Going into the 2021-22 campaign, the Blackhawks laid out a road map for how the organization was going to handle Lukas Reichel's development. They wanted their 2020 first-round pick to start with the Rockford IceHogs, play a few NHL games mid-season, and then finish in the AHL.
Despite the front-office overhaul, that plan hasn't wavered under interim general manager Kyle Davidson. The Blackhawks are preaching patience and it's the right approach for many reasons, none larger than Chicago's recent history of rushing high-end prospects to the big leagues.
"He’s obviously one of our highly skilled prospects coming up and we want to do it right," interim head coach Derek King said. "There’s been years of seeing players get called up early, started too early, and they don’t end up finishing with your team. This is a chance to do it right by him. The process is going to be key and I think it’s doing well."
Adam Boqvist and Kirby Dach are the two prospects that come to mind that became full-time NHL players ahead of schedule, and it was more-so based on necessity.
When he was drafted eighth overall in 2018, I asked Boqvist how far away he thinks he is from becoming an NHL regular. His response: "Two to three years."
Fast forward 16 months later and Boqvist was recalled because the Blackhawks got off to a brutal start and were in desperate need of offense, particularly on the back end. Perhaps they needed to sell some hope to the fanbase, as well.
Boqvist, himself, was even surprised at the call-up because he wasn't particularly lighting it up in Rockford at the time. He ended up finishing the season in the NHL, and the Blackhawks burned the first year of his entry-level contract and pulled him one year closer to unrestricted free agency by playing in more than 40 games.
The same thing happened with Dach, who was taken No. 3 overall in 2019. Two teenage prospects in the same season.
Now, let's be clear: Dach was much more pro-ready than Boqvist coming out of the draft, and he was clearly one of the 12 best forwards in training camp. But the reality is, the Blackhawks didn't have much of a choice but to keep him around.
Dach was not eligible to play in the AHL full-time, so the decision ultimately came down to: NHL or back to Saskatoon in the WHL for one more year.
The Blackhawks were coming off an offseason in which they signed Robin Lehner and Ryan Carpenter, acquired defensemen Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta, brought back Andrew Shaw and traded for Alex Nylander. Those moves were clearly motivated by trying to get the team back into playoff contention.
What message would it have sent to the locker room if Dach was shipped back to the WHL before his nine games were up and his entry-level contract kicked in? The Blackhawks needed him if they wanted to field the best possible lineup at that current moment, so, like Boqvist, Dach finished the season in the NHL.
That brings us to Reichel, who was recalled and assigned to the taxi squad on Wednesday. He's expected to make his NHL debut on Thursday vs. Montreal and was centering the first line with Patrick Kane and Dylan Strome during his first practice.
Did Reichel deserve a call-up? Absolutely. He has 20 points (11 goals, nine assists) in 20 games this season in Rockford. It's the perfect time for the Blackhawks to give him a look and reward him for his efforts.
But is it also OK to admit that the right move is to send him back down after he gets a taste at the NHL level? Yes, it is.
The Blackhawks can't afford to stunt the 19-year-old Reichel's growth by permanently keeping him in the NHL just so he could prove that he can keep his head above water playing against men. They need to let a kid overripen for once.
"There's a game plan with this kid and we don’t want to ruin it, we don’t want to ruin him," King said. "Sometimes, giving a kid like that too much could hurt him in the long run. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We’ll see how he does and then we’ll re-assess after the couple games here."