There's little question that Teuvo Teravainen is very important to the Chicago Blackhawks' future. The team made Teravainen its No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, and the Finnish native's dazzling skill level has been eye-catching at every level he has played.
But talent alone won't allow him to jump to the NHL and stay for a full season. Teravainen is on the small side at 5'11" and 165 pounds, and when he was called up to play in three late-season games with the Blackhawks, he was not overly impressive.
The Blackhawks see Teravainen as a No. 2 center in their organization behind Jonathan Toews, but he is not necessarily going to make the team in 2014-15.
That is not a bad thing. Teravainen, 19, has played with Jokerit in Europe the last three seasons, and he is still not familiar with the North American game.
General manager Stan Bowman realizes this, and he made a move in the offseason that will allow the Blackhawks to let Teravainen play a full season with the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League in order to prepare his game for the hard-hitting rigors of the NHL. (Teravainen played five games for Rockford last season.)
Bowman signed free agent Brad Richards to man the No. 2 center role next season. The former New York Ranger is a short-term solution to their problems at the position, as he signed a one-year contract that will pay him $2 million in 2014-15.
Richards may not be the dynamic player he was earlier in his career when he helped the Tampa Bay Lightning to the 2004 Stanley Cup, but the Blackhawks are banking on Richards playing well enough next year that they don't have to rush Teravainen into the position.
If Teravainen shows enough progress in training camp next month and demonstrates that he belongs on the team, that's another story. However, they don't have to fool themselves and say that Teravainen is ready for the hard-hitting and physical play he will see on an every-night basis in the NHL.
Bowman told Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times that the Blackhawks want to make sure Teravainen is ready before he gets a full-time opportunity to play with the team.
"Now we have some latitude with Teuvo,” Bowman said. “He’s going to dictate when he’s ready to go. We don’t have to force anything.” Bowman also indicated that the Blackhawks have not changed any of their expectations for Teravainen, even if the timetable has been altered:
We’ve talked a long time about our hopes for Teuvo. This does nothing to change that. We’re very high on his potential and his future. The one thing you have to be careful with with young players, is not putting them in situations to fail. And the good news for us is he’s just 19 years old and doesn’t turn 20 until training camp.
Teravainen understands that he will have to demonstrate to the Blackhawks that he is ready to compete in the NHL before he gets his next opportunity. That means he must get bigger and stronger and show management that he has the requisite toughness needed to handle the physical play that will come his way.
Markus Lehto, Teravainen's agent, told ESPN.com's Scott Powers that the team's expectations are clear to the young player:
The most important thing is off-ice training, to get bigger. Obviously, he's never going to be one of those bigger guys on the team.
But since you're going to be playing in the NHL, [in] North American smaller rinks against heavier guys, higher tempo, you need to be bigger, too. You need to gain three, four, five pounds at least because there's going to be a lot more hitting.
The Blackhawks will not be under pressure to give Teravainen a roster spot this season. However, if Teravainen skates with the aggressiveness and determination at the team's prospect camp last month and does put on the weight he needs, he could force a lot of discussion in the Blackhawks' meeting rooms.
Toews and Richards will be in Teravainen's corner from the start of training camp. Both players were at the Blackhawks' fan convention in July and spoke about the help they were given from veterans when they were young players. They feel the need to do the same thing with players who are on the way up.
The Blackhawks management, coaching staff and fans want to see Teravainen play with the Blackhawks. However, the key decision-makers will not rush him. It is far more likely that Teravainen will pull on a Blackhawks jersey in 2015-16 than the upcoming season.