Chicago Prospect Pipeline Runs Through BU

By Gracie Davenport

Only three points separate the 2022-23 Chicago Blackhawks from last place in the National Hockey League (NHL), but the future looks bright. 

After the complete retooling of their front office over the 2021-22 season, the Blackhawks are officially starting from the ground up. 

The rebuild took a massive step forward during last year’s NHL entry draft and this year’s 2023 trade deadline. With 11 picks at the 2022 Entry Draft and the departure of franchise cornerstone Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks now own 14 first and second-round draft picks over the next three drafts — the most of any team in the league. 

While Blackhawks fans eagerly await these picks, they will not entirely be in the dark over who will one day be donning the red, white and black sweaters. Instead, they can turn their attention to prospects already in the system. This starts with the NCAA. 

Terrier-Hawk(ey) Connection

The bond between Boston University and the Blackhawks runs deep. 

BU has historically produced high-end professional hockey players — sitting third all-time for most NHL draft picks by a school (189) — and the Blackhawks have been a big part of that. 

This season, the Windy City is tied with Detroit for most NHL prospects in the NCAA (14). Over the last decade, the Blackhawks have selected more Terrier commits than any other team in the league (5). 

Colby Cohen after winning the 2009 NCAA Championship. Photo Credit: Elsa/Getty Images

Even around the organization, the relationship between the two organizations remains unchanged. Colby Cohen, who notably scored the 2009 NCAA National Championship game-winning goal for BU, serves as the Blackhawks’ game and studio analyst for NBC Sports Chicago.

As someone who spent three years at BU from 2008-2010 and played professional hockey afterward, Cohen understands what college players are going through and the thought process behind teams stocking up on prospects from the same program.  

“I think it’s fairly common when you see a team drafting players that are all coming from one place because there’s a trust level built up,” Cohen said. “I think there’s a development track that gives people ease about players playing for certain people. I know the Blackhawks are so happy with our prospects right now.”

The most notable Blackhawks prospects that hail from BU are former Terrier Alex Vlasic and a couple current Terriers: goaltender Drew Commesso and forward Ryan Greene. 

Alex Vlasic defending in front of Drew Commesso on March 27, 2021. Photo Credit: Robert Simmons/Times Union Center

Alex Vlasic

Just three days after BU’s 2021-22 season ended in the Hockey East Quarterfinals, Vlasic signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Blackhawks. On March 19, 2022, the junior defenseman made his NHL debut on the road against the Minnesota Wild.

“They had me start and I was playing against [Mats] Zuccarello, [Kirill] Kaprizov, and [Ryan] Hartman. … So it was pretty crazy. They kind of just threw me into the fire, and I had to jump in there,” Vlasic said. “Looking back, I wish settled down a little bit more. I can’t really remember too much of it. I’ve never been more nervous in my life.”

The following night, the Blackhawks’ 2019 second-round pick made his home-ice debut in front of 19,000 United Center spectators against the Winnipeg Jets.

“My first game at the United Center was pretty scary, just a lot of nerves. But over the course of the games that I was up for, I definitely started to get more comfortable,” Vlasic said. “It definitely doesn’t get old. I think I can see myself playing, hopefully, in front of that crowd night in, night out in the future. I think that’d be just a dream come true for me.”

Vlasic remained with the Blackhawks for the rest of their regular season, racking up 15 games of experience in the process. Most notably, the newcomer notched his first NHL goal on April 20 against the Arizona Coyotes. 

“I didn’t really try to shoot it. I was just going for [Kane’s] stick, and it kind of bounced off one other player’s skates and into the net. … Felt nice to get it out of the way and say I scored a goal in one of the best leagues in the world,” Vlasic said. “To have Kaner pick up the puck was pretty special, too. [I] keep watching those videos over and over again because it’s pretty special.”

Vlasic has been given a larger role this season with the Blackhawks’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs. 

“It’s been a lot of fun. I think being in a different role in Rockford has been a nice change of pace,” Vlasic said. “I like being someone the guys can look up to, but for me, I’ve just been looking up to the older guys who have been around.”

Vlasic may not be the highest offensive producer, but his defensive game speaks for itself. In 45 games with the IceHogs this season, the Wilmette, Illinois native has put up 15 points. He ranks second on the team with a plus-10 rating.

“I think Alex Vlasic has major potential to be a top-four defenseman in the NHL, which is really challenging to do,” Cohen said. “I watched him closely and honestly thought he was a better NHL player than he even was a college hockey player. I was so impressed with his skill set and his skating.” 

Fewer people know Vlasic better than fellow Blackhawks prospect and current Terrier, junior goaltender Drew Commesso. The two were roommates at BU, and Commesso is someone Vlasic calls his “best friend.”

“I totally agree with what Colby said,” Commesso said. “Just with how strong and big he is. Having the [opportunity] to play behind him last year was so special. I know he’s going to have a great and long pro career.” 

Drew Commesso stick-handling during warmups on March 3, 2023. Photo Credit: Gracie Davenport

Drew Commesso

Commesso is another name high up in the Blackhawks’ prospect pool. The junior goaltender has been BU’s starter this season, getting the nod in the last 20 games to end the regular season. 

“Being the number one [goaltender] at BU is a hard thing to do, and he’s done a great job of being that rock,” Vlasic said. “He’s definitely a leader, as well, off the ice, and he’s got a letter to show for it… I think Hawks fans should definitely be excited to get somebody like him in the organization.”

Although having never suited up for an NHL game, the 2020 second-round pick has a lengthy resumé. 

After spending two years with the U.S. National Team Development Program, Commesso committed to BU and has since been in several high-stakes situations. In 2022, he was selected by the U.S. for the U20 IIHF World Juniors Tournament and earned a spot on the U.S. Men’s Olympic Team — becoming the youngest goaltender to start in Olympic team history. 

“I’m sure he’ll need a little bit of time in the AHL to get used to that pro level, but you just watch the way he plays, and he’s so calm, he’s so positionally sound, and he’s already played in so many big games,” Cohen said. “He’s a guy they’re looking at as a potential, future NHL starting goaltender.”

Being a Norwell native, Commesso grew up a Terrier fan and described his commitment to BU hockey as a “no-brainer.” 

“As a kid, I was always wearing BU gear, always rooting for BU,” Commesso said. “I was always that kid around Boston that wanted to play for BU, play in the Beanpot and win national championships.”

Commesso has had his ups and downs this season, but heading into the postseason, the assistant captain had two shutouts in his last three contests to end the 2022-23 regular season. 

“This year, I feel very confident in myself and in the team. Personally, I think I just got so much stronger this summer, put on a ton of weight,” Commesso said. “My goalie coach, Brian Daccord, prepares me every week. I’ve gotten so much better: my skating, my tracking, my puck handling, really everything. … [I’m] super grateful for him.” 

Commesso participated in his first Blackhawks development camp last summer, where he met Greene. Over their season with BU, the two have gotten to know each other well.

“[Commesso] keeps us in a lot of games. Obviously an unbelievable player, but he’s an even better teammate,” Greene said. “I’ve gotten closer with him since I’ve been here. … He’s everything to us.”

Ryan Greene during warmups on Feb. 18, 2023. Photo Credit: Gracie Davenport

Ryan Greene

Similar to the two before him, Greene was selected by the Blackhawks in the second round of the NHL entry draft.

Just three days after going 57th overall, the 18-year-old gave quite the eventful first impression. At his first NHL development camp, Greene was forced to break in new equipment after his were stolen. 

“That was insane. My equipment got stolen at the draft,” Greene said, laughing. “It was a crazy experience. It definitely got easier as the week went on, but it was a bit of a struggle at first.”

Despite the setbacks, the Newfoundlander turned heads at camp and made the best of his situation. 

“He still stood out,” Cohen said. “You could see the skill that he plays with at development camp, and then he just kept going up, kept getting better.”

The freshman was named to Hockey East’s All-Rookie Team for the steady offense he brought to BU’s lineup this season. Over 32 games, Greene posted 27 points (9g, 18a), including a career-high five points (2g, 3a) against UMass on Nov. 11. 

“I knew he was coming to BU, but I didn’t really know him.” Commesso said. “He’s had such a big impact, especially as a freshman, for our team. The cool thing about Ryan is he’s obviously so gifted on the ice, but he’s one of the best hockey guys in the locker room. … The Blackhawks have been preaching the culture part of it, and I know he can add to that.”

Greene’s favorite moment this season was sweeping Boston College in a home-and-home series on Jan. 27 and 28. 

“Sweeping BC was pretty cool. The first time we played them I wasn’t able to attend,” Greene said. “Those two games, the atmosphere was unbelievable.”

The freshman was invited to Team Canada’s Selection Camp for the 2023 IIHF World Juniors Tournament in December and missed BU’s first matchup with their crosstown rivals. At camp, Greene became roommates with 2023 projected No. 1 overall pick, Connor Bedard. 

“It was a cool experience getting to play with the best players in Canada,” Greene said. “Getting to room with Bedard was pretty cool — an unbelievable guy and obviously an exceptional talent, as well.”

Outside of his point production, another reason Greene has been garnering attention this season is because of his defensive capabilities and work ethic. 

“His offensive ability is easy to pick out, but his all-around game is really mature. It’s really impressive to see him away from the puck,” Cohen said. “I’ve heard from the coaching staff what a hard worker Ryan Greene is and how he’s always the first one on the ice. … Once he hits his stride, I don’t see why he’s not going to be a real impactful NHL player.”

With the shuffling of the coaching staff and the large incoming freshman class this season, it was unclear how successful the Terriers would be. Regardless, BU defied all expectations and strung its best regular-season record since the 2008-09 championship-winning team. 

This winning culture starts with the close-knit, family-like environment within the locker room. 

Terrier Hockey Family

At the end of the 2021-22 season, BU assembled a new coaching staff, including two Terrier alumni: Jay Pandolfo and Joe Pereira. 

The pair played integral parts in their respective national championship-winning teams at BU. Pandolfo helped the Terriers capture the 1995 title before Pereira helped the program claim its most recent championship in 2009.

“Once you get to pro, hockey becomes more of a business, and you lose a little bit of that personal touch,” Cohen said. “When you’re in college, it’s a family.”

Before his ascension to the head coaching role, Pandolfo served as BU’s associate head coach for the 2021-22 season. Prior to that, he was an assistant coach with the Boston Bruins, but his family made him come back. 

“In college coaching, your family is more involved than [it] would be at the NHL level, so that was a big part of it,” Pandolfo said. “I remember back playing for Coach [Jack] Parker, how much his family was around. … It was an opportunity for me to have my family more around.” 

Jay Pandolfo was named Head Coach, pictured alongside his family at his opening press conference. Photo Credit: Matt Woolverton/BU Athletics

Just as Parker’s family was around in Pandolfo and Pereira’s playing days, Pandolfo’s family is involved with the current team. 

“I see them around a bunch. It’s always great having them as well as the other families,” Commesso said. “Everyone thinks BU hockey is just about the players, but it’s more than that … It’s cool having his family around, helps loosen the mood a little bit.” 

Jack Parker with his grandson and BU Hockey commit Shane Lachance celebrating the 2009 National Championship with the team. Photo Credit: AP Photo

Cohen keeps in touch with his 2009 championship-winning teammates and reminisces on the on-ice celebration after scoring the overtime winner. In particular, what stands out to him most was sharing the win with head coach Jack Parker’s family — including Parker’s grandson and Terrier commit Shane Lachance. 

“When we won, [Shane] and his brother Jake were on the ice with us,” Cohen said. “They were in the team photo with us because it’s a family.”

This dynamic is only reciprocated in the locker room and has been a recipe for success this season. 

“I’m not sure I’ve been on a team that’s been so close to the coaching staff, whether it’s just on the road hanging out or sharing funny stories,” Commesso said. “[They] feel like another part of the team, and I think that’s so special because it’s not always that way.” 

At the end of the four-year threshold, the Terrier bond does not cease to exist, and Vlasic is yet another example of that. Vlasic did not return for his senior year with the Terriers, but he still follows the team. 

“I’ve been watching a couple of the BU games, and [Greene] looks really good, super solid,” Vlasic said. “I’ve heard good things about him from some of the teammates I’ve talked to, like Domenick Fensore. I’ve talked to a number of the guys throughout the year, and it’s fun to check the scores, see how they’re doing. It’s nice to see them doing well.”

Eyes on the Prize

As the three prospects eventually take the next step in playing professionally, their former BU teammates will be with them along the way. 

However, the current Terriers still have a task at hand: the postseason.

BU has done something special this regular season, but the Terriers will only be satisfied with some hardware to show for it. 

Their campaign started on March 3 during their last regular season against Providence College. With a 6-4 win and a Northeastern loss, the Terriers took home their first outright Hockey East regular-season title since 2014-15. 

BU celebrating the 2022-23 Hockey East regular-season title. Photo Credit: Matt Woolverton/BU Athletics

Now, the Terriers are focused on winning their first Hockey East Championship since 2017-18 and making a splash in the NCAA Division I National Tournament. Commesso and Greene will play a big role in these aspirations. 

“Anyone I play with at BU becomes my brother,” Commesso said. “To have the opportunity to play with [Vlasic] and Greene, and have them in the Blackhawks organization, it’s obviously really special. But right now, Ryan and I are just focused on winning Hockey East, winning the national championship.”