The Chicago Blackhawks are the biggest NHL offseason anomaly. It’s not often that a team acquires a Vezina Trophy winner (Marc-Andre Fleury), a two-time Stanley Cup Champion (Tyler Johnson) and a No. 1 defenseman (Seth Jones) in the span of a week. Now that the shock of the all the craziness has fizzled, it’s time to focus on the season ahead. The Blackhawks start their season in less than seven weeks (Oct. 13), and they are in an interesting position. They went from “rebuild” mode, to making moves that resemble a contending team. When you have a club that tries to make that swift transition, there are plenty of questions involved.
I’m sure most fans can think of a thousand different ones regarding the team going into the 2021-22 season, but here are three burning questions that quickly come to mind.
1. Will Seth Jones Meet Expectations?
Out of all the offseason moves, Jones was arguably the biggest move for the Blackhawks, and he was linked to the team for weeks before the trade came to fruition. Now that he is locked in Chicago with an eight-year, $76 million contract ($9.5 million average annual value), it’s his time to shine. He came from a team that struggles defensively in the Columbus Blue Jackets — they rank 25th in the league for overall team defense, which includes a goals-against average (GAA) of 3.34. The Blackhawks, though, are similar, and rank just one spot ahead of them with a GAA of 3.32.
The Blue Jackets are also similar to the Blackhawks because of the fact that besides Jones, there wasn’t much to work with for the No. 1 defenseman role last season. Their other elite defenders, like Zach Werenski, were out a majority of the season due to injury, while David Savard was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the deadline. So, there is no doubt that their leaky defense group contributed to Jones’ minus-18 rating last season. Although the Hawks also have a leaky defensive group, it looks to be more secure for next season after Chicago signed 27-year-old defenseman Jake McCabe as a free agent this summer. He was a plus-2 on a putrid Buffalo Sabres team, and having an anchor like that, alongside other reliable veterans like Connor Murphy and Calvin de Haan, may give Jones the talent he needs to help him succeed.
At only 26 years old, Chicago believes Jones has his best hockey ahead of him, which is reflected by the contract they gave him. Because of his big cap hit, and the fact that the team parted with a good, defensive prospect in Adam Boqvist in return, he faces a lot of pressure. We have yet to witness his true potential, and the hope is that being around a wiser defense group will push him to be the No. 1 defenseman the Blackhawks know he can be. If he hits his stride, then look out!
2. Will the Offense Improve?
There has been a lot of talk surrounding the Blackhawks’ defense, and for good reason. They have faced a lot of struggles the past few seasons. However, because most of the spotlight has been hyper-focused on how to improve the defense, there hasn’t been much talk about the offense. There definitely needs to be a discussion about it, because they ranked 21st in the league with an average of 2.8 goals scored per game. It’s hard to imagine that a team that has Patrick Kane on its roster would struggle putting the puck in the net, but unfortunately, that’s the reality.
They have Alex DeBrincat, who ranked third in the league in goals last season with 32. He also lead the team in goals. Behind him in goal scoring is Dominik Kubalik (17) , Kane (15) and Pius Suter (14). The Blackhawks lost their fourth-leading goal scorer as Suter signed with the Detroit Red Wings during free agency. After them, every skater on the roster had 10 goals or less.
The team tried to address this need by acquiring Tyler Johnson from Tampa Bay, as he can average 20 goals a season. Will that be enough? Surely, Kane will not have a repeat of his career-low 15 goals, while DeBrincat doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Kubalik is a constant threat, and Kirby Dach, Dylan Strome, Philipp Kurashev, Alex Nylander and Brandon Hagel can provide secondary scoring. If Jonathan Toews is able to return this season, that will give the offense a huge boost, too.
The Blackhawks made a lot of adjustments to keep the puck out of the net with the upgraded defensemen and the acquisition of Fleury. Maybe that factor alone will bail out the offense. However, you need to score goals to win games. For the most part, the forward group remains unchanged from last year. Therefore, an improvement from everyone on offense is a must. With this group of forwards, I think they’re up to the task.
3. Will the Blackhawks Make the Playoffs?
It’s no secret how dark the playoff cloud hovers over the organization. They haven’t won a true playoff series in almost five years. Simply put, it’s time. This team is improved. Furthermore, on paper, this is a playoff team. It’s known that the term “on paper” doesn’t mean much in professional sports because we have seen many examples of teams that look great on paper, but don’t perform well. The aim for the team that has been assembled, is for them to gel and have good chemistry from the get-go.
Team chemistry really means the most in this league. That aspect has been missing for a while. If they can build that with their talent to match, then they have the potential to do what any other NHL team can do — chase the Stanley Cup. The Blackhawks now have the players, which means the excuses are running out. This is their make-or-break year because a lot of players are soon coming onto expiring contracts like Murphy, Kane, Toews and Fleury.
The Blackhawks’ plan for success starts with an entire, cohesive unit. Will they finally regain their footing with their forward group and defense group? More importantly, will this team make the playoffs? All will be revealed when the puck drops!
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Just a small town girl with Midwestern charm; combined with a love of dogs, writing, frappuccinos, Chicago-isms, sports, and a whole lot of Blackhawks hockey. Twitter: @brooke_lofo.