Ville Pokka trade a reminder of Blackhawks’ struggle to develop defensemen

Pokka went from top prospect to traded for scraps within two years.

After all that time with the Chicago Blackhawks’ organization, Ville Pokka departed Friday in exchange for a 28-year-old journeyman forward who had just cleared waivers. The quiet end to the former top prospect’s time with the Blackhawks brings up a lot of thoughts, but more than anything, it feels like a reminder of the kind of players they haven’t developed.

For a couple years there, Pokka was one of the Hawks’ top prospects. He was acquired in the Nick Leddy trade, played big minutes for the team’s AHL affiliate, and earned praise from outsiders who considered him a quality young player. During the 2015-16 season, he racked up 45 points in 76 games with Rockford as a 21-year-old.

It seemed like Pokka was on a path to Chicago eventually, but the team soured on him somewhere along the way. During the 2016-17 season, the team gave playing time to Gustav Forsling, Michal Kempny, and the husks of Michal Rozsival and Johnny Oduya before giving Pokka even a game. The year before, it was Erik Gustafsson, Viktor Svedberg, Rob Scuderi, and Christian Ehrhoff.

The fact that Pokka couldn’t beat out any of those players in the Blackhawks’ eyes is telling, but it’s also an indictment of sorts. The team had acquired Pokka as the centerpiece to a trade of a valuable asset in Leddy. It clearly viewed him as a high-quality prospect at the time.

So what happened between then? Did Pokka simply not develop as expected? Did the scouting staff screw up?

It’s difficult to say exactly what happened given the difficult nature of identifying and developing prospects, but this was a major whiff on a player who could’ve been a game-changer in Chicago had he been ready. Looking back at the Leddy trade and realizing the team essentially got nothing for him, it has to be one of the worst moves of GM Stan Bowman’s tenure.

And it’s part of a pattern of struggling to acquire and develop quality young defensemen that’s stretched through the entirety of Bowman’s time in Chicago. Part of that was a willingness to lean on the Keith-Seabrook-Hjalmarsson holy trinity, which allowed the team to focus its assets on forwards, but now we’re seeing what happens when there was no good plan in place to transition after those guys. (It’s also clear the team expected those three veterans to age better than they have, but that’s another mistake on its own.)

One thing that’s positive is that the Blackhawks seem to have recognized their mistake. The team has aggressively drafted defensemen the past two years and now has some really exciting prospects in Henri Jokiharju, Ian Mitchell, and Chad Krys. And the usage of Forsling, Jordan Oesterle, and others in the NHL has clearly been done with an eye toward the future.

But the departure of Pokka is a real disappointment for anyone who followed Blackhawks prospects the past few years. It’s fair to say he was a total bust in Chicago.