The Chicago Blackhawks are nearing the end of the 2021-22 NHL season. They were officially eliminated from playoff contention on April 5, and times are tough. When a team is eliminated from playoff contention, you usually hope the rest of the season will end as soon as possible, and it hasn’t been easy considering the Blackhawks have not recorded a winning streak since March 23.
There isn’t much to look forward to at this point, but there is one player that has been making games enjoyable: Lukas Reichel. He was the Blackhawks’ first-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, and is currently on his third call-up with the team. Although there is reason to let him finish the season with the Blackhawks’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate team, the Rockford Icehogs, I think it may serve him better to stay with Chicago for the remainder of the season.
Reichel Showing Growth in Game
As previously mentioned, this is Reichel’s third time with the Blackhawks. He was recalled from Rockford on Jan. 10 after posting 20 points in 20 games (11 goals, 9 assists), and made his NHL debut against the Montreal Canadiens. He played two games with the team before being sent back down to Rockford, and was recalled again on Feb. 18, playing three games before being sent back down. His first five games went according to plan considering the Blackhawks weren’t expecting him to be a superstar right out of the gate, but they wanted to give him a “taste” of the NHL. They placed him on the top line with Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat, making for a fun line for a few shifts.
Reichel’s play in that timespan went as expected. He had moments where he made good plays but also had games where he seemed invisible. In five games, he recorded zero points and eight shots, which wasn’t a bad stint at all. He was getting acclimated to North American ice and the NHL, which was a success. The hope was that he would gain valuable experience and have more confidence with his next stint.
Reichel was recalled to the Blackhawks again on April 4, and made played against the Seattle Kraken on April 7. Before being called up, he had 49 points (21 goals, 28 assists) in 49 games with the Icehogs, which leads the team in goals, assists, and points. He became a point-per-game player that looked ready for a more significant debut with the Blackhawks. When he debuted against the Kraken, he looked like a completely different player than the last two stints. He seems so much more comfortable during this run, and he is noticeable every shift.
He has been with the Blackhawks for five games, and has become a nice tool on the power play. He has created at least one prime scoring opportunity in each of his games, including three against the LA Kings on April 12. He has been active on the forecheck, and has shown a lot of offensive skill. He has shown speed, passing ability, and being able to create opportunities for himself.
Reichel got rewarded when he recorded his first NHL point on April 16, notching an assist on Dominik Kubalik’s goal against the Nashville Predators in the second period. Although they lost the game 4-3, Reichel was another bright spot on the team, and now that he got his first NHL point, the sky’s the limit.
Reichel Brings Balance to Lines
Something that stands out about Reichel’s third debut with the Blackhawks is how he balances the lines. Because the Blackhawks lost Brandon Hagel at the trade deadline to the Tampa Bay Lightning, there was a massive hole with depth in the lines, but he has been able to fill it nicely.
The Hawks did place Reichel on the first line, but they have been rotating him between the second and third lines. He has played with Dylan Strome and DeBrincat, and he has also played with Sam Lafferty and Kirby Dach on the third line. Although Dach was recently injured with a right shoulder strain, that line looked awesome. They bring a lot of skill and speed, and can make fast plays difficult for the opposition to defend. Dach and Reichel seem like they could benefit from staying with each other, which opens the door for a top-six role. That would allow DeBrincat, Strome, and Kane to stay together, because the bottom-six is more established with Reichel in the lineup.
Reichel can move to the top six if needed, but his presence brings a nice balance for now. He is naturally a center, but has been playing left wing. It’s a role that is seemingly doing well at the moment. Although I believe he will ultimately play center, that is another aspect of versatility that he brings. He can play center with Dach out, and interchange as needed. Although balancing the lines doesn’t mean much for a team that is not going to be in the playoffs, it does help establish an outline for next season, which is essential. It gives the team an idea of where Reichel can fit in, and what lines could work for next season, which is all the last remaining games are about.
Reichel Needs Experience for Future
Reichel’s tenure was filled with questions because, according to his entry-level contract, if he plays in 10 NHL games in a season, that burns the first year of his contract, making him a restricted free agent (RFA) after the 2023-24 season. If he played in nine or fewer games this season, his entry-level contract would have started next season, but his contract has officially kicked in with 10 games after skating against the Predators. It’s a difficult predicament, because Reichel now has two years of playing time instead of three years before negotiating his next contract, and is one less year of being able to keep him on a cheap deal.
General manager Kyle Davidson said his contract and playing time were something he wasn’t worried about. Now, they can look toward the future. The Blackhawks only have six games left in the season, and I say to let him stay. To propel a rebuild forward, you have to see what you got in terms of talent. I see Reichel getting more games in the NHL as a good thing. It’s not a lot to end the season, and I think it could set him up nicely for next season. He got his first NHL point and looks to have settled in well. He’s also averaging over 12 minutes of ice time a night. Why not let him ride it out?
The other predicament that the Blackhawks were facing with Reichel is that the Icehogs are in a playoff push, and them being without their leading goal scorer isn’t ideal. However, the Icehogs have done okay without him. They have gone 4-1 since Reichel was recalled, and they are only five points out of a playoff spot. They could clinch a playoff spot as early as Wednesday, and because the Icehogs are doing well, I think that’s another reason to keep him up. Rockford’s final game is April 30, while the Blackhawks’ season ends on the 29th. So he can quickly be returned when the season is over.
When head coach Derek King was asked about Reichel’s play as of late, he stated, “I think he’s come, not a long ways, but he’s come a little ways, But I don’t think he’s quite ready. I mean, if you had him on a stronger team, that you could support him a lot better and hide him a little more, I think it’d be better for the kid. But we don’t have that luxury right now. So you’re putting a young kid in with young kids and they’re making mistakes. So, it doesn’t help. So, he’s going to be a hockey player. He’s got everything you want. He’s just light and he’s young.” (from ‘Why the Blackhawks burned Lukas Reichel’s first NHL contract season now,’ The AthleticNHL, 04/16/2022).
I don’t think Reichel is fully “ready” either, but this is the perfect time to get acclimated. The pressure of the playoffs is off, and he won’t be ready if he doesn’t play. He will continue to get plenty of ice time with the Icehogs for the playoffs, and be with them next season, but I don’t think six games is too much of a stretch. He has brought new life into the Blackhawks’ roster, and I believe it is essential to have aspects that allow the team to end the season on a high note. They can continue giving him valuable experience to help his development and confidence at the NHL level. I see it as a win-win, and I don’t see the need to rush him down. He is fun to watch, building chemistry with teammates, and I think keeping him with the Blackhawks through the rest of the season provides a world of good for the regular season and next season.