One year ago, it seemed like Ville Pokka was finally ready to make the leap to the NHL. When Chicago acquired him in a 2014 trade, it helped soften the blow of losing Nick Leddy, because the belief was that the Hawks had acquired a defensive prospect with a similar ceiling as Leddy. Three years later, though, Pokka still hasn’t appeared in an NHL game and, at the age of 23, is in danger of becoming an afterthought in the organization.
Birth date: June 3, 1994
Acquired via: Trade with New York Islanders (Oct. 4, 2014 for Nick Leddy)
Most recent stop: Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
Size: 6’0, 214 pounds
Contract: One year, $650,000 cap hit
Everything seemed to be lining up perfectly for Pokka to be a member of the Hawks lineup in the 2016-17 season. He was coming off a great 2015-16 campaign in Rockford, where Mark Bernard, the Hawks’ director of hockey administration and GM of minor league affiliations, couldn’t say enough positive things about Pokka. He played in all 76 games that year, picking up 45 points for the IceHogs.
But Pokka’s preparations for the 2016-17 season were hampered by a lower-body injury, and he didn’t make enough of an impression to break camp with the team, being surpassed on the organizational depth chart by newcomers Gustav Forsling and Michal Kempny. To Pokka’s credit, he again appeared in all 76 games for Rockford last season, scoring six goals and adding 24 assists. He also played in 3 games for Finland during last year’s World Cup of Hockey, but did not register a point.
Pokka’s play improved during the AHL season, and the Hawks offered him a one-year contract that he signed in late June. While never hailed as a flashy player, Pokka has always been thought of as a smart, solid defender who relies on his hockey IQ to make the safe defensive plays that keep his team out of trouble.
What’s next in 2017-18?
This has to be the year, doesn’t it? After multiple seasons in the AHL, Pokka likely doesn’t have anything left to prove there. It feels like NHL-or-bust for Pokka this season. If he doesn’t make the team out of training camp, it seems like he has to earn a call-up during the regular season, or the Hawks will focus on some of the other defensive prospects in the organization.
Perhaps the biggest thing Pokka has working in his favor is his right-handed shot, something the Hawks have been sorely lacking in the organization. Along with that factor, the Hawks traded away one top four defenseman in Niklas Hjalmarsson and did not re-sign another frequent blue line presence in Johnny Oduya. There are spots available among the Hawks’ three D pairings. So far, there have been no reports of injuries that would hamper his offseason workouts.
If Pokka’s going to be part of the Hawks’ future plans, he needs to grab their attention this year.