The Blackhawks made four signings on Day 1 of NHL free agency, three of which were announced at exactly 11:01 a.m. on July 1. The fourth flew under the radar.
Adam Boqvist, whom the Blackhawks selected with their No. 8 overall pick last month, signed his entry-level contract, and it came as a little bit of a surprise without much time to digest amid the free agent frenzy. Heck, the Blackhawks even assigned him jersey No. 27 and announced it with the other three signings.
Does this indicate Boqvist will have a legitimate shot at competing for a roster spot this upcoming season? Not exactly.
On Thursday, Boqvist signed with the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights — the team that took him in the 2017 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft — for the 2018-19 season and the Blackhawks are simply hoping to play more of a hands-on role in his development by having him under contract. The move from the Swedish Hockey League to the OHL will also allow Boqvist to make that transition to a smaller ice surface as he gets accustomed to the North American style of play.
"It’s so we can play a larger role in his development next season," Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said last week. "That hasn’t 100 percent been determined, but we have a lot more options now. If he had been unsigned, it would sort of be up to the team in Sweden where he was going to go. Now we can play a bigger role in that. We want to make sure that he has a really good development year because this is sort of a critical season for someone like him who’s got so much ability and so much talent. This allows us a lot more control with where he goes and how he progresses in the next year. That was the primary motivation."
Basically, the Blackhawks want to try accelerating his progression so that when his contract expires next season they can reevaluate and potentially give him a chance to play in the NHL by 2019-20. And that's certainly not out of the question.
Bowman appeared on 670 The Score on Tuesday morning and had this to say about Henri Jokiharju, the team's 29th overall pick in 2017:
"He's one year ahead of where Boqvist is because he's played another year since his draft," Bowman said. "So he's going to come to training camp and it's not out of the realm that he can make our team. I never say never because it's a competition. Once we open camp it's one of those things where we want to take the best guys and until we see how he performs relative to the other guys we don't know, so I don't rule that out.
"We're also not assuming that he's making the team. It's a competition and if he's going to help us win then he's going to be there, so you've just got to be careful with the young players, especially at defense because you don't want them to try to survive in the league, you want them to thrive and you want them to have that confidence. Sometimes when they're just trying to get their feet wet they don't do everything that they could do, so we'll monitor that. Henri's a pretty confident kid. We really like this talent level. To answer your original question, I think the guys from this year's draft, the two defensemen we took earlier, they're not going to be on the team next season but after that I would say we'll just have to assess how their progression went in one year and you never know."
Why is Jokiharju's situation relevant to Boqvist? Because if the Blackhawks view Jokiharju, who was taken near the end of the first round, as someone who can immediately push for a spot on the 23-man NHL roster after a year of development in the Canadian Hockey League, why can't Boqvist, who was a Top-8 pick and has a much higher ceiling?
Obviously, you want to be a little more careful with Boqvist's development because of that Erik Karlsson-like potential, but we're seeing it more and more in the league these days that younger players — even defensemen — are making an instant impact as teenagers: Shayne Gostisbehere, Charlie McAvoy, Ivan Provorov, Mikhail Sergachev and Zach Werenski, to name a few.
As far as Boqvist's contract, his entry-level deal will only kick in if he plays more than nine games in the NHL this season. Because he'll play with the Knights, his contract will then slide a year.
"That's a big move for us, in particularly for the development of Adam over the next couple seasons," Bowman said. "Obviously he's got a ton of talent. We're really excited about his skill set, what he brings to the table. He's a dynamic offensive defenseman. We're looking to kind of play a role in his development over the next couple years. The goal is to get him ready for the NHL as soon as possible. We don't really have a timetable on that."
To clarify any confusion: The CHL/NHL transfer rule that players under 20 years old are ineligible to play in the minor leagues (AHL and ECHL) does not apply in this case because Boqvist was drafted as a member of his European club (Brynäs). He will be eligible to play in the AHL next season if he doesn't make the Blackhawks out of training camp.
It's also possible Boqvist could join the Rockford IceHogs for their stretch run depending on when the Knights campaign ends, like Victor Ejdsell did last year, if the Blackhawks feel he's ready to advance to that next step. In fact, Boqvist would even be eligible to join the Blackhawks for a couple regular season games, too, as long as he doesn't reach the 10-game mark, which he wouldn't. Participating in playoff games, however, would mean burning the first year of his entry-level deal.
The Knights have high expectations so all of this could be irrelevant. But looking ahead to the Blackhawks' 2019 training camp and there's a real possibility Boqvist can challenge for a spot, much like Jokiharju could do this season.