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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Ben Pope

Blackhawks forward prospects Colton Dach, Frank Nazar, Paul Ludwinski hoping for healthier seasons

Colton Dach finished his season with the Seattle Thunderbirds after recovering from a shoulder injury. (Brian Liesse/Seattle Thunderbirds)

Injuries are inevitable in a prospect pool as large as the Blackhawks’, but they can still disrupt development.

General manager Kyle Davidson spoke Wednesday about how the Hawks’ NHL forwards were relatively fortunate injury-wise last season, noting they can’t anticipate the same luck next season. But the Hawks’ forward prospects were not so fortunate.

Colton Dach, Frank Nazar and Paul Ludwinski — three of the more promising forwards in the system — all missed significant periods of 2022-23 with their junior or college teams.

They’re obviously hoping to stay healthier in 2023-24 after building up more strength and flexibility at Hawks development camp, which concluded Thursday.

Dach’s troubles started back in Hawks training camp last September when he ended up in concussion protocol.

After returning to the WHL, he played three games for the Kelowna Rockets before being placed in concussion protocol again Oct. 17. He also missed a couple weeks later in the season — in March — with another unknown issue.

But his biggest obstacle was a shoulder injury suffered during the world junior championships in December. He didn’t return until Feb. 18, by which point he had been traded to the Seattle Thunderbirds.

Dach — the Hawks’ 2021 second-round pick — said he had never experienced adversity like that before. He found himself “rethinking” his typically physical, hard-nosed style during his first few games back in action.

His season did end with an encouraging stretch, though, as the Thunderbirds advanced to the Memorial Cup Final while he tallied 14 points in 19 playoff games.

“In the playoff run...I really noticed myself protecting the puck and exploding when I had it,” he added. “Those are the biggest things I work on with [trainer] Brian Keane in the summer when I come down [to Chicago]: getting that speed out of turns, especially in the corners, and trying to drive the net.

“That’s something [that], if I can keep improving, it’ll give me a good chance.”

Dach now begins his pro career; he will start this fall playing for Rockford in the AHL. If he finds a rhythm there, he might get to make his NHL debut at some point this season.

Nazar also ended a challenging season with an encouraging stretch. The 2022 first-round pick recovered from the hip surgery that cost him most of his freshman season at the University of Michigan in time to play the final 13 games, leading into the Frozen Four.

He didn’t feel or look as fluid or dynamic as normal, but at least he got on the ice. He should be much closer to 100% next season as a Wolverines sophomore. He has already been hounding Minnesota recruits Oliver Moore and Sam Rinzel with Big Ten trash talk.

“[I’m trying to] get bigger, faster, stronger, more confident on the ice and be able to play my game and get a full season in, hopefully,” Nazar said. “That would be nice for me, just to get the games and the puck touches.”

Ludwinski missed the least total time out of the three. He logged 34 points in 47 games for the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs — nearly a full season.

He missed, however, both the season’s beginning (with a concussion suffered in Hawks rookie camp) and its end (with an ankle injury). That ankle injury kept him off the ice for more than three months, although Hawks doctors finally cleared their 2022 second-round pick to begin skating next week.

“I’ve been working on the physical side of my game — getting stronger, upper body-wise — so I feel like, when I hit the ice again, I’ll be right back to normal,” he said.

Ludwinski will return to Kingston in 2023-24 for his second season as team captain. The Hawks would love to see more offensive production from him, but they value his competitiveness, relentless pace and defensive reliability most of all.

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