The Blackhawks’ drafting was poor throughout the second half of Stan Bowman’s general manager tenure.
But the 2020 draft class might end up being a positive exception. The Hawks’ first three picks that year –forward Lukas Reichel at 17th, goaltender Drew Commesso at 46th and forward Landon Slaggert at 79th –all look like possible steals. They’re arguably the best two forwards and best goalie in their pipeline.
And the Hawks’ fourth pick of 2020 –defenseman Wyatt Kaiser, taken two spots after Slaggert at 81st overall –has also boosted his stock significantly over the past two years.
On a University of Minnesota-Duluth team that advanced to the NCAA Frozen Four in 2021 and to within one win of the Frozen Four this spring, Kaiser has been immediately trusted as a top-pairing defenseman.
His well-rounded game, which makes it difficult to label him as either an offensive or defensive defenseman like most of the Hawks’ other prospects, hints at legitimate NHL top-four upside.
He tallied 10 points in 28 games as a freshman while logging more than 25 minutes per game. He upped his production to 19 points in 34 games as a sophomore this past season, including 11 points in his last 14 games.
“My shot was a big thing, going into this year, that I wanted to improve on,” Kaiser said Wednesday. “[I worked on] taking better shots, being more accurate, making better decisions when I shoot. I definitely improved on that, but it can still get better. Making better decisions in the offensive zone was another big thing.”
In fact, faster and smarter decision-making in all areas was a top priority for him, because that’s something that basically comes only through experience.
“Another thing that helped me was looking before I got the puck,” he said. “In the ‘D’-zone, I’m always looking, scanning, trying to know where everybody is. As soon as [the puck] crosses the red line going into the ‘O’-zone, you get focused in on just the puck and you don’t see much else. So [by] scanning before I get the puck, you’re able to make better decisions when you have more information.”
Kaiser was part of the U.S. team at the World Junior Championships in December whose run ended after just one game due to a COVID outbreak. He then missed two weeks of the college season in February with a torn MCL, an injury which continued to nag him for weeks after he returned –“It would hurt pretty bad,” he admitted.
Through those stops and starts, however, he sought to remedy a frequent knock on him in scouting reports: that could be too impatient and overaggressive in the defensive zone.
“[I was] making sure I’m always responsible in front,” he said. “Freshman year, I was pretty aggressive. If I saw a guy, I was going [to him]. This year was a little bit more [about] assessing the threat. If he’s in the corner and there’s a guy out front, knowing that the guy in the corner probably isn’t going to score and my guy is in front of the net, [I’d] wait a little bit.”
Kaiser will return to Minnesota-Duluth for his junior year in 2022-23. In the meantime, he plans to work with Minnesota-based skills coach Scott Bjugstad to further improve his shot and to add another 10 pounds or so of muscle to his six-foot frame, with 190 to 195 pounds being his current target weight.
Realistically, Kaiser remains two or three years away from NHL readiness, and he’ll need to beat out a huge crowd of fellow Hawks defensive prospects to eventually make it there.
But as new Hawks GM Kyle Davidson initiates the rebuild, growing optimism about the 2020 draft class — from Reichel and Commesso down to Kaiser — will hopefully aid the process.
Note:The Blackhawks announced Wednesday a two-year contract extension with an $800,000 salary cap hit for forward Reese Johnson, who was going to be a restricted free agent this summer.