The final five games of the season are meaningless for the Blackhawks. In the standings, that is.
Three more players are expected to make their NHL debuts this week, starting with top prospect Dylan Sikura on Thursday against the Winnipeg Jets and defenseman Blake Hillman and goaltender Collin Delia likely to get in on Friday vs. Colorado.
This comes days after Victor Ejdsell made his big-league debut with the Blackhawks in a top-line center role, making it the fourth player debut in a span of three games.
While it doesn't seem like a huge deal in the short term, all of this is crucial for the Blackhawks in the big picture as it gives management and coaches a chance to evaluate what they have in the pipeline and who could potentially step into a larger role next season.
Perhaps more importantly, it's a chance for those players to get a taste of the NHL action and build on that going into the offseason.
"Good for the kids, good experience," Joel Quenneville said. "They get some exposure, see the pace, strength, decision-making that goes on and the time factor. That gets them help to prepare going into the following year, having a good offseason, building yourself up strength-wise and quickness-wise. It's a thrill to get a chance to play in the NHL knowing from year to year you hope there's progression in your overall development."
Sikura is the one that will certainly draw the most attention. He skated on the second line with Ejdsell and Alex DeBrincat during Wednesday's practice, and figures to have a serious chance at playing in the top-six next season; certainly top-9.
"Just try to be a sponge and try to learn from the older guys and the coaching staff," Sikura said on what he can learn over the final week and a half. "It's a little adjustment, but just get a little experience here, get my five games in and hopefully learn as much as I can and come back net year."
Hillman is a wild card on defense. He's not flashy, but he's steady defensively and might be the most NHL ready given his size (6-foot-1, 185 pounds) and the fact he spent four years in college honing his game and getting stronger.
"I think I'm just a strong defensive defenseman," he said. "I pride myself on keeping the puck out of the net. These guys expect offense, too. They expect D-men to jump into plays. I'm able to do that. I feel like I'm a good skater and I can get up in the play and make the right decisions.
"There's going to be a little bit of an adjustment period between the pace and the bigger guys, but I think Denver's really prepared me well."
Delia is an interesting case in goal. He struggled in the ECHL to start the season but still worked his way to the American Hockey League with the Rockford IceHogs, where he became a key part of their playoff push before getting called up.
"I know it’s a process," Delia said. "I know things don’t come easy. Especially at this level of the pro game, it’s a lot different than college, especially for a goalie. I think it’s good, though, to have some trials and tribulations and you can enjoy these moments that much more after being there. So it’s pretty special."
It's unlikely all three will be in the fold next season, but it's still an important part of the development process to go into the summer knowing what to expect.
The remaining five games are against teams desperately battling for a playoff spot or seed: Winnipeg (twice), Colorado and St. Louis (twice). It'll be a good test for everyone to play in a game where the opposing team will throw their best effort at you, even though the results don't mean much for the Blackhawks.