Blackhawks prospect defenseman Alex Vlasic has never played like most 6-6 defensemen.
His athleticism has, for a long time, developed faster than his physique. He’s an “elite skater for his size,” in the words of his Boston University coach, and he can make an offensive contribution. He always valued his massive frame more for its long reach than for its raw size.
That’s great, because it makes him more than a one-dimensional defensive back. The 20-year-old Wilmette native is more of an all-around weapon who could fill a number of roles at professional level.
But to reach the pro level, Vlasic needed to start using that height and plus size to his advantage. And this year, his first year, he did.
“When he came out of [U.S. National Development] Program [in 2019], he wasn’t that physical, to be honest,” BU coach Albie O’Connell said. “We were trying to get him to really engage in net, engage in face-offs. He was always talented, but that was part strength, part time, part failure. …and he really has come a long way.
“He played with a lot more ‘punch’ for him. He’s starting to understand how to use his body well and he’s become very difficult for any opponent to deal with. He’s arguably one of the best defenders in our league.
The Hawks’ 2019 second-round pick — one of many up-and-coming defenders in their system, but with one of the best upsides of them all — became the Terriers’ No. 1 defenseman, helping spark their second-round turnaround. halftime this season alongside Hawks prospect Drew Commesso.
Vlasic’s weight has steadily increased over the years, going from 199 pounds in the draft to 215 pounds last summer, before leveling off at around 212 pounds in season. O’Connell estimated that his ideal eventual weight could be as high as 225 to 230 pounds.
“He’s got the body he can carry that weight and keep going. [being] really athletic on his feet,” O’Connell said.
There’s more to strength than just weight, however, and Vlasic points to two memorable games this season that proved that to him – and illustrated his growth in the strength category.
The first was a 6-4 loss to Cornell on Nov. 27.
“I was more used to using my stick and reach to finish plays, getting my stick down lanes and breaking pucks,” Vlasic said. “But Cornell had bigger, stronger forwards and you couldn’t really do that; you had to play more physically and use your body. That’s what [my coaches] seen — they didn’t think I was getting close fast enough — and they told me to trust my skating ability, size and reach.
“Since then, I haven’t looked back. I started to play more physically and with each passing game I gained more and more confidence.
Vlasic then spoke over the holidays to his two main Hawks contacts — mindset performance director Vinny Malts and assistant general manager of player development Mark Eaton — about his plans to play more physically. The Hawks were on board.
The second memorable game was a 7-1 win over Arizona State on Jan. 7, in which he added 15 penalty minutes to his stats and learned a unique lesson.
“I got kicked out because I hit that guy,” he said. “I didn’t want to, but obviously it was from behind – a bad play. But I didn’t think I could hit him as fast and as hard as I did. I took it as [a sign that]’Hey, I can go around the corner against anyone and win any battle.’
“[I’m now] using my strength almost just to manhandle guys at this level. It opens my eyes to how much stronger I am than I thought.
In addition to his physical maturation, Vlasic has learned a lot about the habits and style he will need to succeed in the NHL from longtime former Devils forward Jay Pandolfo, who joined BU this season in as Associate Head Coach.
“He talked about closing earlier in the corners, just taking those few hard strides to end plays,” Vlasic said. “And another thing that everyone could learn from him is knowing that mistakes are going to happen – even the best players make mistakes – but it’s just about knowing how you react to that and what what are you going to do about it.”
Vlasic has now had eight points and 50 blocks in 31 appearances. BU, which fell to 4-9-2 with that loss to Cornell but has since gone to 14-2-1, has just two regular season games remaining before the conference tournament. They are currently on the bubble for the 16-team NCAA Tournament.
With the end of the season so close, Vlasic said he was focused on spending time with his teammates – and trying to take home a trophy or two – and had yet to decide whether he would turn professional this summer (or even for the last month of the NHL and AHL seasons).
When he signs with the Hawks, he’ll join a crowded pool of defensemen he’ll need to jump up the pecking order. But at its current rate of development, it seems very doable, even likely.
“Having him in the second round does honor to the [Hawks’] scouting staff because he looks like a first-round pick all day,” O’Connell said. “The sky is the limit for him. I don’t mean he’s a unicorn, but he’s very different from a lot of other guys.