Just over 24 hours ago, the Chicago Blackhawks reassigned 2020 first-round pick and current top prospect Lukas Reichel back to the AHL Rockford IceHogs. Reichel was coming off his best three-game stint in the NHL since his North American professional career began with three solid performances in three-straight wins with the Blackhawks over the Arizona Coyotes, Calgary Flames, and defending Stanley Cup Champion Colorado Avalanche. Reichel had a three-point night against Calgary and was finding chemistry with top-line teammates Max Domi and Philipp Kurashev.
But with Patrick Kane returning from a short injury stint which kept him out of the last three games, the Blackhawks and general manager Kyle Davidson made the call to return Reichel to the IceHogs rather than keep the 20-year-old up with the NHL club and play him along with Kane in the same lineup.
The decision made waves throughout the Blackhawks fanbase. We had an “emergency” CHGO Blackhawks podcast episode on what was supposed to be an off day. Finally, there was something to watch and look forward to on game days this season with Reichel around and playing well. So why pull the plug on this call-up when Reichel finally looked like the confident NHL player fans, and the organization want him to be?
On Saturday, as the Blackhawks prepared for Kane’s return and their game against the Seattle Kraken, Davidson met with the media to address that question and more.
Davidson opened his availability with a statement on the development staff and procedure the Blackhawks have established in the AHL system with the IceHogs. “I want to reiterate my support for our development system in Rockford. Whether it’s been Arvid Söderblom or Isaak Phillips, Lukas Reichel, or Ian Mitchell, the players that have come up have done really well. That’s a testament to the work that we’re seeing from our coaches and development staff in Rockford.”
Hard to argue. Chicago’s front office has stressed patience with prospects, and Davidson seems to have no problems holding a player back longer than most would to get the most out of them at the AHL level. As is again evidenced by the handling of Reichel too far this season.
Inevitably, the first question and most of them afterward centered around Reichel and the decision to send him down after showcasing that he is capable of playing well at the NHL level.
“We make sure that they understand the ‘big picture.’ There’s a roadmap there, and there has been from the start of the year. We make sure that when you’re making decisions, they understand them. It’s our job to help them understand why you’re doing things and why we think it’s best long-term.” Davidson continued, “It’s something we have not only done with Lukas but with a lot of our prospects that are knocking on the door. Some of them, could they play in the NHL? They probably could. It’s a question of what is best for their development long-term.”
The messaging that has been clear with the young professional-level prospects this season is that Chicago is not looking to compete, and Rockford is. The Blackhawks are, heading into Saturday night, tied for dead-last in the NHL with the Columbus Blue Jackets. On the other hand, the IceHogs are tied for second in the AHL Central Division and are part of a three-way tie for fourth place in the AHL Western Conference. Rockford is playing meaningful games regarding winning, and the Blackhawks are trying to lose. It’s clear. It’s the reasoning, from Davison, why players are being held down in the AHL.
“Being in situations that we can provide them in Rockford, on a very good team in a very good league, is something that we really value.” Davidson also stressed the importance of “hands-on” development in the AHL, which he and the Blackhawks staff feel doesn’t happen as much when players are with NCAA or Junior teams. “Their exposure to our coaches every single day is not something you get very often in hockey development. If they are in Junior, or Europe, or college, they have their own coaches, and you only can see them so much. The AHL is truly the only time in development on their way to the NHL that you have hands-on development opportunities every single day.”
The goal for Reichel, according to Davidson, when Reichel is in Rockford, is to be a go-to player and be someone who that team leans on. He has done that so far this season, ranking third on the team in points and being named one of three AHL All-Stars from the IceHogs, along with Brett Seney and David Gust. Reichel is doing everything right.
We’ve talked a lot on the CHGO Blackhawks Podcast this season about the over-ripening of prospects and the plan that Davidson seems to have when wanting to make sure that prospects in the system are ready for their next steps in development. He expounded on that when asked if this handling of Reichel is a ‘blueprint’ for development with other young players down the road.
“It’s an organizational philosophy we have. I think everything is case-by-case. Let’s call a spade, a spade: we’re chasing most games here, and I don’t think that’s conducive to extremely positive development,” Davidson said of the season the Blackhawks, as he constructed them, have had. “There are great situations in Rockford where our young players have to go defend a lead. Defend in close games. They get opportunities to play and score and come back from tight games against other really good teams. They’re just different situations right now.”
When it came to evaluating Reichel’s three-game stint, Davidson had high praise for the former 17th-overall pick.
“He was excellent. I think it’s a testament to the hard work he has put in, the work that the coaches have put in with him. He’s done everything we have asked of him and worked really hard at the areas we want him to work at.”
On the topic of the futures of Kane and Jonathan Toews, Davidson was brief in saying things were a bit “quiet” at the moment. Asked about the meetings that he is expected to have with both players and their agent Pat Brisson, Davidson said nothing is scheduled just yet.
“Just kind of the day-by-day standard that we have been operating on…I’d assume [meeting] would be in the next couple of weeks or so. That’s nothing firm, but I assume it would have to be.”
As the hockey world awaits those meetings and the fallout from them, is his phone blowing up?
“Just a lot of due diligence and general calls on what we’re looking to do and also other teams setting the table on what they are looking to do. But, no specifics.”
The NHL Trade Deadline is March 3.