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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Four takeaways: Kirby Dach holds his own in NHL debut but Blackhawks fall to Capitals

Four takeaways: Kirby Dach holds his own in NHL debut but Blackhawks fall to Capitals

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 5-3 loss to the Washington Capitals at the United Center on Sunday:

1. Blackhawks left wanting more

The Blackhawks were easily the better team at even strength against one of the deepest teams in the NHL. They led in total shot attempts (84-49), shots on goal (44-30), even-strength scoring chances (36-20) and even-strength high-danger chances (16-9), according to Natural Stat Trick, but couldn't pull out a win.

The Blackhawks put up 44 shots on goal against a Capitals team that allowed the second-fewest shots per game (27.8) going into the matchup. They deserved a better fate.

"I think we dictated most of the play tonight and we weren't rewarded for it, but that's the way hockey works sometimes," Drake Caggiula said. "You don't always get the bounces, you don't always get the results you're looking for, even if you play the prototypical game or the perfect game. We didn't get rewarded tonight but this is something we can build off of heading into the next one."

2. Kirby Dach's NHL debut

After being sidelined for the first week of training camp and working his way back from a concussion, the Blackhawks' No. 3 overall pick finally made his much-anticipated NHL debut. And he held his own.

Dach centered the second line with Dylan Strome playing left wing and Patrick Kane in his usual spot at right wing. He had one shot attempt, one takeaway and went 1-for-5 at the faceoff circle in 13:41 of ice time. His only noticeable blemish was not picking up Alex Ovechkin in time before he rifled a shot past Corey Crawford.

"Obviously you want to win in your first game in and help the team that way, but I felt good out there," Dach said. "But at the same time, there's things I can clean up in my game to kind of help the team moving forward."

3. Special teams is the difference

The reason the Blackhawks lost this game was their lack of success on special teams. The Capitals went 1-for-1 on the power play and scored a shorthanded goal while the Blackhawks went 0-for-5 on the power play, which included a four-minute double minor in the second period.

It was unfortunate because the Capitals entered Sunday's matchup with a +11 goal differential and +44 shot differential in the second period and a -5 goal differential and -13 shot differential in the first and third periods combined, but the Blackhawks couldn't capitalize in the middle frame even thought they outshot them 15-9. Caggiula's goal was negated just 1:28 after by Nic Down.

"You can look at in the second there, we had a lot of momentum, give up a shorthanded goal, so we gotta be better in that department," Kane said. "We also gotta be better on the power play. Comes down to things like that, but good team and I thought we had a pretty good effort overall tonight."

4. Third line stands out again

The third line of David Kampf, Dominik Kubalik and Brandon Saad continues to be the driving force on offense for the Blackhawks, especially when it comes to possession. They were on the ice for 22 shot attempts for and nine against, 14 scoring chances for and four against, six high-danger chances for and one against, and one goal for and zero against in 9:07 of 5-on-5 ice time. 

Kubalik led the charge with 14 shot attempts (10 on goal) and scored a greasy goal to pull the Blackhawks within one in the third period. Kane evened it up shortly after. 

"Turned the game for us," coach Jeremy Colliton said of Kubalik's goal. "I think we were playing well, but they just took it to another level. Not only did they score, but it was an explosive shift there. And it wasn't the only good shift they had, but it really gave us momentum. They've been good."

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Instant reaction: Special teams the difference in Blackhawks loss to Capitals

Instant reaction: Special teams the difference in Blackhawks loss to Capitals


Capitals 5, Blackhawks 3

Snap judgments:

— The Blackhawks won the even-strength battle, but special teams was the story of the game. The Capitals went 1-for-1 on the power play while the Blackhawks went 0-for-5 and gave up a shorthanded goal.

— Kirby Dach made his NHL debut and held his own, centering the second line alongside Patrick Kane and Dylan Strome. He had one shot attempt, one takeaway and one blocked shot in 13:41 of ice time. He also went 1-for-5 in the faceoff circle with his sole win coming on the opening draw of the game.

— The third line of David Kampf, Dominik Kubalik and Brandon Saad was excellent. They controlled 70.9 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts and 77.8 percent of the 5-on-5 scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick. Kubalik had a game-high 10 shots on goal.

Three stars:

1. Capitals RW Tom Wilson — Game-winning goal, three shot attempts (two on goal), four blocked shots, three hits and two takeaways in 16:48 of ice time

2. Capitals G Braden Holtby — Stopped 41 of 44 shots for a save percentage of .932

3. Blackhawks RW Dominik Kubalik — One goal, 14 shot attempts (10 on goal), two hits and one takeaway in 14:15 of ice time

Must-see highlights:

— Caggiula finishes off pretty goal by fourth line

— Kubalik's second goal of the season

— Kane goes five-hole Holtby to tie it up

What's next:

The Blackhawks host the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday, Oct. 22 at 7:30 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago.

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