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The Dylan Sikura trade and Blackhawks’ struggles with long-term prospect development

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Another Blackhawks prospect that appeared part of the team’s NHL future has left the organization.

Detroit Red Wings v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s hard to figure out where Dylan Sikura’s career goes from here.

Is he worthy of a bottom six role at the NHL level? Or is he more of a top-line AHL player? If he’s given a longer leash than he was in Chicago, can he reach the potential he flashed during dazzling college seasons at Northeastern?

Those questions won’t be answered in Chicago, though, after Sikura was traded to the Golden Knights for old friend — and a former Blackhawks prospect himself — Brandon Pirri.

In a vacuum, the Sikura trade is mostly a blip on the radar. But there was noticeable hype built around him during his days as a prospect. The Blackhawks thought enough of Sikura to produce an 11-minute hype video once he finally signed with the team.

Reaching the NHL alone is an impressive feat for Sikura, an undersized sixth-round pick who bucked trends by appearing in 47 games. But the upward trajectory of his career seemed to plateau after he signed with the Blackhawks on March 25, 2018. His rapid ascension through prospect rankings flattened out and now the 25-year-old is gone just 30 months after officially joining the organization.

The plateau trend has been an all-too-frequent occurrence with an ever-growing list of Blackhawks prospects who spend more than one season in the AHL.

This is not relative to the players who bypassed the AHL completely and moved on to the NHL (like 2016 second-rounder Alex DeBrincat and 2019 first-rounder Kirby Dach) or players whose talent was clearly beyond the AHL and fast-tracked to the Blackhawks within a season (like 2012 and 2014 first-rounders Teuvo Teravainen and Nick Schmaltz and 2011 second-rounder Brandon Saad). This is for the players who required some seasoning at the professional level, who needed a season or two of development before making the leap to to the NHL. In this organization, though, that long-term progression of prospects doesn’t seem to happen anymore.

Looking at the AHL and NHL games played of players on the present and prior Blackhawks rosters provides further evidence of this notion.

Considering the NHL plays an 82-game schedule and the AHL’s standard regular season is 76 games, let’s set the bar at 70 games. How many Blackhawks on the current roster appeared in at least 70 AHL games and went on to play at least 70 games with the Blackhawks?

The answer:

No one.

Let’s expand the scope and include all players from the last five Blackhawks seasons (‘15-16 to ‘19-20). How many of those players crossed the 70/70 barrier?

D, Erik Gustafsson (120 AHL games, 214 NHL games)
F, Ryan Hartman (130, 141)
F, Vinnie Hinostroza (104, 106)
F, Tanner Kero (130, 72)
F, Dennis Rasmussen (98, 112)

(Note: Game totals are only within the Blackhawks organization. It’s also worth mentioning Phillip Danault, who played 148 games for Rockford and 32 for Chicago before being traded to Montreal in 2016. He’s since played 307 games for the Canadiens.)

Players who came closest to hitting the 70/70 mark with Chicago:

Sikura (91 AHL games, 47 NHL games)
Pirri (238, 35)
F, Matthew Highmore (97, 49)
D, Dennis Gilbert (93, 22)
D, Carl Dahlstrom (156, 49)
D, Gustav Forsling (48, 122)

And those are some players who enjoyed worthwhile NHL time. Several Blackhawks prospects made it to the AHL but largely stayed there, like 2011 first-rounder Mark McNeill (273 GP) and 2015 second-rounder Graham Knott (126 GP). Two 2016 picks are approaching that fate as well: second-rounder Chad Krys (50 GP) and fourth-rounder Lucas Carlsson (117 GP).

It wasn’t always this way. Here are some familiar Blackhawks players who spent significant time in the AHL before enjoying substantial NHL careers:

F, Kris Versteeg (139 AHL games — 53 with BOS organization — and 294 NHL games)
D, Niklas Hjalmarsson (99, 623)
F, Dave Bolland (81, 332)
F, Bryan Bickell (228, 384)

(Defenseman Duncan Keith and goaltender Corey Crawford could also be mentioned here, but those AHL games happened so long ago that a majority of them occurred with the Norfolk Admirals.)

The Lightning and the Stars — the two teams that just competed in the Stanley Cup Final — each have several players who required significant AHL marinating before they could be counted on at the NHL.

Lightning

  • Forward Ondrej Palat (2011 seventh) played in 117 AHL games and was fourth on the team this postseason with 18 points.
  • After time in the ECHL in ‘13-14, forward Yanni Gourde (undrafted) racked up 197 AHL games in three seasons and was just behind Palat with 14 points in the playoffs.
  • Erik Cernak (2015 second) played in 80 AHL games before being called up to the NHL and was Tampa’s No. 4 defenseman in postseason ATOI (20:43).
  • Center Cedric Paquette (2012 fourth) was a key depth contributor and was called up in his second AHL season after playing 75 games.

Stars

  • Forward Denis Gurianov (2015 first) played in 74 AHL games before finishing sixth on the Stars with 17 postseason points.
  • Forward Roope Hintz (2015 second) was a veteran of 91 AHL games before his 13-point postseason performance.
  • Two of the Stars top-four defensemen had lengthy AHL stints: Jamie Oleksiak (2011 first) played in 171 games, while Esa Lindell (2012 third) appeared in 80 games.
  • Center Jason Dickinson (2013 first) had 175 AHL games to his name and appeared in every 2020 postseason game for Dallas.

It’s hard to make an NHL roster entirely out of first and second-round picks, as the Blackhawks have learned in the past three to four seasons. While late-round picks are always longshots, being unable to turn — at least — one or two of those selections into consistent NHL producers is a significant reason why Chicago’s depth has been so dismal in the recent past. The long-term projects that are available in the later rounds of the draft — or early draft picks that needed more development — seem like a never-ending string of lost causes in the Blackhawks organization.

And because of that dearth of homegrown talent, the Blackhawks’ lineup has seen a rotating cast of retreads, fringe players and free agents for the past three seasons.