by A.J. Atchue || for NHL.com
If you’re a skilled forward and a high first-round draft pick in the Chicago Blackhawks organization – but are not named either Kane or Toews – it can sometimes be hard to get attention.
But given the way Jack Skille has progressed over the last few years, it won’t be too long before he’s simply too good to pass over.
Chicago selected Skille with the seventh overall pick in 2005, the beginning of a three-year span which then saw the Blackhawks draft Jonathan Toews with the No. 3 pick in 2006 and use the No. 1 selection in 2007 to land Patrick Kane.
While Kane and Toews are helping the Blackhawks challenge for the Western Conference’s top seed this season, Skille continues to hone his skills with Chicago’s AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, in the hopes of joining his fellow first-rounders on the big club come next season.
“I didn’t really feel the pressure until I signed as a pro – there’s a little pressure there, you want to perform well and live up to that status,” Skille said of his draft position. “When you mature and you grow up, you realize that when you’re drafted, you’re drafted on potential.”
“It matters, but you can’t worry about (pressure to perform) every day when you show up at the rink. You have to worry about the bigger picture.”
A native of Madison, Wis., and a Blackhawks fan growing up, Skille followed in his father Lee’s footsteps by playing college hockey for his home-state University of Wisconsin Badgers. As a freshman in 2006, Skille helped Wisconsin to a national championship.
“You couldn’t have asked for a better year,” Skille said. “Obviously, being on such a great team – you look at the roster and see a bunch of guys playing in NHL right now – to have that experience as a freshman was the greatest thing that could have happened.”
After one more year at Wisconsin, Skille joined the IceHogs for 2007-08 and has increased his offensive production in all three seasons with Rockford thus far.
The 22-year-old currently shows 21 goals – including a team-high five game-winners – and 25 assists for 46 points in 58 games for an IceHogs club that is on its way to its third straight postseason appearance.
“I’m just a natural power forward,” Skille said. “I’m playing my best when I’m driving the net, using my shot, using my speed, using my teammates, trying to make plays out there and also being smart defensively.”
“His speed allows him to get in on the forecheck, and to beat defensemen wide and get to the front of the net,” said Rockford head coach Bill Peters. “He’s got enough speed and skill that he can get to the front and make things happen offensively.”
Interestingly, Skille hasn’t always had a sense that he’s one of the fastest guys out on the ice, largely due to the increased pace of the game moving up from college to the professional ranks.
“Over the past couple years, I’ve kind of realized it and learned to use it as a strength, and it’s been a huge asset for me,” he said. “Now that I know that I can use that speed in different situations, it definitely helps me out in terms of where I need to be on the ice.”
Skille’s quickness and hockey sense allow him to contribute at both ends of the ice and in all situations for the IceHogs, and he’s been trusted with more responsibilities as a third-year pro this season.
Always one of Rockford’s go-to forwards in the 5-on-5 game and on the power play, Skille has seen his ice time in penalty-killing situations grow each of his three campaigns, providing another opportunity to use quickness to his advantage.
“When he’s in transition on the PK,” said Peters, “what happens is he takes on defensemen one-on-one and negates a lot of penalty-kill situations by them taking a hooking or holding penalty, and then all of a sudden we’re playing 4-on-4. He’s done that numerous times this year.”
Skille has factored into two of Rockford’s five shorthanded goals this season – scoring one and assisting on another – and frequently generates odd-man rushes while killing a penalty.
“I’ve learned to use that speed a little differently,” he said. “I think the key factor is that sometimes you might get a little over-aggressive or out of position, but if that happens, I’m usually able to recover.”
So, Skille is blessed with speed, a good shot, and smart instincts at the defensive end of the ice. Aside from maturing as a person and adjusting to the pro game, what has required the most improvement?
The 6-1, 205-pound forward has a ready answer: puck poise.
“Having the confidence, the poise to make the right play, make a good play, and make a smart decision out there instead of forcing something,” Skille said. “Because I realized how much time I have out there, I think I can create some room for my linemates.”
“In years past, I was a little more selfish with the puck, trying to do it all myself,” he said. “But I’ve learned this year especially to move the puck, use my teammates, and I think because of that, our line has developed a lot of offensive opportunities.”
Peters is also impressed by Skille’s development with the puck over the past few seasons.
“He recognizes situations better, and he makes better reads on realistic plays,” Peters said. “He knows when there’s nothing there, and he has to chip pucks in and pursue it. As a younger player, he always tried to make something happen.”
Skille has earned a handful of recalls to the Blackhawks since turning pro, contributing five goals and three assists in 30 National Hockey League games, but he’s still trying to stick on a permanent basis.
A quick glance at Chicago’s recent track record with AHL development, though, leads one to believe that Skille’s chance might not be too far off.
Just in the past three years, nine players on the Blackhawks’ current roster – David Bolland, Troy Brouwer, Adam Burish, Dustin Byfuglien, Colin Fraser, Jordan Hendry, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Antti Niemi and Kris Versteeg – graduated to key NHL roles after first spending significant time developing in Rockford.
Is Skille next? The coach sure thinks it’s just a matter of time, and the player feels readier than ever.
“I think he’ll be a full-time NHL’er probably next year starting right off the hop out of training camp, and will go on to a successful NHL career,” Peters said. “He’s really done a good job of getting better and better, and I think when adversity hits Jack, he’s able to handle it.”
“When I got out of college, I still had a lot to learn, and I knew it,” Skille said. “I’ve learned a lot about the pro game these last three years. I just wanted to grow up off the ice, too, these past few years, and I think I’ve done a good job of it. I know for a fact I’m a different person than I was three years ago.”