Where will Lukas Reichel slot into Hawks' lineup long-term? originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
Blackhawks prospect Lukas Reichel had his eyes set on one thing going into training camp: "My goal is to play full-time in the NHL this season." That's what every player's mindset should be, especially one of his caliber.
But it shouldn't have come as a surprise that the Blackhawks sent Reichel back to the AHL. Aside from wanting him to work more on taking over games and becoming a more consistent player away from the puck, the Blackhawks probably knew the NHL wasn't going to be a great spot for developmental purposes this season after they overhauled the roster.
Credit to Reichel, who went down with a good attitude. He trusts the Blackhawks are doing what's best for him in the bigger picture. That doesn't change the fact he still wants to prove to them that he belongs in the NHL.
"I just want to show everyone what I can do here and play the same way as I played the whole season in Rockford," Reichel said. "I want to be creative here too and bring some energy and play my game."
Reichel has been putting up terrific numbers in the AHL, where he ranks No. 6 in scoring. He averaged more than a point per game last season, too, when he was basically the only scoring option on the team.
Those numbers, however, haven't translated to the NHL, where he has only one assist in 13 games. The quality of competition is obviously much better, but there are other reasons too.
"I think it's just strength," Blackhawks head coach Luke Richardson said. "You look at a guy like William Nylander in Toronto. His first few years, he's definitely dynamic. A goal scorer, he always was. But I think the complete game that he brings now is a lot more.
"He's not a defensive specialist and you don't want him to be that. You don't want to change him. You just want to make sure if he doesn't have the puck and he's not creating, he's responsible enough defensively that he lets everybody else do his job and you get the puck back so he can do his work offensively. That would be a good example for him to kind of go by and watch him play."
Rockford IceHogs GM Mark Bernard threw out a more familiar name whose game away from the puck took a big step from when he started: Alex DeBrincat. Reichel is more of a playmaker than a scorer, but there are lessons he could learn from DeBrincat's growth.
"Lukas just carries himself and his whole demeanor with such professionalism," Bernard said on the latest Blackhawks Talk Podcast. "He works extremely hard, he listens to his coaches, he's really been focusing hard on faceoffs, on the defensive side of his game and I think over the last 15-20 games in Rockford, that's been very noticeable. The tracking back, trying to strip guys of pucks.
"Alex DeBrincat, if you watch video on Alex from Year 1 to Year 2, that was one of the biggest things that changed in his game. Year 1, you knew he was an offensive force but then in Year 2 the tracking back and stripping guys of pucks was very [Marian] Hossa-like. There was no give-up in his game when the puck got turned over and that's what Lukas has really been focusing on and working on."
The other factor is, Reichel hasn't been playing the same kind of minutes with the Blackhawks as he is with Rockford. His time-on-ice average in his first 13 NHL games is 13:24. It's not what he's used to, which means he's had to try finding other ways to make an impact.
With Patrick Kane out because of a lower-body injury, the Blackhawks called up Reichel for Friday's game against Arizona and it was a perfect situation for him. He got to play top-line minutes and be the go-to guy offensively, and he thrived in that role, albeit against the lowly Coyotes.
Reichel was creating chances all night, particularly in the first period, and he even impressed the Blackhawks' management group.
"He was excellent," Richardson said following the 2-0 win. "I’ve only seen small bursts of him but I know other guys in the organization said that’s probably his best showing to date. He's playing at a high level."
Reichel probably felt locked in because the Blackhawks needed someone to take control on offense without Kane, and that's the kind of mentality he's had his entire hockey career. For the first time in the NHL, it was evident in Reichel's game.
The biggest question I have about Reichel: Is he going to be a winger or a center long-term with the Blackhawks? I'm starting to think he's more effective as a winger, which is his natural position. It suits his game better.
But the organization probably feels it's good to let Reichel continue developing as a center because those two-way habits will help him in the long run anyway.
"He's driven," Richardson said. "I think he's shown this year that he wants to take a step and be a top player in the American League so he can come here and last and sustain — not just be a flash in the pan or a one-way type of player. Like in the NHL you can't really be that, unless you're a real special player. And usually those guys are the ones that go up and down the ice and they're the two-way players."
If the Blackhawks are lucky enough to land Connor Bedard, Leo Carlsson or Adam Fantilli in the 2023 NHL Draft, it would likely give them a future first-line center, although Bedard might be better on the wing too. One of those three players would look great on the organizational depth chart, in front of Frank Nazar, who can play center or wing but figures to be a future top-six player.
The Blackhawks will certainly have options. For now, the focus is on preparing their prospects for the future. Then the fun of projecting the potential lineup begins.
When Kane returns, Reichel will probably return to Rockford. The Blackhawks want him to overripen and I don't blame them. They've rushed too many prospects to the NHL in recent memory.
The Blackhawks want Reichel to show them when he's ready, and Reichel has the same mindset.
"The whole summer, I was working hard to try to make the team, and it was a little bounce back," Reichel said. "But you get stronger from there and try to make it a hard job. If I play good in Rockford, they kind of have to call me up. That's what I felt like I did pretty good and I want to show it here now."
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