Welcome to our latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. The Puck Drop Preview series takes you through each team as the season is fast approaching. The preview will focus on the narratives surrounding the team ending last year, during the offseason, and heading into the 2021-22 season. Puck Drop Preview also focuses on what the season has in store for each team from a roster and expectations perspective. Join us, as we look at all 32 teams before the season starts. Today, we take a look at the 2021-22 Chicago Blackhawks.
2021-22 Chicago Blackhawks
In year one of the team’s rebuilding process, the Blackhawks played a much better game than many were expecting. Sure, they missed the playoffs by nine points and a handful of wins, but that fact doesn’t accurately represent the team’s performance. On an individual level, there were players who stepped up in major ways. Rookie goaltender Kevin Lankinen stepped into the spotlight and was a bright spot for the team on the ice.
Up the ice, too, many new faces made their NHL debuts and made a big splash. With players like Pius Suter and Brandon Hagel stepping up in the place of Jonathan Toews, the rest of the forward group followed suit. Rookies flooded the blue line as well. Ian Mitchell made his anticipated NHL debut and showed flashes of his elite play, as did Wyatt Kalynuk and Nicolas Beaudin. Even in missing the playoffs, the Blackhawks showcased that the darkest days of the past few seasons are behind them.
The 2021-22 Chicago Blackhawks had an active offseason. On draft day the team traded former first-round draft pick Adam Boqvist and some draft picks for top-pairing defenceman Seth Jones. Almost immediately after they acquired him they extended the 27-year-old by giving him an eight-year contract for a whopping $9 million a season. Prior to the draft, the team traded away long-time defenceman, and three-time Stanley Cup winner, Duncan Keith for Seth’s brother, Caleb Jones. Chicago also acquired two-time Stanley Cup winner Tyler Johnson from the Tampa Bay Lightning to round out their top-six forward group. Arguably the biggest name to be added this summer, however, was reigning Vezina winner Marc-Andre Fleury. In a shocking move with the Vegas Golden Knights, the Blackhawks had found their number one goaltender for the season, and a great mentor for Lankinen to play behind.
Stan Bowman made a splash during free agency, as well. The addition of defenceman Jake McCabe as a top four-piece on the blue line should patch up what used to be a questionable defence core. Similarly adding fourth line centre Jujhar Kharia, former Edmonton Oilers teammate of Caleb Jones, rounds out the bottom six with some grit and physicality. As training camp nears it seems that the Blackhawks of old have been put in the past and a new, younger, faster identity for the team is taking shape.
If there’s a more promising top-six forward group in the Central division this season than what Chicago has, then that team is likely a cup contender. For a team whose playoff hopes are still up in the air, however, the first two lines have some top-end talent. Kirby Dach is looking to play his first full season and has displayed the ability to score at a top-line rate. Patrick Kane and Dominick Kubalik across from each other screams combined 40-plus goals from the winger duo.
With Jonathan Toews back in the mix for Chicago, only good things can come. DeBrincat found his scoring touch, and then some, last season and will continue to display his shooting ability with Johnson and Toews dishing passes his way. The winger duos are dynamic and can be changed around as well with each of their playing styles complementing each other. Hagel, entering his third year of professional hockey, could factor into the top six with his two-way game and ice vision. Any way you shake it the team has options to maximize their offensive efficiency this season.
The bottom six is not, by any means, going to produce a lot of offence. However, that doesn’t exclude them from playing a strong game on the offensive end. Borgstrom and Nylander are two players who need to prove their play to stay as regulars on this roster. Both of them are young and hungry for the spotlight and that mentality will make the third line fun to watch this season. Hagel on the other wing will likely favour this line to take draws to start the game in the first.
The fourth line is a purely defensive, physically capable line. Adam Gaudette will provide a slight offensive spark but his grinder style of play will force him to play more like a pest than a playmaker to start the season. Similarly, Jujhar Kharia will be out there to rough up the opposition and tire out players on the boards. Ryan Carpenter, who will be playing his third season with Chicago, is a solid depth centre with a lot of speed and energy to his game. That energy will pair nicely with Gaudette’s offensive capabilities, but likely not enough to outscore any of the top players on the team.
With Jones factoring into the lineup he will be playing heavy minutes each game. For the Columbus Blue Jackets, he could play 25 minutes a night and perform at a top pairing ability the next night if he was relied on to do so. Similarly, Connor Murphy will look to be a leader for this year’s defenceman group. As the player with the most years in Chicago, his top-end shutdown style along with his knowledge of the coaching staff will help everyone perform to their top ability. McCabe and de Haan are both capable top-four defencemen with records of playing well. If they can reach that expectation then there should be a lot of good from the team’s defensive gameplay. If the coaches in Chicago can work with Jones to patch up his defensive game, things should run smoothly.
Much like last season, the bottom pair will likely be a revolving door for the younger, NHL-ready defenceman the team has at their disposal. Mitchell might have a leg up on his teammates due to his development track, but the likelihood of seeing Beaudin, Kalynuk, Stillman, and a few other defencemen is high. As the team is still in the rebuilding process, prioritizing player development and giving guys the right amount of opportunity to prove themselves will be key, hence the fluid nature of the bottom defence pair.
Barring any crazy training camp performances, the goaltending tandem looks set in stone as of now. Fleury will get the lion’s share of starts for Chicago, but a fully capable Kevin Lankinen will certainly play well in the backup role this season. There are only positives with this duo. For example, what better goalie is there for Chicago’s future starting netminder to learn from than Fleury, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. Sure, the team in front o them might make it hard to play to their peak abilities, but from a rebuilding and future development standpoint this is the best possible outcome. If injuries occur during the season theirs always Malcolm Subban or Collin Delia, both NHL-capable netminders, to step up and play a game or two.
Players to Watch
Kirby Dach is itching to play a full season. His first two seasons in the league were cut short due to a global pandemic and started late due to a wrist injury. A full summer of rest, relaxation, and training for the 2019 third overall pick will benefit the centre in more ways than imaginable. Last season, for example, he scored at a 45 point pace over 18 games. Who knows where his production ceiling will be this year on a full summer of rest and Patrick Kane playing next to him. His ice vision improved from year one to year two as well, adding a strong, but not quite Toews-level, two-way game to his tool belt.
On the blue line, there’s plenty of new faces to watch. With all the hype, drama, and league-wide discussion around his defensive ability it will be fun to watch Seth Jones in a Blackhawks jersey this year. He’s proved he can score like a forward and eat up big minutes, and fans in Columbus loved him for it. With top-pairing talent and newer players to mentor, Jones has a lot to live up to in year one for Chicago. How he bounces back from last season and takes control of this new opportunity makes him a player to keep an eye on this year.
Prediction for the 2021-22 Chicago Blackhawks
The 2021-22 Chicago Blackhawks have loaded up on some great talent this offseason. Combine that with their youth movement that will step up in rebuilding year two and Hawks fans have a lot to be excited about. There is, however, a lot of uncertainty that comes with all of the hype the front office brought with the new acquisitions. With the tough competition in the Central Division and other teams in the West getting better, too, the Blackhawks might be in contention for a Western Conference wildcard spot. Anything more than that, however, would be a slight reach. Chicago wowed the league last year, however, who says they can’t do the same this year?
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