On the same day the Chicago Blackhawks added another defenseman to their organization with the Rockford Ice Hogs signing Darren Raddysh, one of their older prospects appears on the verge of sticking around for another season.
Ville Pokka came to the team from the New York Islanders as part of the Nick Leddy trade back in 2014. The 23-year-old native of Finland saw his entry-level deal expire at the end of the 2016-17 season, and now The Athletic’s Scott Powers is reporting that Pokka is working towards a new contract ahead of him becoming a restricted free agent on July 1.
For the last few seasons, Pokka seemed like he’d be graduating from the AHL to the NHL, with multiple spots opening up on the blue line in recent offseasons. But he stayed down in Rockford for the 2015-16 season, racking up 10 goals and 35 assists in 76 games for the Ice Hogs. Last season, Pokka had to deal with a lower-body injury in the offseason that affected his preparation for the 2016-17 season, although there was some early optimism that his time with Finland in the World Cup would prepare him for the NHL. It didn’t happen, though, and it was yet another year in Rockford for Pokka. He still played well, scoring six goals and adding 24 assists in another 76-game season.
Just nine months ago, we described Pokka as one of the AHL’s best defenseman, and his right-handed shot is something that the Hawks don’t have a lot of on the blue line. But he appeared to get passed by Michal Kempny and Gustav Forsling on the organizational depth chart in the last year, and is still yet to make his NHL debut.
With Trevor van Riemsdyk apparently on his way to Las Vegas in the expansion draft, that opens up another spot for Pokka to take come training camp. Powers quoted Blackhawks assistant general manager Norm Maciver in his article, saying that they still believe there’s something there with Pokka. And when the only other right-handed shots among defensemen in Chicago are Brent Seabrook and the aging Michal Roszival, there is ice time to be earned.
Perhaps this fall will be the season that Pokka makes the drive down I-90 for good.