As the regular season finishes for both the NHL and the AHL, at least 14 teams will begin evaluating their potential roster for next season next week. Others, including the Blackhawks, will have to wait until their playoffs end at some point between now and mid-June.
Every team, however, has already started looking ahead to this summer's free agent class and the 2012 NHL Draft. General Managers have been taking stock of their organizational depth and evaluating their cap position for months. Who is untouchable? And who might be available at the right price?
One player who has been intriguing to Hawks fans since he was drafted is Kyle Beach. What does the future hold for the former first round pick?
The Blackhawks made Beach the 11th overall selection in a 2008 Draft class that was loaded with great young defensemen; among the players that followed Beach in that first round were Buffalo's Tyler Myers (12), Ottawa's Erik Karlsson (15), the Ranger's Michael Del Zotto (20) and Washingon's John Carlson (27). Also selected in the first round that year was Jordan Eberle (22), who has 33 goals for Edmonton this year.
But Chicago, at that time, lacked size and didn't have many (read: any) players in the organization that could replace the nastiness of a guy like Ben Eager. Then-GM Dale Tallon knew the organization needed someone with an edge, so he selected Beach.
Based on some scouting reports, the Blackhawks actually did pretty well to land Beach at 11 overall. Here's one scout's take on Beach from before the draft:
Earlier in the season Beach was in the top 5, but questions about his attitude have dropped his stock. If you can look past this supposed attitude problem, he is a solid player. The top, true power forward in the draft, drawing comparisons to Owen Nolan and Claude Lemieux. He plays with a nastiness that sometimes get him in to trouble. He can do it all, score, hit, and fight if need be.
He was coming off a solid season with the Everett Silvertips (60 points in 60 games), but his 222 penalty minutes were the reason some GMs opted to pass on him at the draft.
After being selected by Chicago, Beach went back to juniors and had another good season split between Everett and Lethbridge (both WHL); between the two clubs, he scored 24 goals and added 39 assists in 54 games. But with another 100-plus PIM season on his resume, the Hawks opted for him to spend one more year in juniors.
With Spokane (WHL) during the 2009-10 season, Beach exploded offensively and earned his entry-level contract from the Hawks. He scored 52 goals and added 34 assists in only 68 games, and was also hit for 186 penalty minutes. The timing of some of his penalties might have been questioned, but 52 goals in 68 games is something that makes a general manager take notice.
Once he signed with the Hawks, Beach went to Rockford for the 2010-11 season and struggled. He had a miserable minus-24 for his first professional season, and scored only 16 goals in 71 games. In fact, his 163 penalty minutes were the only part of his stat line that was in-line with expectations before the season began.
However, towards the end of the AHL season last year, Beach started to show signs that he was figuring out the AHL game. His production increased in the closing weeks of the year and there was cause for hope heading into the 2011-12 season in Rockford.
Unfortunately for Beach, when the Hawks brought some of the IceHogs to Chicago to skate with the NHL players during the playoffs, he wasn't one of them.
When the 2011-12 training camp closed, Beach was a forgotten man for many Hawks fans. He was one of the first kids assigned to Rockford (on Sept. 26), and had to watch as other top prospects like Jeremy Morin, Ben Smith and Brandon Saad played well in the ice time they had with the NHL regulars.
To his credit, Beach jumped into a leadership role with the IceHogs and started this season off strong, scoring three goals and adding three assists in the season's first eight games. But a shoulder injury in late-October took Beach away from the game for most of the rest of the regular season; he didn't return to the IceHogs lineup until last week.
Beach has now played in 14 games with Rockford this season, and has scored five goals to go with five assists. He does have 24 penalty minutes, but his plus-minus is even on the season.
As we wrote back in October, Beach's start to the seasonw as much more balanced and he was looking as much, if not more, to contribute offensively as he was to knock someone into the third row.
So Beach's NHL career path is right back on track... right?
That's where the question marks come up. Could Beach find himself becoming the Wally Pipp of the Hawks organization?
If you're not familiar with the name Wally Pipp, he was an outstanding first baseman for the New York Yankees who, the year after posting 114 runs batted in, got sick and was forced to miss a game. He was replaced in the lineup by a 22-year-old Lou Gehrig, and the rest is history (literally). His name has become synonymous with bad luck.
Beach's injury in late-October, coupled with an outstanding start to the season in his own right, led to 2011 fifth round draft pick Andrew Shaw getting an entry-level contract in January. Shaw was eventually recalled to Chicago, and 11 goals later he's been skating and producing all over the Hawks lineup during the second half of the season.
One has to wonder, if he was healthy, would the call to Rockford in early January been for Beach instead of Shaw? Odds are that it probably would have been.
But there's more to the Wally Pipp question than just Shaw. Beach is still listed at 6'3" and 210 pounds, or four inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than Shaw. Indeed, in 2008 when he was selected by the Blackhawks, Beach was one of the bigger forwards in the organization.
Again, unfortunately for Beach, that is no longer the case. Just from the 2011 Draft, two forwards (Mark McNeill - 6'2" and 210) and Saad (6'2" and 211) are close in size to Beach. The Hawks have also added the Hayes brothers (Jimmy - 6'5" and 210, Kevin - 6'3" and 205) and physical forwards like Rob Flick (6'2" and 208) to the organization since the Beach pick.
The fact is, there are prospects in the organization that can annoy opponents and pick a fight just as well as Beach. There are prospects in the organization that are as big (or bigger) than Beach. And there are kids coming that can score as well (or better) than Beach.
And with the organization giving Daniel Carcillo a two-year extension, the opportunities at the NHL level will continue to be limited. The other consideration that cannot be ignored is that it was Tallon, not Stan Bowman, who selected Beach in 2008.
Has Beach become the Wally Pipp of Rockford? Has the organization passed him by while he was out with an injury?
No doors are shut for Beach. Based on what he's been able to do in limited action this year, he's still in the mix to fight for a roster spot in September. But with the organization continuing to add bigger, talented players, the road to the NHL isn't going to get easier.