The 2021-22 Chicago Blackhawks are off to a pretty terrible start. At the time of writing, they are 7-12-2, good for seventh in the Central Divison, only better than the tanking Arizona Coyotes. They fired their head coach Jeremy Colliton after an abysmal start to the season, replacing him with interim coach Derek King. Since then, their play has improved, but not by much. There are still many questions that surround this team for the rest of the season.
Questions That Remain About the 2021-22 Chicago Blackhawks
Can Derek King Lead the Blackhawks in the Right Direction?
King has been a breath of fresh air for the Blackhawks. Under Colliton, their systems were rigid and forced. There was no room for creativity or individual skill to shine. Take, for example, the power play. Every time, the Blackhawks would chase the puck behind their own net. Then, the lone defenceman would skate with the puck until about center ice. Then, he would turn and drop it off to a forward who was building up speed through their own end. That forward would take it to the opposing blue line, where one of two things would happen. Either they would dump and chase, or try to make a move at the attacking blue line. This process was repeated countless times, with a fairly low success rate. The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, and Colliton was the hockey embodiment of that.
King has taken a new approach to coaching the Blackhawks. He recognizes there are multiple incredibly skilled players on the team, and understands they should be given time and space to work their magic. While the power play can still improve (that’s an entirely separate issue), King has shown his creativity in other ways. He’s not afraid to change up line combinations to try to spark some offence. For example, in the game against the St. Louis Blues, King put Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on the same line. He also put Alex DeBrincat and Kirby Dach on the second line together. While these players didn’t score in the game, there were multiple shifts where the Blackhawks dominated play in the offensive zone. These combinations were unusual and unseen under Colliton, but King took the risk.
King has so far shown he’s got the support of the players and has been a good leader for the team. However, if the Blackhawks are going to make a playoff push, he will need to be a great leader.
Can Seth Jones Continue His Bounceback Season?
Seth Jones was awful with the Columbus Blue Jackets. His advanced numbers were all poor, and there were many concerns about the Blackhawks signing him to a monster contract. However, Jones has been a key piece to the Blackhawks’, albeit limited, successes so far. Jones leads all skaters in average time on ice by a whopping three minutes and has 70 more minutes of playing time than the next closest skater. He’s also been the lone defenceman on the first powerplay unit. He leads the team in assists with 15 and has two goals to boot. It’s obvious the Blackhawks trust him to control the game and make important decisions.
A big part of his success is his partner, Calvin de Haan. His defensive-minded play allows for Jones to be more aggressive, knowing de Haan has his back. This is the style of hockey Jones loves to play, and could be a reason why he has looked much better this season. However, there still are many questions around Jones’ play. Many fans and analysts (including this writer) do not yet see his skill matching his contract. He will need to grow into a solidified number one defenceman for the Blackhawks if he wants to silence the critics. This season, it will be very difficult for him to do that. Unless he has some magic up his sleeve, Jones will remain a solid top-four defenceman, and not an elite defenceman like his contract suggests.
Who Will Be A Mainstay in the Bottom Six?
The Blackhawks have tried many players in the bottom six forward group, including Philipp Kurashev, Jujhar Khaira, Reese Johnson, Henrik Borgstrom, and Dylan Strome. Kurashev was just sent down to the AHL, so he likely won’t be in the lineup for multiple games. He had no goals and five assists through 19 games, averaging only 12 minutes of ice time per game. Khaira has been fairly quiet as well, only two goals and zero assists in 15 games. However, his game against the Blues was spectacular, so if he keeps that quality of play going, he could earn himself a second-line spot.
Borgstrom is a big body that injects physicality into the lineup, but he’s not very helpful in defending or scoring. Johnson has 13 games with only three points. And then there’s Strome, a hotly debated player among Hawks fans. Is he good and just doesn’t get the playing time? Is he actually not great and we should trade him now for some assets? There’s a lot to be said about this player, and it will be up to King to figure where he fits, or doesn’t, in the lineup.
A key part of an elite team is having consistently good bottom-six forwards. This group for the 2021-22 Chicago Blackhawks is extremely prone to shifts and changes. This can mess with chemistry and trust between players, and make line combinations a headache. How King manages these fringe players could determine a win or a loss, or even bigger, making the playoffs for the Blackhawks.