(The top 10 continues in our ranking of the Hawks' best players under 25 years old! Check out all the previous entries in the series with our storystream.)
Ville Pokka is the Blackhawks' best chance at getting something out of the 2014 trade of Nick Leddy to the Islanders. Luckily, the Finnish defenseman has done nothing but impress since joining the organization last October, proving to be almost NHL-ready entering his age-21 season. Now Pokka is the best defenseman prospect in the entire organization.
If you needed any more reason to believe Chicago has confidence in Pokka and its other young blue liners, consider the team's trade of Patrick Sharp and Stephen Johns to Dallas this summer. Johns had widely been considered one of the Hawks' best prospects and potentially someone who could get significant NHL playing time during the 2015-16 season.
Now Johns is with the Stars, and while it's clear he was a casualty of the team's need to move Sharp's cap hit, the team's willingness to pull the trigger shows some faith in the team's other prospects. Among that group, which also includes TVR, Gustav Forsling and others, Pokka stands out as the best bet.
Reading over his scouting report from ESPN's Corey Pronman, who ranked him the No. 64 prospect in the game earlier this month, you can just imagine Joel Quenneville loving Pokka's game:
Pokka is a very intelligent defenseman who moves the puck very well and understands how to position himself defensively pretty well. The physical nature of the North American pro game was an adjustment for him this past season, especially given he's not the quickest guy. I think he's close to being NHL ready, and given the moves Chicago made this summer, the opportunity is there for him to seize.
Having the hockey sense to be in the right position and make the right play with the puck is a core tenet of everything Quenneville asks of his players. For Pokka, who just turned 21 in June, it's high praise that makes him sound like a strong fit.
Pokka isn't the biggest player (6'0, 214 pounds), the faster skater or the hardest shooter, but he makes great use of his tools by making smart decisions and playing within himself. It's a nice contrast to someone like David Rundblad, who undermines his physical gifts and offensive potential by getting overwhelmed on the defensive end. The same goes for Johns, whose hockey I.Q. was questioned by Pronman in his ranking of the Stars' best prospects. When you consider the two types of players and Quenneville's track record, it's not hard to guess which one seems more likely to stick long-term.
The question is when Pokka will arrive, and as Pronman noted, he's more or less NHL-ready. In 68 games with Rockford last season, Pokka recorded 30 points (eight goals, 22 assists) in 68 games. At the 2014 World Junior Championships, he won a gold medal as a key defenseman for Finland. In seven WJC games, Pokka had one goal and three assists. The next real challenge for him will seemingly come in the NHL.
Pokka is the team's best bet at having a cheap top-four option on the blue line in the next couple years, even if there's little chance he'll ever ascend to being a top-pairing guy. Considering that the other two pieces from the Leddy trade -- defenseman T.J. Brennan and goaltender Anders Nilsson -- are already gone, Pokka is also our best chance at looking back fondly upon that deal. (Unless Liam Coughlin turns out to be way, way, way better than anyone thinks, which, hey, still possible!)
When the Hawks traded Johns as part of the Sharp deal, there was a general sentiment that the team had just dealt its best defenseman prospect. With Pokka, however, I feel pretty strongly that he would've been ranked higher regardless. Johns wasn't even included in Pronman's top 100 rankings, which means he's considered well behind those guys. Johns is a solid prospect, but he wasn't the best Stan Bowman could've offered. Let's just be happy he kept Pokka.
Birth date: June 3, 1994 (age 21)
Acquired via: Trade with New York Islanders, Oct. 2014
Most recent stop: Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
Size: 6'0, 214 pounds
Contract: Entry-level; $925,000 cap hit for 2015-16; RFA in 2017
Highest ranking: No. 5
Lowest ranking: No. 9