The Chicago Blackhawks were never set up for success entering the 2022-23 season, and their preseason results have reflected it so far. However, one silver lining was their prospect pipeline, especially Lukas Reichel. That said, on Tuesday, the Blackhawks sent Reichel to the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Rockford IceHogs, meaning he will not start the season at the NHL level.
At first glance, this was a bit of a surprising move. After skating in 11 games with the Blackhawks last season and a productive offseason, Reichel seemed ready to make the leap full-time to the NHL. In perspective, though, this move makes sense and might be the smartest decision for Reichel’s development.
As excited as some fans probably were to see Reichel start the season with Chicago, some time with the IceHogs should make him even more prepared for his next NHL call-up. While he doesn’t have much left to prove in the AHL, even just another month or so in Rockford could very well benefit both Reichel and the Blackhawks.
Playing in Rockford Should Benefit Reichel’s Confidence
Reichel, the Blackhawks’ 2020 first-round pick, had an impressive debut campaign with Rockford last season. He recorded 57 points in 56 regular-season games and then spent the offseason building size (from ‘Blackhawks prospect notebook: Bigger, healthier Lukas Reichel ready for second NHL season,’ The Athletic, 09/14/22). Two years removed from his draft, Reichel has succeeded at nearly every level he’s played so far, so it would’ve made total sense for him to start the year with the Blackhawks.
Having said that, Reichel’s far from a complete product. While he slowly grew with the Blackhawks during his stints last year, there were times when he seemed outmatched, with much of that due to his small frame. His puck-handling skills weren’t always great either, as well as some of his two-way abilities. Though by no means would these areas have prevented Reichel from succeeding with Chicago should he have made the opening night roster, more seasoning with the IceHogs will allow him to brush up on his overall game.
It’s also worth noting Reichel’s entering only his second season in North America. While he already has a taste of the NHL, the Blackhawks surely want him to be in the best position possible when he transitions to the league full-time or come his next call-up.
Now, expectations aren’t high for the Blackhawks, but they are for Reichel. If he made the final roster, there would’ve been a ton of pressure for him to immediately succeed. Allowing Reichel to continue thriving with the IceHogs — who should be pretty competitive this year — should boost his overall confidence, as opposed to the constant losing he would’ve faced by starting the year in Chicago. Between such a flawed team and the high expectations that come with being a top prospect, this combination could’ve been a bad match for him so early in his career.
Because he’s entering the second year of his entry-level contract (ELC), Reichel will probably get a call-up sooner rather than later and will still have to face this pressure. For now, though, giving him the chance to continue succeeding in the AHL could be a blessing in disguise for him and his long-term growth.
Blackhawks Don’t Necessarily Need Reichel Right Now
Chicago is in no rush to compete. General manager (GM) Kyle Davidson has referred to his rebuilding process as a “five-year plan,” but it could very well be longer before the Blackhawks are a bona fide contender again. Point is, as cool as it would’ve been to see Reichel begin the year with Chicago, they don’t need him now since winning isn’t a goal.
With the exception of a few open spots, the Blackhawks’ opening night forward group looks set. It’s a pretty underwhelming group, but Chicago is tanking. Davidson signed Andreas Athanasiou, Max Domi, and Colin Blackwell over the offseason as short-term placeholders solely to give the team depth without straying away from their long-term objective. There are enough veterans around to where the club has a complete roster, albeit not a good one.
On paper, Reichel would probably be an upgrade over many of the Blackhawks’ current forwards. But is that what Chicago wants right now? The Blackhawks aren’t trying to win, so keeping Reichel in the AHL should keep the team from being too competitive, which would be counterintuitive to tanking and gaining at least a top-three pick in next year’s draft.
With that in mind, it would make sense to see Reichel end the season in Chicago like he mostly did last year. Because they’re on one-year deals, Domi and Athanasiou could very well be out come deadline day along with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and others. Should the Blackhawks move a number of their veterans, barring they take on too many bad contracts, it will give the youth more time as the team slowly gets younger.
Blackhawks Can’t Afford to Rush Top Prospects
During the last few years of the previous regime, the Blackhawks were mainly unsuccessful with their prospect development. Though they’re under Davidson’s watch now, giving Reichel some extra time in the AHL — even if he doesn’t need it — might be what’s best for the organization.
Aside from Alex DeBrincat, the Blackhawks haven’t really developed any other notable, high-end prospects over the last few years. Players such as Kirby Dach and Adam Boqvist showed flashes of potential but never broke out in a way the Blackhawks probably expected. Now, they’re no longer part of the team’s future and are looking for fresh starts in other organizations.
Now, if Reichel comes up and struggles, he’ll probably have a longer leash since Chicago is rebuilding, unlike when Dach and Boqvist made their debuts. However, you could argue both players were rushed too soon to the NHL, which limited their success with the Blackhawks. As a rebuilding club looking to build their next core, Davidson and his staff can’t afford to make these mistakes, even if it means erring on the side of caution and giving their top prospects additional time to develop.
Reichel has an incredibly bright future ahead of him. It would be surprising not to see him capitalize on the success he’s had with the IceHogs so far whenever he comes up to Chicago. By giving Reichel a little extra time to develop in Rockford, the Blackhawks are playing it safe, even if it makes the on-ice product less watchable. If another month or two with the IceHogs makes Reichel a more effective player the next time he’s up with the Blackhawks, this decision will have been the right one.
Connor Smith covers the Chicago Blackhawks for The Hockey Writers. He is from Naperville, Illinois, and is pursuing his master’s at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago. In May 2022, he graduated from Ball State University, earning summa cum laude honors. Along with The Hockey Writers, he’s written and edited for The Ball State Daily News, Ball State’s on-campus student newspaper. Smith has also interned for Best Version Media (BVM) Sports and Jersey Column, a Georgia-based sports blog. You can find more info about Smith and his work through his online portfolio, connornsmith0719.wordpress.com.