Dylan Sikura ended his flirtation with free agency over the weekend by inking a two-year deal with the Blackhawks. The situation never hit the stage where anyone was publicly worried about whether he’d sign, but with the lure of an open market awaiting in August, there had been concern over what the top prospect would do when Northeastern’s season ended.
Sikura, having spent the past four years in school, could’ve hit free agency in the summer with no strings attached. The Blackhawks would’ve been left empty-handed while 30 other teams lined up to try to sign their 2014 sixth-round pick. It would’ve been a sour way to begin an important offseason for GM Stan Bowman.
But after attending the Blackhawks’ practice Monday, Sikura said Chicago was the plan all along. Northeastern was eliminated from the NCAA tournament Saturday, and Sikura’s NHL contract was announced the next day.
Dylan Sikura said he never had any doubt he'd sign with the Blackhawks. "I just tried to stay grounded [at Northeastern] and keep this whole Chicago thing in the background until my college season ended."— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) March 26, 2018
Now the Blackhawks have one of their best prospects in the fold, and Sikura immediately joins a new guard led by Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz, the two brightest parts of an otherwise dreary season. Whether he can make an impact as quickly as that pair remains to be seen, but the opportunity will be there for him.
Here’s more on the Blackhawks’ newest signing, and how he’s going to fit into the team going forward.
How did we get to this point?
There was a time three years ago when Sikura’s career prospects weren’t looking great. He was overwhelmed by the college game and struggled badly as a freshman with just seven points in 25 games. It seemed hard to believe back then that his signing with the Blackhawks would eventually become a big deal.
But after making progress as a sophomore, Sikura broke out as a junior with 57 points in 38 games. The Blackhawks offered him a contract after the season, knowing the risk of letting him play his senior year out with free agency around the corner.
Sikura passed in favor of returning to Northeastern for his senior season, where he was even better. The 22-year-old finished second in the nation in points per game behind linemate Adam Gaudette, who signed with the Canucks Monday. They led Northeastern to its first Beanpot win in decades and an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
The Blackhawks already tried to sign Sikura once only to have him decline, so it was possible the same thing could happen again. However, they kept tabs on him and did things like signing his brother, Tyler, to encourage him to join the organization. In the end, it worked as he wasted little time making the move after the end of his college season.
Why did he sign a two-year ELC?
The NHL has rules that determine the length of entry-level contracts for all players under age 25. Players from ages 18-21 sign for three years, ages 22-23 for two years, and age 24 for one year. Sikura, as a result of being 22, was required to sign a two-year ELC.
However, it’s important to note that the Blackhawks will burn the first year of Sikura’s contract by playing him in NHL games this season. By doing that, Sikura accelerates his path to restricted free agency and his second contract after the 2018-19 season, when he’ll be able to receive a raise in his base salary. This is one of the key advantages the Hawks had over other teams in convincing him to sign.
How much will he be paid, including potential bonuses?
Sikura will receive the maximum ELC base salary of $925,000 per year, according to The Athletic. The deal also includes $850,000 in Schedule A bonuses and $75,000 in Schedule B bonuses, so he can earn up to $925,000 in performance bonuses each year.
The maximum for annual ELC bonuses in the current collective bargaining agreement is $2.85 million (the amount given to Artemi Panarin in 2015, for example), so the Blackhawks did not need to agree to that figure to get a deal done.
Where does he fit into the Blackhawks’ lineup?
Sikura has top-nine potential right out of the gate in the NHL, and it’s likely he’ll see minutes in that kind of role as a winger down the stretch this season. Coach Joel Quenneville said he’d get into the lineup immediately upon signing.
“We’d love to see him come here and join us,” Quenneville said Saturday. “Stan will look after that part of it. But if we can get him in here, we’ll get a good look here at the end of the year.”
The way the Hawks’ lineup has constantly changed makes it difficult to peg exactly where he’ll settle in, but they didn’t sign him to eat fourth-line minutes. Opportunities on the power play wouldn’t be surprising, either, given how well he performed with the man advantage in college this season.
Using the latest translation factors, which estimate a players’ NHL production based on his production in other leagues, Sikura’s 1.54 points per game would translate to 0.58 points per game in the NHL, or a pace of roughly 48 points per 82 games.
And in another crucial indicator of future ability, he churned out over five shots on goal per game, second in the country behind Ryan Donato, who is already making noise with the Bruins after the end of Harvard’s season. Sikura earned a Hobey Baker nomination as college hockey’s best player, and he earned it by throughly dominating that level.
The NCAA success hints at his potential, and why he’ll be given opportunities to play a significant role from his first day. The wait for Sikura will likely have been worth it.