinzel — the 25th pick last summer — remains on the longer-term path that the Hawks expected when selecting him.

Rinzel has tallied 22 points in 31 games for Waterloo this season as one of the USHL’s top defensemen. He’ll be a freshman at Minnesota next year.

“I never want to say a player is above-and-beyond certain levels, but with Sam’s skating ability, he can do a lot of things…that he might not necessarily be able to get away with at the next level,” Eaton said. “[We’re] just letting him have the freedom to go out there and make plays and push himself and see what he’s capable of, but keeping that in the back of his mind.”

Forward Gavin Hayes, a third-round pick, has recorded 45 points in 46 games for Flint of the OHL, although he believes he has “more to give” production-wise.

Gaining strength and weight is Hayes’ No. 1 priority. He’s listed at 6-2, 178 pounds. The Hawks have been trying to help, recommending some supplements, but it has proven difficult during the season.

“I’ve been trying to [add] a couple pounds here and there, but then if we play a game, I sometimes lose it all,” Hayes said. “It’s challenging for sure. I don’t want to eat terrible food and bulk up that way, but stay lean while eating clean.”

The coming offseason will likely be crucial.

“He has a way of getting involved offensively,” Eaton said. “[He’s a] very smart player. As he adds some power and strength, that should help quicken up those first couple strides that will allow him to play at the pace expected of him at the next level.”

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