The truth is, Blake Hillman would rather be in Denver right now, preparing for the Frozen Four. Dylan Sikura would rather be back at Northeastern, doing the same. And there’s even a voice in Collin Delia’s head telling him he should be in Rockford for the IceHogs’ frantic playoff push.
But, hey, being in the NHL is a pretty darn good consolation prize.
“A lot of emotional lows and emotional highs [in the past week],” said Hillman, a defenseman whose Pioneers lost to Ohio State in the regional final Sunday, one game short of the Frozen Four.
Sikura’s immigration paperwork has cleared, and he’ll make his debut Thursday against the Winnipeg Jets. Hillman will make his NHL debut either Thursday or Friday at Colorado, where his former teammates are planning to show up with signs and jerseys to cheer him on. Delia will make his first start Friday.
That will make it a whopping 10 players who have made their NHL debuts this season with the Hawks — a sign of just how young they’ve gotten and how far they’ve fallen. The others are Alex DeBrincat, Jan Rutta, David Kampf, Carl Dahlstrom, Matthew Highmore (demoted to Rockford to clear room for Hillman), Victor Ejdsell and Jeff Glass. In Friday’s game, 20 percent of the lineup will be playing in its first, second or third NHL game.
So the maroon Denver bag and the black IceHogs bag in front of Hillman’s and Delia’s locker stalls at MB Ice Arena on Wednesday didn’t seem so strange. Not this season.
On the bright side, the influx of young and enthusiastic players has added some much-needed intrigue and excitement to the end of the season.
“You like their excitement,” Joel Quenneville said. “You expect them to do well, you wish them well, and you want to put them in an environment where they can play to their strengths.”
Sikura, a highly skilled winger projected as a potential top-six standout, skated on the second line with DeBrincat and Ejdsell on Wednesday. Hillman, a defensive-minded blue-liner, rotated in on the third pairing with Jordan Oesterle and Rutta.
Hillman was on Denver’s top pairing with one of the Hawks’ top prospects, 2017 second-rounder Ian Mitchell. Hillman is more of a stay-at-home sort, while Mitchell is the offensive-minded player.
“He’s very offensive, and I think that’s why we were so good together,” Hillman said. “He’d be the guy that jumps up in the play and makes all the flashy plays, and I’d be there if something went wrong. I would be there to back him up. And he had my back if it was vice-versa.”
But as DeBrincat, Kampf, Ejdsell and others already learned this season, there’s nothing that truly prepares you for the speed and size of the NHL. That said, the pressure-cooker of the NCAA tournament is about as good a steppingstone as you’ll find.
“There’s no bad players at this level,” Sikura said. “It’ll be a little adjustment with the time and space with the puck out there, but I’m excited to get going.”
J-F Berube was sent to Rockford to make room for Delia, who started the season with the ECHL’s Indy Fuel and will end it with the Blackhawks. In 24 games with the IceHogs, he went 14-6-4 with a .904 save percentage, giving up two or fewer goals in five of his last seven starts to help the IceHogs pass the Iowa Wild for the fourth and final playoff spot in their division.
Rockford will have three games left when the Hawks’ season ends on April 7. So Delia’s dalliance with the NHL is likely to be brief, but memorable.
“You form such tight bonds with those guys, and you’re battling with them night in and night out,” Delia said. “But this is a pretty unbelievable experience. I’m just excited to be here. But obviously, when the season’s over here, I look forward to getting back with Rockford and being in the playoffs with them.”