Tomas Jurco's time in the NHL has been a challenging one.
He was taken in the second round (35th overall) of the 2011 draft by the Detroit Red Wings, had a solid rookie campaign in 2013-14 when he put up eight goals and seven assists in 36 games, but has since struggled to take that next step.
Believing a change of scenery could potentially benefit both sides, the Blackhawks acquired Jurco last February for a third-round pick in 2017. So far, only the Red Wings have something to show for it.
Jurco had just one goal and zero assists in 13 games last season, and didn't appear in any of the four playoff games. And with an opportunity to crack the lineup out of training camp in September, Jurco instead started the season in the American Hockey League with the Rockford IceHogs, where he registered 25 points (13 goals, 12 assists) in 36 games.
It was good enough to earn him a call-up on Jan. 8 and show whether or not he can carry over that offensive production to the big leagues.
"He looks like he's totally different, in terms of his composure and ability to make plays," Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said of Jurco's development at the time. "That's why we brought him up here."
However, he was a healthy scratch for five consecutive games following his recall and his confidence surely took a hit, which isn't great for a young player trying to grow his game at the highest level.
Now he's finally getting a chance to show the Blackhawks what he can bring to the table, spending a few games on a line with Patrick Kane and most recently with Artem Anisimov and Anthony Duclair in a top-six role.
Jurco turned in his best game of the season in Sunday's 6-3 loss to the Anaheim Ducks, scoring his second goal in four games and recording a season-high nine shot attempts (four on goal). There was a defensive lapse on the sixth goal that he was responsible for, but that's part of the learning curve at this point.
He had only one goal in his previous 49 games, dating back to the 2015-16 season. He's trending in the right direction.
But does Jurco have a future in Chicago?
He's 25 years of age, is a pending restricted free agent that carries a $800,000 cap hit and would be in that range again if he were to re-sign.
The question is whether or not the Blackhawks want him back.
If the Blackhawks decide they want to include him into the fold going forward, they must extend a qualifying offer of at least 105 percent of his last contract. If they choose to go in a different direction, the Blackhawks could simply not make him an offer which would ultimately allow Jurco to sign with whoever he wants as an unrestricted free agent (UFA).
There's also another option in play: The Blackhawks could try to trade his negotiating rights. But that route is only possible if they extend an offer.
This scenario usually occurs when the player rejects the offer and the two sides can't come to terms on a deal. (An example of that would be Brandon Saad's situation in 2015, when the Blackhawks were forced to trade him to Columbus after it was apparent that they wouldn't be able to agree to an extension in time before the offseason deadline). It's unlikely, but still worth noting.
Perhaps the final month will determine Jurco's future with the Blackhawks.
But in a vacuum it's difficult to see a spot for him in the rotation when you consider some of the guys in the organization knocking on the door for a full-time opportunity, most notably John Hayden and Dylan Sikura, the latter of whom Bowman is confident will sign with the Blackhawks once his collegiate career is over. And that also doesn't include the possibility of free-agent signings.
Whether he's in Chicago next season or not, it's still important for Jurco to finish the year strong because his future in the NHL may depend on it. Fortunately for him, his leash has been unhooked and it's up to him to take advantage of it.