Riley Stillman quietly establishing career stability, third-pair reliability with Blackhawks

Stillman spent a few years bouncing in and out of the Panthers’ lineup. His trade to the Hawks last April has proved “huge” for his career.

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Riley Stillman has become an NHL regular for the Blackhawks this season.

Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

A five-player trade between the Black-hawks and Panthers in April appeared to be designed to give forward Henrik Borgstrom a second shot in the NHL.

The Hawks absorbed winger Brett Connolly’s contract to make it work. They relinquished Lucas Carlsson and received Riley Stillman in a seemingly even swap of depth defensemen. Center Lucas Wallmark was a throw-in by the Hawks. But acquiring Borgstrom, a former top prospect, seemed like an interesting and worthwhile risk.

Less than a year later, however, it’s Stillman who has emerged as arguably the most important part of the trade.

Borgstrom hasn’t made much of an impact yet in his NHL return. Connolly was just recalled Sunday from the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs for the first time this season. Carlsson has looked decent for the Panthers but has only 10 appearances. Wallmark is in Russia.

Among the bunch, Stillman is the most successful every-night player.

In Florida, he often rotated in and out of the NHL lineup, playing in just eight of 40 possible games last season before the trade.

In Chicago, he has played in 29 of 42 possible games, and most of his absences have been because of COVID-19 or injury, not coaches’ decisions. And he still has 2.5 years left — at a $1.35 million salary-cap hit — on the extension he signed over the summer.

The 23-year-old son of former NHL star forward Cory Stillman isn’t a star himself and probably never will be, but he has evolved into a reliable role player, thanks to his defensive abilities and physicality.

“[The trade] has been great for me, career-wise,” Stillman said Saturday. “It was the best thing that could have happened to me, coming in and being given an opportunity to take.”

Stillman’s momentum nearly fizzled Nov. 21 against the Canucks when teammate Erik Gustafsson — with whom he has developed some chemistry on the third pair — fell on the back of his left leg. Stillman immediately left the game hobbling in pain; it looked serious.

But after a few days of uncertainty, an MRI exam on his knee revealed no serious injury. He returned to practice just a week later and missed only five games.

“It was touch-and-go at the start, just with getting the brace in and making sure I was feeling good,” Stillman said. “I’m counting my blessings that it was just a short stint.”

With that behind him, Stillman enters a three-game homestand this week allowing the fewest opponent scoring chances and expected goals (per 60 minutes at even strength) among Hawks defensemen.

Although the Hawks don’t generate much offensively during his ice time — and he has just three points, all assists, to his name — he’s fulfilling his duties well. He also leads Hawks defensemen in hits per 60 minutes. And he’s doing it all with tireless enthusiasm.

“I always say he’s like a junior player,” Hawks interim coach Derek King said. “Your first year playing junior hockey, you’re all over the ice and you’re blocking everything, you’re fighting everything, you’re doing anything you can to stay on your junior team. He brings that to our team, and it’s fun to watch.”

Stillman believes he’s still developing — still has another level he can reach.

Given his subtle but significant rise in status over the last year, there’s no reason to doubt him. Quietly, he has become one of the Hawks’ more cost-effective additions of 2021.

“To move forward, I want to . . . grow my game overall so I can be a steady, full-blown defenseman, so I can be in the lineup every day and there’s no question [about it],” he said. “I want to add more offense, being the fourth guy producing and stuff like that. But realistically, I’m focused on taking care of my own zone first.”

NOTE: The Hawks put forward Reese Johnson on injured reserve Sunday with a broken clavicle. In addition to Brett Connolly, MacKenzie Entwistle also was called up from the IceHogs, while fellow forward Mike Hardman was sent down.

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