MONTREAL — Chicago Blackhawks top defenseman prospect Kevin Korchinski officially secured a spot on the Opening Night roster for the 2023-24 season. I don't think this should come as much of a surprise.
"To be able to play today is an honor and privilege," Korchinski said before his NHL debut. "I'm really happy with how everything went and I'm excited."
Korchinski was a standout last preseason, and he went on to have an incredibly successful season as an 18-year-old in the Western Hockey League, where he recorded 74 points (11 goals, 62 assists) in 54 games for the Seattle Thunderbirds and helped them win a championship. His points-per-game average of 1.35 was the second-best average among WHL defensemen 19 or younger since the 1999-2000 season.
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Korchinski deserves a chance to play NHL games. He's earned it and brings a lot to the table as an offensive defenseman.
"Offensively, I don't even know if we have to help him there," Blackhawks head coach Luke Richardson said. "He's got the instinct to go and he's got the gas to get back and cover up himself. He's shown a lot more strength and maturity this year than he was last year and I think he's shown he's ready to start."
Korchinski's defensive game is a work in progress. It probably always will be. His skating ability can certainly help him get out of trouble at times, but the NHL is a different beast when you're defending in your own end.
The Blackhawks are going to work with him as he makes the transition.
"Make sure that he's ready for every shift at this level," Richardson said. "I know coming from a lower level, a guy with that kind of ability, not everybody on the other team is a dangerous player that he would have to be on his toes for, whereas at the NHL, it's every shift, it's every person, it's every player.
"Not that he would fall asleep, but young players just aren't used to this. They're used to being the better player and relying on their skills to get them back into the play or to catch up to the play, where the NHL will be long past you if you don't. We just continually want to be on top of him, but he's great."
The message to Korchinski after making the team was this, according to Richardson: "Congratulations, you've earned the spot. But now every day is to keep it."
As a reminder, due toe Canadian Hockey League rules, Korchinski isn't eligible to play in the American Hockey League this season, so it's either the NHL or the WHL. If he plays in more than nine games, the first year of his entry-level contract will be burned. I don't think the Blackhawks are too worried about that. In fact, they might even prefer it so he can get to his second contract quicker.
The Blackhawks don't really have a set plan on Korchinski this season, and instead will let him decide with his play which way to go.
"The plan is to take it day-by-day and see how it goes," Blackhawks GM Kyle Davidson said. "I should say it's probably a little longer than day-by-day. We want a good sample size and a good feel for how he's doing and how he's feeling and the positive steps that he can take, so we'll give that a little bit of time.
"There's a lot of talk around the 10-game threshold and we're just going to do what we think is best for the player. In the end, if the contract slides or it doesn't, if we don't put the player in the best position to develop into the player that we want, whether that entry-level lasts three or four or five years, whether we get those slides, it doesn't matter if he doesn't develop into the player we want. We're going to make sure he's in the best position to maximize his potential and we'll analyze that on a moving-forward basis.
"There's no plan and there's no A-B-C either. We're going to take it as it comes and make the best decision when the time comes, if we have to make a decision."
The real key number to watch is 40 games. If Korchinski reaches that number, it counts as a full NHL season, which would get him to unrestricted free agency a year quicker than if he didn't (one of the ways a player can become a UFA is by accruing seven full seasons). I would be surprised if he surpassed that total.
My prediction is that Korchinski will play somewhere between 10 and 39 games before he's eventually sent back to the WHL. He's almost a lock to make Team Canada's roster for the 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship and will likely play a significant role.
It's easy to forget how young he is. Korchinski is going to play this entire season at 19 years old; he doesn't turn 20 until June. There's still a lot of developmental work to be done, and there's no need to rush it.
The Blackhawks will surely learn from their past mistakes and make sure Korchinski overmariantes before they turn him into a full-time NHL player.
Having said that, Korchinski is going to try making the organization's decision a hard one. That's the mindset you want the player to have.
"It would be such a privilege to be here all year," Korchinski said. "It's surreal being in the NHL so you just want to stay as long as you can. At the same time, I don't think it's something I can control. Just playing my game and putting in the work every day. I'll try to do that and put my best foot forward."