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What does Ville Pokka’s future hold with the Blackhawks?

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He’s no longer waiver-exempt, so it’s pretty much now or never for the defenseman.

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at St. Louis Blues Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Blackhawks knew all summer they would have an opening for an offensive-minded defenseman on the right side of their third pairing. In the spring, they signed Czech blue liner Jan Rutta to a one-year deal. Earlier this month, veteran Cody Franson was brought in on a PTO.

Those deals give the Blackhawks options, and signal yet again that the team doesn’t want to commit to Ville Pokka. The last remaining piece of the Nick Leddy trade has been of Chicago’s top prospects for years, but he’s teetering on the brink of that point where it’s hard to keep calling him one.

Pokka is now a 23-year-old with three full seasons of AHL experience with the Rockford IceHogs. He played in Finland at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. He’s no longer a long-term project for the Hawks, but someone who needs to factor into their immediate plans.

And there’s a key reason for that: he’s no longer waiver-exempt.

If the Hawks want to assign Pokka to Rockford to open the season, they’d have to risk losing him for nothing if another team claims him. That’s not exactly the preferred outcome for someone who has shown flashes of potential in the AHL. While he’s not a lock get claimed, it’s conceivable that a rebuilding team might want to take a shot on him to add depth. The league isn’t exactly flowing with 23-year-old right-handed shots who put up 105 points in 220 AHL games over the past three seasons and can be had for free.

So Pokka will need to make the Blackhawks out of training camp to ensure he’s not in another organization soon. However, the team isn’t going to put him on the roster just because. They won’t sweat risking losing him if he’s deemed that superfluous at this point in his career. He’s gotta earn it.

That leaves four scenarios in play here:

  • Pokka makes the team out of training camp
  • Pokka gets traded in a prospect-for-prospect type of trade
  • Pokka gets waived, and another team claims him
  • Pokka gets waived, clears, and goes to Rockford

Fans shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that Pokka manages to make the team. They have two spots potentially open for right-handed shots if you include the seventh defenseman role with Michal Rozsival going on LTIR. Pokka could earn that spot, even if Franson or Rutta wins the gig on the third-pairing.

It’s worth noting here that Rutta is waiver-exempt, and told reporters over the weekend that he’s open to going to the AHL for some time if needed.

So if Franson gets a contract and the Hawks feel more or less equal about what Rutta and Pokka can do, it’d make sense to send down the former and keep up the latter just for the sake of asset management. If they clearly prefer Rutta and Franson, you’ll know soon because Pokka will be in the news.

This could spell the end of Pokka’s time with the Blackhawks. The team had a clear opening for him this summer, but it’s brought in some serious competition in Franson and Rutta to battle for the spot. Even amid the youth movement of the past two years, Pokka has been a forgotten man. It’s easy to remember a year ago when Mark McNeill was in a similar situation, cleared waivers, and got sent out of town by March.

Now it’s make or break time for Pokka.