It’s no secret that the Chicago Blackhawks are not expected to be good this season. Usually, when negative assumptions surround a team before a season, it can be tough for fans to find positives, especially knowing the team lost some fan-favorite players like Alex DeBrincat. But while the Blackhawks might not have the talent they did last season, the upside is that this season will give other players a chance to shine. Some players could thrive in that environment and become the “X-factors,” and the Hawks have plenty of candidates.
The Blackhawks acquired Petr Mrazek on the Day 1 of the 2022 NHL Draft on July 7. The 30-year-old is a solid NHL goalie but has faced a pattern of alternating good and bad seasons. For example, he had a bad season with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2017-18 where he posted a 6-6-3 record with a 3.22 goals-against average (GAA) and a .891 save percentage (SV%). He followed that up by having a great year with the Carolina Hurricanes, posting a 23-14-3 record with a 2.39 GAA and a .914 SV% in 2018-19 (from ‘Petr Mrazek brings to Blackhawks a history of excelling when doubted’, Chicago Sun-Times, 7/27/22).
Mrazek worked up to having a career-best season in 2020-21 with the Hurricanes, where he had a 12-6-2 record with a 2.06 GAA and a .923 SV%, which led him to sign a three-year, $11.4 million deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs in July 2021. Last season, he had a career-worst 12-6-0 record with a 3.34 GAA and .888 SV%, which ranked 60th in the league among NHL goalies. He dealt with injuries that didn’t help his stats; nonetheless, his performance and cap hit were not a good combination for Toronto, which led him to be traded to Chicago.
The good news about his alternating patterns is that it means Mrazek is due for a bounce-back year. Granted, I don’t think it can get worse than last season. Although the team in front of him doesn’t look strong, he could still put up respectable numbers for himself. He proved in Carolina that he could stand on his head and make incredible saves. What’s to say that can’t happen in Chicago? Every NHL goalie is capable of stealing games from time to time, and he’s no different. He will get a lot of playing time next season, and if he can regain even a portion of his old form, he can be a game changer on some nights. It won’t be enough to make the Blackhawks playoff contenders, but it at least would give the team peace of mind to know their net is secure for the time being.
There are a lot of young faces on the Blackhawks, and most of them aren’t a “sure” thing as they’re still developing, like MacKenzie Entwistle and Lukas Reichel. However, one player that is a proven veteran is center Tyler Johnson. When the Blackhawks acquired the two-time Stanley Cup champion in July 2021 from the Tampa Bay Lightning, former general manager (GM) Stan Bowman said he added skill, offensive depth, versatility throughout the lineup, two-way play, and championship experience. Unfortunately, he had a nightmarish season last year, and it’s not how he wanted his tenure with the team to start. He only played in 26 games due to having neck surgery and only mustered three goals, four assists, and seven points. Last season was unlucky for him, but he is looking to change that in 2022-23.
Like Mrazek, at 32 years old, Johnson’s age doesn’t exactly coincide with a rebuild. He has two years left on his seven-year, $35 million contract, which doesn’t match up either. There are valid reasons to trade him, but his contract is hard to move with the flat salary cap. However, I don’t think that has to be a burden because the Blackhawks can use him to their advantage next season.
Despite Johnson missing a majority of the season, he was third-best on the team in shooting percentage (10 percent), fifth-best in points-per-game (0.3), and led the team in faceoffs with a faceoff percentage of 60.8 (31 wins out of 51 attempts). Also, four of his seven points on the season came in his last seven games in April, making his 82-game average 22 goals, 27 assists, and 48 points. If he continues to win faceoffs this season, the team will have more puck possession. Furthermore, if he plays with Patrick Kane like he did briefly last season, he should get some prime scoring opportunities that will bring that depth scoring element. I agree with Bowman’s early comments on Johnson and believe he can be a difference maker, just as he was with Tampa Bay, but the key is that he has to stay healthy. If he does, he could be fun to watch.
Johnson will join some solid centers with Jonathan Toews and Colin Blackwell, and it will be interesting to see where coach Luke Richardson utilizes him in the lineup. He is normally a fourth-line center, but he could find himself more in the top-six in 2022-23.
The Blackhawks will have plenty of rookies looking to break out next season, and one of them could be Alex Vlasic. The Illinois native made his NHL debut last season and played in 15 games where he had one goal, one assist, two points and was a minus-2. He also had 15 hits, 16 blocked shots, and five takeaways. At 6-foot-6, 199 pounds, he can use his size to his benefit, having already shown flashes of that. He can play a sound, defensive game that can only improve. Former head coach Derek King placed him on the first defensive pairing with Seth Jones for nine games, including his debut game. For a 21-year-old rookie, that is very impressive, and the coaches took an immediate liking to him. He averaged around seven minutes of ice time to start, which eventually grew to 20 in the Blackhawks’ final two games.
After the season concluded, GM Kyle Davidson said they would not have Vlasic join Chicago’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate team, the Rockford Icehogs for their Calder Cup run because they wanted him to have a full offseason of training to prepare for this year. It suggests management wants him to have a more significant role with the team. That strategy might have paid off because during the Blackhawks’ prospect development camp in July, Mark Eaton, who is the assistant general manager, stated that Vlasic stood out and had taken on a leadership role.
Additionally, reports out of development camp kept noting Vlasic’s confidence, which is exciting to hear. Yet, since the Blackhawks are jammed at defense with the recent signing of Jack Johnson, I wouldn’t be surprised if he started the season in Rockford. But if he does, I don’t think he will stay there for long. Whenever he gets the nod, they will see a different player than they saw last year, as I believe he could make some noise on the blue line and complement the veterans well.
Mrazek, Johnson, and Vlasic are probably the last players that come to mind when thinking of Blackhawks’ X-factors, which is precisely why they should be named. They likely won’t give historic performances, and it might not matter in the grand scheme of things if the team sinks. However, every struggling team still has bright spots and these players have the potential to be more than what was shown last year. It’s always the ones that you least expect that end up having the most success. So, keep that in mind when watching them this season!