Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2020-21, where Last Word on Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2020-21 Stanley Cup pick. Today the series continues with the 2020-21 Chicago Blackhawks.
2020-21 Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks had an extremely up-and-down 2019-20 season. A rough 3-8 start to the season in October was not a good sign, but they turned it around in November. December once again saw the Hawks’ record below .500, but another upswing in January pre-All Star break gave the Hawks a boost of confidence. However, as the trade deadline approached, the Hawks realized they could not compete for a playoff spot. Trading away star goaltender Robin Lehner and top-pairing defenceman Erik Gustafsson, the Hawks planned on riding out the rest of the season and hoped for a top-10 pick in the draft. Then, in mid-March, all NHL games were paused due to COVID-19. Finishing with a 32-30-8 record gave the Hawks 72 points, good for 7th in the Central Division, five points behind the 6th place Minnesota Wild.
An extremely competitive Central Division saw all seven teams make at least the qualifying rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Suddenly, with the expanded playoff format, the Blackhawks found themselves with the second-worst record in the playoffs and about to face a red-hot Edmonton Oilers team. The Blackhawks surprised many fans and analysts and defeated the Oilers in the play-in rounds, but would go on to lose to the Vegas Golden Knights. Even so, after a painful end to the regular season, making the playoffs was an incredible achievement for the Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks had a relatively quiet offseason in terms of acquisitions. After general manager Stan Bowman announced the future of the team would be a few losing seasons, fans were worried. However, their current roster shows how they are more re-tooling rather than rebuilding. Even so, re-tooling means star players make their way out. Longtime Chicago goaltender and fan-favourite Corey Crawford chose to sign with the New Jersey Devils after his contract expired. In addition, top-line winger Brandon Saad was traded to division rival Colorado Avalanche in exchange for Nikita Zadorov and some minor pieces. In a down year, the Hawks will certainly be missing these key players but there will be young players to fill their spots. The one major signing the Blackhawks made this offseason was acquiring Mattias Janmark in free agency, a good addition to their bottom six.
In the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, the Blackhawks had the 17th pick in the first round, selecting German winger Lukas Reichel. Offensively minded and extremely skilled, Reichel could see some play time this upcoming season, and will likely see third or fourth line minutes.
The Blackhawks’ top six is full of young and old talent alike. Veterans like Toews and Kane serve as mentors for the next generation, but they are still reliable playmakers. Both Kane and Toews were number one and two in points and assists last regular season, and in points during the playoffs. In addition, Kane led all forwards in total and average time on ice, as well as shots on net. Toews is still an extremely reliable centerman, winning nearly 60 percent of his draws during the regular season. Another veteran, Andrew Shaw, missed significant time last season due to a concussion suffered in early December. However, he plans on joining the team for the 2020-21 season. His gritty presence and general energy were sorely missed during the back half of the season. He will make an immediate impact on the team once he returns.
The young players in the top six are no slouches either. 2019 third overall pick Kirby Dach has proved his skills and rookie Dominik Kubalik scored the most goals out of any rookie, earning him a Calder Trophy candidacy. Dach playing with 24-year old Alex DeBrincat and the aforementioned Kane has been an incredible boost to his play. He is able to showcase his offensive skills while learning from his linemates. Not to be outdone, Kubalik burst out onto the scene with an incredible rookie season. 30 goals in 68 games is a stat no other rookie last season was able to achieve. Playing alongside the captain and strong forechecker Shaw will give Kubalik all the space he needs to make plays and put the puck in the back of the net.
Stan Bowman said in his press release to the media that he will be shuffling around players, lines, and goalies quite frequently. So the bottom six forwards are difficult to predict. Strome and Kampf will probably be mainstays in the lineup, but just about everyone else is subject to change. Prospects Brandon Hagel, Brandon Pirri, and Pius Suter are all talented players that could be called up at any point in the season. At this point, all we know is that there will be a lot of shuffling of players, so this is the best prediction for the lineup.
Nikita Zadorov – Ian Mitchell
The 2020-21 Chicago Blackhawks defensive core is stronger than last year’s. The top four might not be the best in the league but they are solid defencemen who can produce on the offensive and defensive end. Keith is still an incredible defenceman who skates well and makes minimal mistakes. Boqvist has an extremely high ceiling and is paired with a Norris winner, so being young is a non-factor. De Haan missed most of last season, only playing 29 games with the Blackhawks. However, he’s a great shutdown player that makes a great pairing with offensively skilled Murphy on the right side. Each pairing has a defensively-minded player and an offensively talented player, making two solid lines.
This, like the bottom six forwards, is also subject to change. Newly acquired Zadorov will likely open the season on the blue line. and prospect Ian Mitchell will likely see some playing time as well. Veteran Brent Seabrook should not see playing time at the beginning of the season. While he is a fantastic presence in the locker room, the Blackhawks have too many more talented players. However, if the Blackhawks feel Mitchell needs more time to develop in the minors, Seabrook will take his place. Even though Seabrook said he is feeling 100% after his surgery, Mitchell needs NHL experience to fully develop.
This will be the most interesting part of the 2020-21 Chicago Blackhawks. Subban has seen limited play time throughout his career and Delia has only made 18 appearances himself. While Subban will likely start the season, he and Delia will likely be splitting time as the season progresses. Depending on their performances, head coach Jeremy Colliton will make a decision on the starting goalie. In addition, the Blackhawks also have Rockford Ice Hogs goalie Kevin Lankinen in their system. Lankinen will likely start in the AHL, but if either Subban or Delia are not playing up to par, expect Lankinen to dress.
Players to Watch
As the 2020-21 Chicago Blackhawks enter this phase of re-tooling, the young players will be the most important players. Specifically, Kampf, Strome, and Boqvist. Strome had an underwhelming season last year but could bounce back to a 20-goal, 50-point production in 2020-21 as he had in 2018-19 depending on his usage. Boqvist looked shaky and scared last season but with coaching and help from veteran partner Keith, he is set up to reach his high ceiling. Kampf had an incredible season last year but it went unnoticed because his impact isn’t on the stat sheet. All three players are prime break out players for the Blackhawks next season.
As previously mentioned, the goalies will be the most interesting players to watch. Both are young and inexperienced and have never been thrown into the starters role for the longevity of a gruelling NHL season. Goalies are the most important players on the ice and usually determine how a team plays. Look to Subban and Delia for an indicator of how the Blackhawks are playing as a whole.
Predictions for the 2020-21 Chicago Blackhawks
The 2020-21 Chicago Blackhawks are going to be in a difficult position. A shortened season plus a re-tooling phase gives them little opportunity to showcase their improvement over the season’s length. They will be a lottery team next year and miss the playoffs. This is the best-case scenario for the Blackhawks, as they already have a core group of talented players and adding a top ten pick will only strengthen them. While the Blackhawks are at a low point now, fans understand this re-tool will only last one or two seasons. Once the Blackhawks come out of this stage, they will be as competitive as they’ve ever been.