When sifting through the deep end of the Blackhawks’ prospect pool, it can be difficult to predict wether a player has the potential to evolve into a world beater or if they will end up on the island of misfit toys.
Riley Stillman finds himself somewhere in the middle.
Who exactly is Riley Stillman?
Stillman, who was acquired by the Blackhawks via an April 8 trade with Florida, is a 23-year-old left-handed defenseman, who was drafted in round 4 (114th overall) of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft by the aforementioned Panthers. Since being sent to Chicago, Stillman has tallied 1 goal in 21 games as a Blackhawk.
It’s important to note that Stillman is a left-handed defenseman.
What factors lead to the Blackhawks acquisition of Stillman?
One thing to note is that a comparable player in Lucas Carlsson, who’s contract expired at the end of the 2021 season, was included in the multi-player trade with the Panthers. While Carlsson mostly spent time in the AHL, two other southpaw Blackhawks defenseman regularly in the lineup, Calvin de Haan and Nikita Zadorov, have uncertain futures in Chicago. Ultimately the Blackhawks were able to sign Stillman to a 3-year contract extension worth $4.05 million.
So is Stillman meant to be a depth-chart replacement for any lefty talent lost heading into the ‘21-22 season? Not necessarily. This may be a case of the Blackhawks expanding their options.
It can take time for defenseman to show what they really are at the NHL level. Just take a look at such players as Golden Knights’ defenseman Shea Theodore or the Islanders’ top pairing of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulok. Stillman’s career numbers offer such a small sample that it’s difficult to evaluate him. In 56 career games, Stillman has tallied only 1 goal and 5 assists, with a career shot share percentage (CF%) of 43.3. While these numbers aren't great, 63 percent of Stillman’s starts have come in the defensive zone. With such a limited sample size and the amount of dungeon starts Stillman has had in that span, it’s hard to put too much stock into these numbers.
Why does Stillman’s contract extension matter?
A relatively small cap hit with three seasons of control gives the Blackhawks a few options. The most obvious being that they can allow Stillman to play and see what he is able to do. While he had a few defensive blunders when first coming over to the Hawks, it’s fair to say that most young defenseman are susceptible to that, especially when learning a new, complicated system like the Blackhawks hybrid man-to-man has shown to be. However, once Stillman settles in, the organization should have a better idea of what he is exactly. At very least, he could be a cable replacement for some of the more-expensive liabilities that have recently factored into the Hawks lineup.
If Stillman doesn’t work out as planned or struggles to crack the lineup, he is on team-friendly contract that is easy to move. The Hawks have moved plenty of players on similar contracts in the past such as Brandon Bollig, John Hayden and Vinnie Hinostroza. When the money is not a huge factor, there is usually some sort of deal that can be made, especially with the league adding another team in the Seattle Kraken, which will league wide spread talent thin, next season.
The bottom line is that the Hawks have bought themselves some time to see what Stillman can become, and even if he doesn’t pan out, the Blackhawks aren't stuck with an unmovable contract.
While some trades serve to become pleasant surprises and others become infamous nightmares, many are simply low risk, high reward swaps. That’s, in a nutshell, what the acquisition of Riley Stillman is for the Blackhawks. If he works out, even as a conservative role player, that's enough to constitute his contract extension as a “win”. Conversely, the Hawks haven't dedicated an unreasonable amount of cap space to Stillman nor have they walked into the trap that is an un-tradable contract.
Sooner or later, we will find out what exactly Riley Stillman is. It just takes some time...