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Blackhawks development camp notebook: Free agent frenzy, Artyom Levshunov's decision, and more

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The Chicago Blackhawks held their development camp this week — albeit off-ice only for the second consecutive year — but the headlines were stolen by NHL free agent frenzy, most notably GM Kyle Davidson's spending spree.

Davidson made eight signings in total, with the Blackhawks going from barely making it to the cap floor to flirting with the cap ceiling. 

On Friday, Davidson addressed the signings for the first time. He feels his team got much more competitive.

"I’m really, really excited about where our group’s at, what we were able to do on July 1," Davidson said. "We added a lot of talent, a lot of experience and I think we elevated our group. I’m really excited with how things turned out and how things are looking heading into training camp in September."

Davidson said he wasn't sure whether he'd be able to make all those additions going into free agency.

"You never know honestly," Davidson said. "It’s just such a race and it’s a little bit of a rat race, right? It’s just a super unpredictable time and just to be able to lock in what we were able to lock in, I was really pleased."

One of the signings Davidson made was bringing back Teuvo Teravainen, who helped the Blackhawks win a Stanley Cup in 2015. Davidson shared a wild story of the history he has with Teravainen.

"It's funny, this is way back, whenever Teuvo came over, I picked Teuvo up from the airport when he first came over," Davidson said. "I don't even know if he remembers me or knows that that guy that picked him up is the same person that signed him now. Whether he knows it or not, we've got a little bit more history there than he may understand.

"When he first came over we shared a couple meals out together. He didn't know anyone, so I was kind of giving him the lay of the land a little bit early on in his career, that first stop over from Finland."

Davidson started with the Blackhawks as a hockey operations intern in 2010. He couldn't remember exactly what his title was when Teravainen first made the jump to North America in 2014, but Davidson basically helped Teravainen get acclimated to Chicago.

"Teuvo was the one that I picked up and spent the most time with because he was younger and he was by far the youngest, and so made sure he was comfortable here in Chicago," Davidson said. "I think I was probably his first friend over here until he navigated the locker room and found some guys to hang out with there, and then they let him go with the team after that.

"It's funny to kind of see that come full circle where I'm signing him to a new contract and bringing him in as a veteran player when I picked him up at the airport as the youngest player in the team at the time."

Here's a lengthy notebook from development camp:

Artyom Levshunov's decision

This is the top storyline to follow at this point for the Blackhawks going into the summer: Will Levshunov return to Michigan State for his sophomore season or turn pro? It sounds like the Blackhawks prefer the latter, specifically playing in the AHL so they can work closely with him and he can prepare for the mental and physical grind of an 82-game season.

"Being able to be hands-on every single day is a huge bonus," Blackhawks assistant GM of player development Mark Eaton said. "That is the line that we walk with our amateur prospects, is the realization that they all play for other coaches, they all play in different systems, so if we have the ability to have him in-house and our great development staff in Rockford working with him on a daily basis to start to close that gap between where he is and where he needs to go, I think it’s only a bonus."

Davidson said they're still having conversations with Levshunov and his representatives on which path to take. They're hoping to have a decision in the next week or two.

"I don’t think there’s a wrong answer," Davidson said. "Adam Nightengale and the Michigan State staff have a world-class program. So if he were to return to college, he has a really great program, facilities, system he’s going to play in on a good team in a great league. That would be great.

"If he turns pro, we’ll have hands-on all the time, which is always a huge benefit on our end, to have that 24/7 ability to hit those touch points every day and hone in on the development and the play and the lifestyle of a young player. Whichever way it goes, I believe he’ll be in a great position to take some really positive steps."

Oliver Moore evaluates freshman season

The Blackhawks' No. 19 overall pick in 2023 racked up 33 points (nine goals, 24 assists) in 39 games during his freshman season at Minnesota. On paper, that's not a bad stat line at all for a first-year player.

But Moore provided an honest assessment of his play, expecting a little more from himself. 

"It was a lot of ups and downs," Moore said bluntly. "Slow start for sure, not the start I wanted just offensively with the adjustments that were being made, but adversity is good. I learned to deal with it a lot this year and I feel like I had to gain a lot of confidence, especially after winning World Juniors, which is obviously an unbelievable experience as well. 

"I feel like I'm having a really good summer right now. It's been a little longer summer — it's nice not to be running around as much — but it was a good season."

Moore said he changed a lot of his off-ice training. He's working a lot more on speed, power and his conditioning.

"A lot of what I was doing before was just building a base of strength and lifting a lot more weight," Moore said. "Now I'm doing more sprint stuff, plyometrics, I'm working out at the University of Minnesota — Cal Dietz is really well known for that and I take a lot of the stuff and learn a lot from him."

Ryan Greene's decision to return to college for junior season

The Blackhawks were probably expecting the 6-foot-1, 180-pound center to turn pro after two really strong seasons at Boston University. Greene had 31 points (nine goals, 22 assists) in 38 games as a freshman and 36 points (12 goals, 24 assists) in 40 games as a sophomore.

But Greene and the Terriers have lost in the semifinals in back-to-back years, and the unfinished business is playing a role in wanting to return.

"Partially, yeah," Greene said. "My freshman and sophomore year, losing in the Frozen Four, it still stings. I still really can't fully forget it. There's definitely a revenge factor a little bit. You want to get another crack at that and hopefully win a national championship."

That isn't the only reason though. There are some other factors in Greene wanting to return to college for his overall development.

"For me, I thought another year would help me continue to round out my game," Greene said. "I still think there's things I can improve. I can improve more of myself offensively, and I never think there's too much time to round out your game."

Eaton believes Greene was ready for the next step but respects the player's decision to return to college.

"He's going to develop regardless, just because of who he is," Eaton said. "Was he ready for the pros? Could he have taken that step? I think he could have, yeah. And we told him that. But with his character and work ethic, good spot at BU, he's going to find ways to get better there as well.

"We say a big part of a young player's development is taking on a leadership role and he'll definitely have that this year at BU. He'll play in all situations, he'll be one of the captains. Could he have played here and would we have loved him here? Yeah. But he's going to find ways to make the most of his year as well."

Sam Rinzel filling out his frame

Rinzel was listed at 6-foot-5, 180 pounds when the Blackhawks sent their development camp roster this week but the 20-year-old defenseman said he's about 190 right now. He hopes to get to 195-200 going into next season, and "after that, hopefully 200-plus."

Rinzel looked noticeably thicker than last year, which is a positive. Physically, he has all the tools to be a potential high-end defenseman, and he's a great skater for his size too. That's one of his strengths.

He's proud of the strides he's taken, too. He had a terrific second half of the season at Minnesota, where he had 28 points (two goals, 26 assists) in 39 games.

"For me, a knock on me was my defensive ability and that took big strides this year," Rinzel said. "Going up a level to the college level, I was making sure I was shutting down players and using my abilities and my skating and everything, my reach. And I want to keep growing my offensive game as well."

Rinzel was drafted by Chicago with the No. 25 overall pick in 2022. He was always going to be on a longer-term timeline because he played another season in the USHL before going to college. He's expected to take on a larger role in his sophomore season at Minnesota, and then should be ready to turn pro after that.

I've always said this, but it feels like Rinzel is the wildcard of the Blackhawks' entire pipeline. If he reaches his ceiling, what a blue line group the Blackhawks could have in a few years.

"Obviously I knew going in that it was going to be a little longer for me to fill out my frame, which I'm currently doing," Rinzel said. "It's just not going to be over one season or one summer. Right now, I'm focused on going back to Minnesota and being in the present, whether it's here or there. Whenever it happens, it happens, but I'm just focused on the present and keeping getting better."

Nick Lardis' breakout campaign

Lardis got off to a terrific start with the OHL's Brantford Bulldogs. He was one of the league leaders in goals and then suffered a wrist injury that kept him out for about three months.

When he returned to the lineup, Lardis didn't skip a beat. He finished the season with 50 points (29 goals, 21 assists) in 37 games and added eight points (four goals, four assists) in six postseason contests. His eight playoff points led the team.

"I was super motivated," Lardis said. "Obviously it was pretty tough to start to kind of get a little hot streak going there with myself and the team and have everything just go from a complete stop for about three months and then just have to pick it right back up again in the playoffs. But I was really motivated to make sure I was ready for the playoffs and help my team and I thought I did a good job of that."

Lardis said the biggest area he grew in wasn't necessarily on the ice. It was his confidence. Confidence in himself, in his shot, and in his strength, which allowed him to win more battles.

After the season, the Blackhawks locked up their third-round pick in 2023 to an entry-level contract. They had seen enough to feel good about Lardis in the bigger picture, and it was a nice reward for the player.

"It was awesome," Lardis said. "Obviously having a good first half it was tough to not be able to play the second half and prove myself even more but I think I was really just motivated to push myself in the playoffs and have a really good start and obviously I was lucky enough to sign the ELC."

Lardis' role in helping Blackhawks scout Marek Vanacker

When Lardis went down with an injury, Vanacker stepped into his role and took advantage of it. Vanacker led the team with 36 goals and 82 points, and his 46 assists ranked second. He also had seven points (three goals, four assists) in six postseason contests.

Davidson said he sat with Lardis in the stands and watched a Brantford game together when Lardis was sidelined with the injury. That must have been a unique experience for Lardis.

"It was pretty cool just to kind of talk with him and chat a little bit about the season, how it was going, and the training camp last year," Lardis said. "And obviously about Marek and some of the other prospects. It was cool to talk with him and catch up with him."

The Blackhawks, who traded up from No. 34 to No. 27 to take Vanacker in the first round, were getting scouting reports on Vanacker from Lardis throughout the season, although Lardis said he was more-so just confirming what the Blackhawks already saw.

"During the year they asked me about Marek and how he was as a person, player," Lardis said. "There's nothing negative about him. He's such a positive, great guy around the room and on the ice.

"I think you guys see so much on the ice of his speed and skill and the way he plays in the offensive zone and his two-way game, but off the ice too how much he works, just seeing him every day last year in the year and half I've been with him in Brantford and Hamilton, how much he works on and off the ice on the little things he does too. He's such a great teammate and pushes everyone."

Talent incoming for Rockford

The IceHogs are starting to get more and more of the Blackhawks' prospects that were drafted over recent years. This past season, it was Nolan Allan, Drew Commesso, Colton Dach, Ethan Del Mastro and Wyatt Kaiser. This season, Gavin Hayes, Paul Ludwsinki, Frank Nazar and Landon Slaggert are among the player that will likely to start in Rockford. Levshunov could be included, too.

The main priority is development, but the IceHogs also want to make sure they're building a winning culture.

"I do think you can marry the two, for sure," Rockford IceHogs head coach Anders Sorensen said. "I think younger teams seem to have a good start and then they kind of hit a speed bump somewhere around Game 20 or so. I think that's when the veterans are important to have. We've been really fortunate the last couple years to have some really good veterans. Some of them are coming back, as well. So getting them, being a big part of it is huge. 

"I think there's a balance for sure, but I think you can marry development and winning if you do it the right way. We haven't really found the sweet spot yet, but I think we're getting closer."

Rick Ball takes over as TV play-by-play announcer

Ball was officially introduced as the Blackhawks' new TV play-by-play announcer on Monday. He said the deal with the Blackhawks came together really quickly. He was expecting to re-sign with Sportsnet and wasn't looking to leave Calgary, but when the Blackhawks called, the opportunity it was too difficult to pass up.

Ball said there were a number of reasons why the Chicago job was appealing. For one, it's always been "my favorite stop on the tour" when Calgary was on the road.

But also, Ball has the opportunity to be the soundtrack of a potential special Blackhawks run, led by franchise cornerstone Connor Bedard.

"You have a superstar player, a team I feel is on the rise that may get better faster than people think it will," Ball said. "That’s part of it, too. And couple that with Original Six franchise and world-class city. Professionally, there were almost no negatives, if you do the old positive-negative column when you’re trying to make a big decision. There were a whole bunch of checks on the positive. Really the only negative was leaving Calgary, because I love it there. That part was tough. Everything else, very easy."

Ball is one of the NHL's most underrated play-by-play announcers. He's extremely likeable, too. I think he's going to win over Chicago fans quickly.

Luke Richardson's lineup choices

Richardson was posted up at the United Center with Chicago's management group on Day 1 of free agency, and he said "the phones were ringing off the hook, which is a good thing." 

Count the Blackhawks' head coach as excited to have some new gadgets and options to tinker with his lineup every night.

"Sometimes these players figure it out themselves," Richardson said. "They see who the players are here and they know who players where and who plays where well. I think you have to play to your best asset. We kind of know the veteran players a little bit more where they’re better situated and talk to them and see if they’re comfortable in those areas or if they’ve played in a different position whether it’s 5-on-5 or special teams and to make sure they’re comfortable. Because if they’re not comfortable, then obviously they’re not going to succeed and that’s not going to help us as a team succeed.

"We got to kind of work through that and see who we get at the final minute here and what our lineup is going to look like and where everyone is going to fit together."

Why Tyler Bertuzzi chose Chicago

Bertuzzi held his virtual media availability on Friday morning, and he admitted that "Chicago wasn't really on my radar" going into the free agency process. But the day before free agency opened, Nick Foligno called him to tell him that the Blackhawks were interested in him and things progressed from there.

Foligno and Bertuzzi played together in Boston during the 2022-23 season. Foligno has a pretty large rolodex of connections in the NHL.

"We just more or less talked about the organization, the city, where to live and just things that are important to me and my family in moving to a new city," Bertuzzi said. "We went over that but obviously myself as a player, hopefully I can bring some energy and I’m coming here and I’m excited for a new opportunity. It’s exciting for me and my family."

Quote of the week

And finally, let's end with a laugh. Sorensen was asked how they're helping the prospects develop chemistry off the ice.

His joking reply: "We get some Ikea furniture and we tell them to build it together."

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