The Blackhawks have had a busy offseason so far, and that continued on Tuesday when the team announced that they traded defenseman prospect Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for forward prospect Alex Nylander.
Nylander, who was taken No. 8 overall by the Sabres in 2016, has two years left on his entry-level contract that carries an $863,333 cap hit. He's 21 years old and spent the majority of the 2018-19 season in the American Hockey League, where he recorded 31 points (12 goals, 19 assists) in 49 games for the Rochester Americans.
Nylander is known to be an offensively-gifted player, but his production hasn't translated to the NHL yet as he has six points (three goals, three assists) in 19 career games for the Sabres. The Blackhawks are hoping a change of scenery and larger opportunity could help him unlock his full potential.
"It’s not easy to acquire talented players like Alex," GM Stan Bowman said on Tuesday's conference call. "He’s somebody we scouted, remember back in the draft year, we didn’t have a first-round pick that year. But we were very impressed with him. He’s a guy we had a lot of time for, and we knew we weren’t going to be able to draft him, drafting in the second round. But he’s such a high-skilled, talented player. So when those are the situations you’re looking at, trying to acquire someone like that, you have to deal from a position of strength."
But the bigger surprise is Jokiharju getting dealt, although perhaps it shouldn't have been because the math suggested somebody from the blue line was eventually going to be moved. First-round picks Nicolas Beaudin and Adam Boqvist have high-end potential and are both likely a year away from being pro-ready, as is second-round pick Ian Mitchell, and could factor into the equation as soon as next season.
"I guess maybe the progression of a lot of our other young defensemen to where we feel we’ve built up a good stable of young players and now we have the ability to make a move like this," Bowman said. "... With the progression of Mitchell and Boqvist, it’s nice to see how they’ve taken strides this year, much like Henri has. So it’s really more the depth of our defense prospects made this a move we were able to make. That’s probably the simple answer to why we were able to do this now as opposed to a year ago at this time."
Jokiharju, who was drafted No. 29 overall by the Blackhawks in 2017, appeared in 38 games with the Blackhawks last season and compiled 12 points, all of which were assists. He logged heavy minutes and played on the top pairing with Duncan Keith, but appeared to fall out of favor when the Blackhawks made a coaching change in November.
The questionable part is that the return for Jokiharju centered around a young prospect who's still developing but has question marks and doesn't fill an immediate need on the NHL roster, such as a top-nine forward. The Blackhawks like Nylander's versatility and perhaps he'll turn into a consistent top-six winger, but he's no lock to make the Opening Day roster.
"I expect him to be fighting for a spot on our team, for sure," Bowman said. "We don’t hand out those jobs in the summer, but I think with his offensive talent and his skill level, it’s certainly exciting to think what he can be when you put him with some of the players we have. If you look at our team last year, we have two pretty good pairs there between [Patrick] Kane and [Jonathan] Toews, [Dylan] Strome and [Alex] DeBrincat.
"One thing about Alex that’s appealing, as well, is he can play left and right wing. Not every player can do that, but he has the skill level to play on the off wing. Looking at our top two lines, one line we’re probably looking for a left wing, the other we’re looking for a right winger. Those tandems may not stay in place, but the way we ended the year, it’s probably something we’re going to start with. So now it’s a question of, who do we fill in around them and I think Alex is a candidate. But it’s still early to see where that’s going to go.
"I think just the flexibility of him playing left and right, and we don’t have a lot of right-handed skill forwards outside of DeBrincat. So from that perspective, it’s something we’ll look at it, give him an opportunity to be on our team. He’s been a pro for a couple of years now, so it’s not all new to him. The opportunity will be there. Now it’s going to be up to Alex, just like every other player in camp, to show what they can do and play their best hockey."