Top Blackhawks prospect Lukas Reichel looking toward NHL after great German season

Reichel, his agent and the Blackhawks all plan on him signing his first NHL contract in June, after he plays for Germany in the World Championships.

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Lukas Reichel is likely to sign with the Blackhawks in June.

Lukas Reichel is likely to sign with the Blackhawks in June.

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On the October night the Blackhawks drafted him 17th overall, Lukas Reichel emphatically declared himself two years away from NHL readiness.

Less than one year later, it seems Reichel sold himself short.

After the 19-year-old forward finishes his run with Germany at the world championships — which began Friday and end June 6 — he almost certainly will sign his NHL entry-level contract.

Allain Roy, Reichel’s agent, said the rules prevent Reichel from signing until after the tournament, but once that time comes, “the Hawks are planning on it, [and] we’re planning on it.”

Hawks general manager Stan Bowman and Reichel himself recently said the same.

“He’s a player we’d like to get over here to North America,” Bowman said. “Whether he’s in Chicago or [Rockford next season], we’ll see. But he had a great season, so I’m pretty optimistic about his potential, whether it’s next year or the year after.”

“I’m more ready than after the last season,” Reichel said. “I improved a lot this season. We’ll see if the management from Chicago wants me to come over. I’ll be really happy if I can do that.”

Reichel’s season culminated with a championship as his Eisbaren Berlin squad — the same one the Hawks faced in a September 2019 exhibition game — won the DEL, Germany’s top pro league.

Reichel ranked fifth on Berlin with 27 points (10 goals, 17 assists) in 38 regular-season games, heating up as winter went on, before adding five points in nine playoff games.

And late in the championship-deciding game, with Berlin holding a 2-1 lead over Wolfsburg, Eisbaren coach Serge Aubin kept Reichel on the ice for the last three minutes. Aubin, a 374-game NHL veteran, trusted no one more than his youngest player.

“I used him as a [first]-line player,” Aubin said. “He did really well in a lot of different areas, whether it was in the defensive zone [or] playing against top lines on the other side. ... His skating this year was even better than last year. He’s really an elite skater. And his decision-making was also better. We could see a lot of growth.”

Even as an 18-year-old (before his birthday this week) facing much older, bigger players, Reichel’s natural talent and consistency in all three zones made him an extremely valuable player for Berlin.

“The previous season, he was still a boy playing in a men’s league,” Roy said. “This year, he played more like a man against men.”

Reichel was a staple on Berlin’s top power-play unit, operating along the goal line, where his puck-retrieval and playmaking skills were most efficient. He sometimes killed penalties, too, and he would’ve done more had Aubin not wanted to balance the team’s ice time.

Most notably, Reichel moved from wing — where he’d spent his whole career until last fall — to center for much of the season.

“We wanted to give him more responsibility this year,” Aubin said. “It was challenging a little bit as far as faceoffs — [those struggles] came from him just not being quite strong enough yet. But other than that, his puck support was phenomenal. He really opens the ice up tremendously with his speed.

“So once he got the hang of holding the puck and having good puck support, he really changed the dynamic of our team. Down low, below the goal line in our ‘D’ zone, he was solid. He’s such a smooth skater that it was actually pretty easy for him to be in the right position.”

The Hawks are very excited about Reichel’s move to center. Bowman mentioned it repeatedly this spring. It’s still “too early to tell” if he can play center full time in the NHL, Bowman said, but his newfound positional flexibility nonetheless boosts his stock even more.

Reichel’s Europe-to-NHL transition also should be smoother because of the team from which he’s coming. Berlin is relatively loaded with NHL veterans — it dressed seven players with NHL experience, including Simon Despres (193 career games) and Zach Boychuk (127) — and Reichel said he “learned from those guys a lot.”

Upon arriving in Illinois this summer, Reichel still will need to adjust to the North American style of play, increase his physicality and keep gaining weight. Over the last year, he has bulked up his 6-foot frame from 163 pounds to 176, but Aubin estimated Reichel’s ideal weight will be about 187 pounds.

For that reason, Reichel might spend the first few months of the 2021-22 season in the AHL, although he certainly will be given a chance to prove otherwise in training camp. The Hawks have preferred to groom their top prospects in Rockford, as they did with Kirby Dach and Adam Boqvist in October 2019.

“It’s one thing to play in the NHL; it’s another to thrive and have success,” Aubin said. “I wouldn’t be afraid to put him in the [Hawks’] lineup tomorrow morning. It’s just, is it worth it to make him wait a little bit, let him grow a little more [in the AHL]? That’s a decision only Chicago can make.”

But the Hawks will be eager to promote Reichel once he settles in and finds his rhythm. He looks more likely by the month to enter the NHL well ahead of his initial two-year timeline.

“He plays the pursuit-type game that we’re looking for,” Bowman said. “You notice him even when he’s not scoring. He’s involved in the play, down low in his own end or even in the offensive zone. He’s good at retrieving the puck or pressuring the puck to get it back, and then he has enough skill to make plays. Style-wise, he’s going to fit in really nicely with our team.”

Eight Hawks in world championships

In addition to Reichel, seven other Hawks are participating in the world championships: Dominik Kubalik (Czech Republic), Brandon Hagel (Canada), Nicolas Beaudin (Canada), Brandon Pirri (Canada), Philipp Kurashev (Switzerland), Nikita Zadorov (Russia) and overage prospect Max Shalunov (Russia).

But the tournament, which is being held in Riga, Latvia, has a younger flavor than usual. Many of the prime-aged Swedish, Finnish, Canadian and American stars, such as the Hawks’ Patrick Kane, aren’t attending. Those countries collectively have won the last five titles.

“It’s going to be a little more wide open,” Roy said. “That’s going to be helpful for the European teams.”

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