How Dylan Sikura is dealing with NHL growing pains and rediscovering his confidence

How Dylan Sikura is dealing with NHL growing pains and rediscovering his confidence

When Dylan Sikura didn’t make the Blackhawks out of training camp, it came as a little bit of a surprise. He was supposed to factor into the top-nine forward group.

Instead, he spent the first few months in Rockford, where he led the IceHogs with nine goals, 18 points, 90 shots on goal and four game-winning goals through 26 games. It earned him a call-up to Chicago on Dec. 12.

But he lasted only 11 games before getting sent back down to Rockford after recording zero goals and three assists.

"Just try to stay positive like the first time,” Sikura told NBC Sports Chicago on where his mindset is at. “Entering pro hockey for the first time, it could be a culture shock for some guys and for some guys it just takes some time. That was my first full experience of what the NHL is like and how the game is played up there. It was nice to get up there and get a chance to play.

"Coming back down, you know what you have to work on and know what parts of your game you need to get better at. I think that's something that, coming back down, talking to Jeremy [Colliton], he gave me a lot of positive criticism and stuff you need to work on and that's the stuff I've been focusing on."

IceHogs interim head coach Derek King said he sometimes worries about players of Sikura’s caliber who get sent down a second time and believe they should be in the NHL.

But he was very complimentary of Sikura’s attitude and being a professional about it. It’s because Sikura knows he needs to be better, and more importantly, wants to.

"I think before he left he was struggling a little bit with what type of player he should be,” King said. “Obviously he's got some offensive skill, we know that. You’ve got to learn at this level, you’ve got to be able to play at both ends of the ice. I think he was not thinking like that. He was thinking more, 'I got to put points up, points up.' So by the time he got up there, we had already adjusted him where he was being a little more responsible in the D-zone, which helped him when he went up. Because obviously, you guys know, in the NHL, if you can't play D-zone, there's some pretty good hockey players on the ice and that puck's in the back of the net, you may not see the ice again. So I thought he did a great job when he was up there.”

The challenge for Sikura was that he wasn’t getting much ice time with the Blackhawks — he averaged 10:30 minutes per game, which was 2:54 fewer than his ice-time average in five games last season. And when he did get the ice time, trying to make the most of it.

"Yeah, it's tough,” Sikura admitted. “I think there's a lot of aspects that go into it. Obviously the team was struggling a bit and you're trying to make a name for yourself, and it could be tough at times. They're trying to get as many wins, and try to throw the guys up that are going to help the most. But for me it was just trying to get more and more comfortable every game. It was my real first taste of what it was like up there and you can kind of see how fast the game is played out there.

"One of the big reasons is you’re up there for a reason and you got called up for a reason. You're obviously doing good things down here and you got to try to translate your game to up there and do what you can. I'm a guy that, I like to make plays, I like to have the puck. Just cause I'm changing levels it doesn't mean I have to change the way I play. And that's just something that will come with getting more comfortable and more time."

In 16 career NHL games, Sikura is still looking for his first goal. He created a lot in his first few games this season, but couldn’t break through. He couldn't even get one off the skate or body, which made it even more frustrating because he really had to work for it.

“That was probably the most challenging part,” Sikura said. “I think in the games I played, the first couple, I had at least a couple good chances that you kind of second guess yourself after that, that should've went in or if you weren't gripping your stick, that would've went in. Up top I was doing everything, from changing my tape job to trying to change some different things in talking to the older guys, just little things like that that guys do around the league. I was fortunate enough to come back down here and score a couple goals early. It helps, definitely, but it's important not to get down on yourself. It's obviously tough to score, but I think as long as you're getting good looks and good chances then they're bound to go in."

In college, Sikura accumulated 146 points (58 goals, 88 assists) in 137 career games across four seasons with Northeastern for a points-per-game average of 1.07. With the IceHogs, he has 26 points (12 goals, 14 assists) in 35 games for a team-leading points-per-game average of 0.74.

Why isn’t his production translating to the NHL?

“They're quicker, they're faster and they're definitely stronger,” King said of NHL players. “Obviously any player like that who's that size needs to put some strength on and get some muscle on his body. But he can play the pace and he thinks the game. I think, too, it's where are you going to put him on the power play? He's a power play guy, but the way Chicago plays the power play, he's not going to see the ice right now. And the ice time's not there. When you're a young guy and you get up, they don't just throw you to the wolves, you have to earn your place. I think he did well with the ice he got, but when he comes down here he knows he's going to play a lot and that's where he gets the confidence. So the next time he goes up, maybe those points will come a little easier."

The first go-around was certainly more difficult to swallow for Sikura, who had aspirations to be on the Blackhawks from Day 1. The second time, it was needed for a different reason and it's because he wasn't getting the opportunity to maximize his talents and wasn't taking full advantage of the ice time he got.

But he knows what kind of player he wants to become, and it's all about trying to fine-tune that in the AHL. So when he does return to the big leagues, he's ready to flourish.

"I think at this point in your career you know what kind of player you're striving to be and you watch guys around the league and the NHL of guys you look up to are obviously a lot better," Sikura said. "But hopefully one day you can be that. From here on it's kind of just fine-tuning and getting used to playing the way [they play].

"For me I always think about the college days and how you play out there and how you can translate it out there, is having the puck and holding onto the puck more. Obviously up top it's a lot faster, so down here, that's how you learn, you get better with the puck, learn how to make plays and just adapt to the pro hockey game. It can be frustrating at times, it can be tough at times, especially when we're down and we're losing, but it's important to stay positive and try to take as much out of each game and each day you're down here."

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Blackhawks 2018-19 season grades: Coaching

Blackhawks 2018-19 season grades: Coaching

Jeremy Colliton had difficult shoes to fill. That's an understatement.

He replaced a three-time Stanley Cup winner and the second-winningest NHL coach of all-time in Joel Quenneville. And Colliton jumped in at the age of 33 just days after he and his wife welcomed their third child.

To make things even more complicated, Colliton took over as Blackhawks head coach just one month into the season and had to implement some new components of his system on the fly. That took a while for the veterans who had been playing one way for the last 10-plus years to adjust.

Colliton's No. 1 priority when he came to Chicago was to help fix a power-play unit that ranked third-worst during the 2017-18 campaign with a 16.0 percent success rate and 26th through the first 15 games of the 2018-19 season with a 14.0 percentage. It wasn't getting any better.

But from the day he got hired and on, the Blackhawks finished with the seventh-best power play (21.8 percent). It dried up down the stretch, but that was after a two-month span where it was converting at nearly a 40 percent clip. It was bound for regression.

The penalty kill, however, is something that stayed in the basement of the NHL all season long. They were 23rd under Quenneville through the first 15 games (76.6 percent) and finished last with a 71.7 percent kill rate under Colliton in the remaining 67 games. You can overcome a struggling power play, but it's almost impossible to overcome a bad penalty kill.

At 5-on-5 play under Quenneville this season, the Blackhawks had an expected goals for percentage of 45.8, a scoring chances for percentage of 49.2 and high-danger chances for percentage of 43.6, according to Under Colliton, they had an expected GF percentage of 45.8, SCF percentage of 46.9 and HDCF percentage of 42.6.

The sample sizes obviously aren't the same (15 games vs. 67) and, as we mentioned above, it took a couple of months for the Blackhawks to really get comfortable with Colliton's defensive structure. They certainly went through growing pains.

But with the Blackhawks expected to be active this summer in free agency and adding players that fit their new head coach's style, coupled with the fact that Colliton will have a full training camp to iron out the kinks and incorporate even more elements into his system, and the team could hit the ground running for the 2019-20 campaign rather than playing catch-up all season long. 

"I think as you go you get more comfortable, you gain confidence, you go through experiences and deal with situations that come up and they're challenging at times," Colliton said. "You get through it. And then the next time stuff comes up, you feel more confident, you feel better about what you're doing. I had confidence when I came in November that I had a plan and we as a staff could make some progress. It took longer than we all would have liked, but I think I'm a better coach now than when I walked in, and I'm going to use that going forward. 

"There's going to be challenging circumstances next year too where maybe doesn't come easy. But I think all the best coaches get better all the time. Every day they're bringing new ideas and new energy and looking outside for inspiration. That's what I expect to."

Coaching: B-

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What Ian Mitchell returning to college means for Blackhawks

What Ian Mitchell returning to college means for Blackhawks

After falling short of a Frozen Four championship with Denver, the attention in Chicago turned to defenseman prospect Ian Mitchell and whether he'd sign an entry-level deal with the Blackhawks. It felt like it was only a matter of time before he would do so, but as the days passed, there seemed to be growing speculation that that may not be the case.

On Wednesday, Mitchell made it official and announced his decision to return to college for his junior season by releasing this statement on Denver's website:

"In the past few days since our season ended, I have had the chance to reflect on the year and the season our team had. It became clear to me during that time that I did not feel ready mentally or physically to leave Denver. I believe this is the best place for me to become a better hockey player and as a team we have an opportunity to do something very special next year. I would like to thank the Chicago Blackhawks organization for being so supportive and respectful of my decision to remain in school and continue my development. I am looking forward to next season."

So what does this mean for the Blackhawks?

For one, it immediately eliminates Mitchell from the equation of making the 2019-20 Opening Day roster even though he might be the most pro-ready of the three top Blackhawks defensemen prospects that haven't appeared in an NHL game yet (Nicolas Beaudin and Adam Boqvist). It's probably a wise move for his long-term development.

But with Beaudin and Boqvist also in the same boat as far as maybe needing some more time to develop, it's entirely possible all three won't be in the NHL next season. Which is fine. The Blackhawks have always preached patience when it comes to prospects developing at their own pace.

But it puts the Blackhawks in a position the following season where they could be breaking in several young defensemen at once depending on where they're at in their timelines. Maybe that's a good problem to have. It also depends on the number of roster spots available, which is a conversation for a different day.

In going back to college, Mitchell, a second-round pick (No. 57 overall) in 2017, pushes back his eligibility to sign with the Blackhawks to the spring of 2020. And yes, it's too early to start wondering whether the Blackhawks could lose his signing rights if he returns to college for a senior season and elects to go to free agency. 

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