As we all know, the Chicago Blackhawks missed the playoffs this season after the worst season of the Joel Quenneville era. The Hawks were marred by aging players, injuries and lack of experience all year round. If not for Corey Crawford playing the best hockey of his life until he got injured, the Hawks would have come out as the worst team in the NHL. No defense, bad goaltending and an offense that couldn’t put up points when it needed and the Hawks had a recipe for disaster. Although the outcome of this year’s Chicago Blackhawks was bleak, there’s still reason for Hawks fans to be excited for next year.
The Rockford Ice Hogs, who happen to be steamrolling teams in the AHL playoffs, are the Blackhawks AHL affiliate team. If you have been following the team during their immaculate playoff run, you can find some great things. For one, all of these players can be called up by the Hawks next season and can fill out the bottom half of the roster. Plus, at the rate they’re going, it’s definitely something Hawks fans can get excited about.
This week, I’m taking a look at who will make their way to the NHL next season to play for the best franchise in hockey. We’ll leave out the obvious players who already have a starting role or have played significant time already to keep it interesting.
Goaltender Collin Delia is the first man up on this list. I’m not saying he’s perfect, and yes, we saw him play a few games towards the tail end of last season for the Blackhawks, but nobody has any idea what’s going on with Corey Crawford and the trio of Anton Forsberg, Jeff Glass and JF Berube don’t seem ready to handle the NHL.
In comes Delia, an interesting prospect for the Blackhawks. The 23-year-old goaltender is tearing up the AHL playoffs. Not only has he not lost in seven playoff appearances for the Ice Hogs, he has also managed a phenomenal .948 save percentage and a 1.64 goals against average according to theahl.com. It’s worth noting that Delia started the 2017-2018 season with the Ice Hogs, where he appeared in 28 games with a .900 save percentage and a 2.72 goals against average. He was then whisked away to the ECHL, where he played for the Indy Fuel. His stats weren’t as good, posting a .887 save percentage and a 4.12 goals against average according to hockeydb.com.
Although he wasn’t at this best in the ECHL, Delia has a chance to crack the Hawks lineup with a little more coaching. His confidence heading into the 2018-2019 NHL season should be high too, after performing so well in the AHL playoffs.
The next player up on the list is Matthew Highmore. Highmore showed up in nine games for the Blackhawks at the tail end of the season. One of the first call ups for the Hawks, Highmore flashed potential that should get Hawks fans excited. A natural goal scorer with some wheels, Highmore could bring a much-needed boost to the Blackhawks bottom six next season. In 64 games in the regular season for the Ice Hogs, Highmore tallied 24 goals and 19 assists and in his seven playoff games, he’s managed a pair of goals and a pair of assists alongside a +4 rating according to theahl.com. Although none of those numbers jump of the page, he’s one of the upcoming players for the Hawks that can undoubtedly make an impact next season. If not for an injury in the March 18th game against the St. Louis Blues, Highmore would have likely finished out the season with the Hawks.
The last player on the list this week is Henri Jokiharju. I’ve talked about him during the season and the impact he can bring to the Hawks, but I’m bringing him up again. He’s slightly undersized at six feet tall and 187 lbs, but the talent and upside are all there. Think the next Duncan Keith kind of defensemen for the Blackhawks. With a little bit of coaching and some NHL experience, Jokiharju has the potential to become a top 4 defensemen in the NHL. The Hawks desperately need someone to step up on defense, with everybody except for Duncan Keith sitting out at least one game due to terrible, inconsistent play.
Jokiharju has spent the better part of the last two seasons playing for the Portland Winterhawks in the WHL, where he has been hands down the best defensemen. Last season alone, in 63 games, Jokiharju tallied 12 goals and 59 assists and an obscene +47 rating according to eliteprospects.com. He has also spent time on his national team, Finland. One other thing to note about Jokiharju is he’s only 18 years of age. He’s young and already making a huge impact in the WHL that will hopefully translate to success in the NHL starting next season.
With all these young players possibly making an impact next season in the NHL, the Hawks have the potential to make a big turnaround. With another solid draft, a stacked farm system and adding a few key pieces in free agency, the Hawks could find themselves back into the playoffs before you know it. For now, if you’re jonesing to watch some exciting hockey, take a look into the AHL playoffs, immerse yourself in the potential of future Blackhawks and get excited for a wild ride in 2018-2019!