Training camp and the preseason are just around the corner for the Chicago Blackhawks. After a long (albeit eventful) offseason, it’s finally time to get down to the business of preparing for the 2021-22 campaign. There will be a plethora of news faces representing the Blackhawks this season, and plenty of narratives to follow as the opening night roster takes shape. Here are five storylines to watch in Blackhawks’ training camp.
5. Is Toews Ready to Go?
All eyes will be on captain Jonathan Toews as soon as the Blackhawks hit the ice. Toews missed all last season due to ongoing symptoms from Chronic Immune Response Syndrome. He announced at the end of June he’s happy to be getting back into a training and skating routine at Fifth Third Arena. Teammate Connor Murphy also confirmed Toews looks “ready to go”.
But as the intensity of practices, scrimmages and preseason games get underway, will Toews hold up? On top of a condition where he could suffer setbacks at any time, he’s 33 years old and hasn’t played in over a year. That’s a lot of hurdles to overcome.
However, Toews is a fiercely proud and competitive hockey player. He’ll undoubtedly give it his all in an attempt to return to his former self. But even he doesn’t know how his body will react. Will he be available to start the season? Can he handle the rigors of playing every game? Can he still manage the responsibilities of being a top line center, and playing heavy minutes in high-pressure situations?
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All these questions will eventually be answered, and fans will be watching with bated breath.
4. Which Forward Prospects Will Make the Roster?
Numerous young prospects will be fighting for a spot on the Blackhawks’ roster. The most touted of these is the 17th overall pick from the 2020 Draft, Lukas Reichel. The 19-year-old forward made some waves with his native German team, Eisbaren Berlin. In that league he competed, and thrived, against grown men. So far in his career, Reichel’s been a very versatile player with a high hockey IQ. We shall see if that translates into the NHL and a spot on the opening night roster.
While technically not a prospect since he’s competed in 58 NHL games, Henrik Borgstrom will also be someone to watch. He played with the Florida Panthers for 50 games in the 2018-19 season, but basically fell out of favor with only four contests in the 2019-20 campaign. Borgstrom will be looking for a new start with the Blackhawks.
Other forward prospects to watch include Evan Barratt, MacKenzie Entwistle and Mike Hardman.
3. Blackhawks Veteran Forwards on the Bubble
While the prospects shoot for a spot on the team, a number of veteran forwards could easily find themselves on the outside looking in.
Some obvious choices here include Brett Connolly and Ryan Carpenter. These are depth forwards who are 29 and 30 years old, respectively, and might see themselves shelved for younger and more dynamic players. If I had to choose between one of these two to make the team, I would go with Carpenter. He has more versatility in that he can play center, and is known for his contributions on the penalty kill. He also has more longevity with the team.
Another forward potentially on the bubble is Adam Gaudette. The 24-year-old joined the Blackhawks at last season’s trade deadline. He was clearly unhappy with his former team, the Vancouver Canucks. Sometimes a player needs a fresh start to prove his value. Gaudette impressed with his tenacity and four points in just seven games with the Blackhawks last season. Can he find a spot as an everyday payer with his new team?
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Then there’s Alex Nylander, who missed all last season recovering from knee surgery. As the eighth overall draft pick in 2016, Nylander was purported to have tons of potential. But so far it hasn’t translated to the NHL level. The 23-year-old was given every opportunity to succeed in the 2019-20 season, oftentimes playing alongside superstar Patrick Kane. This had mixed results. Nylander might not be given such a long leash this season if he fumbles out of the gate.
Finally, Dylan Strome may have worn out his welcome with the Blackhawks. While a natural center, Strome was pushed to the wing last season as head coach Jeremy Colliton tested the potential of youngsters Pius Suter and Philipp Kurashev instead. Strome also regularly lined up on the third line last season, instead of in the top-six. He hasn’t exactly been able to play to his strengths lately with the Blackhawks, and he will certainly have to prove his worth this season.
2. Who’s in on Defense?
With the new additions on defense, I think it’s safe to say Seth Jones, Murphy, Calvin de Haan and Jake McCabe likely form the Blackhawks’ top-four defenseman. After that it will be an open competition between Wyatt Kalynuk, Riley Stillman, Caleb Jones, Nicolas Beaudin and Ian Mitchell.
So, who will get those final spots as the fifth, sixth, and seventh defenseman?
I see Mitchell and Beaudin benefitting from some seasoning in Rockford. They were probably pushed into the NHL too soon last season. Kalynuk, on the other hand, came in after both Mitchell and Beaudin on the depth chart. But once he got his chance he never looked back, compiling four goals and nine points in 21 games with the Blackhawks last season. He was responsible defensively and jumped into the play offensively. He’s also versatile in that he can play on both the left and right side.
Meanwhile, Stillman joined the team at the deadline last season and proved his worth as a physical shutdown defenseman to replace Nikita Zadorov. Finally, Caleb Jones boasts 93 NHL games compared to 56 for Stillman and the aforementioned 21 contests for Kalynuk. Jones will obviously try to leverage this experience to his advantage.
Regardless, there should be some stiff competition for those final spots on the back end.
1. Colliton’s Approach
This will be coach Colliton’s fourth year as an NHL coach behind the Blackhawks’ bench. In the 2018-19 season, he inherited the team after Joel Quenneville was relieved of his duties only 15 games in. Colliton was put in the unenviable position of replacing a legend, and forced to implement his systems on the fly during the season. In the 2019-20 campaign, the Blackhawks struggled out of the gate. As the season progressed, any momentum they were building was cut short at 70 games due to a worldwide pandemic.
The 2019-20 season started without the services of longtime netminder Corey Crawford, captain Toews, Kirby Dach and Nylander. This is when the organization fully embraced a rebuilding mode. In the shortened 56-game season, youngsters were given free reign to learn and grow, mistakes and all. Let’s just say it’s been a long and difficult three years for everyone, including a brand-new NHL coach.
But the situation was right this offseason for general manager Stan Bowman to completely change directions from his rebuilding approach. He had the opportunity to acquire a top defenseman in Seth Jones. He possessed the cap space to also procure a veteran two-time Stanley Cup winning center in Tyler Johnson. Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury practically fell into his lap. Depth players such as defenseman McCabe and forward Jujhar Khaira were obtained.
Furthermore, Toews, Dach and Nylander are back in the fold, and numerous developing players are starting to come into their own.
Long story short, there are no excuses anymore. The expectation is for the Blackhawks to start winning, and to make the playoffs. It’s Colliton’s job to get them there. Many feel he is the weak link with his inexperience, and often criticized approaches to things. It will be interesting to see how he embraces and directs this new-look team.
One thing Colliton is known for is his guidance and rapport with the younger players. Can he continue to balance that development while also getting the most out of his star players? Will the new defensive corps and Colliton’s system find a happy marriage? Can he get the power play to improve? Will the Blackhawks become more of a scoring threat, all while whittling away at those pesky shots against?
Colliton has a lot more tools to work with, but he still needs to orchestrate things correctly. The pressure will be on him to get it done, and it all starts with training camp.
Related: 3 Burning Questions Heading Into 2021-22 Season
Never a dull moment for the Blackhawks! With a much-improved team on paper, everyone is anxious to prove it in person. Training camp and the preseason will be here before we know it. I, for one, can’t wait to follow all the interesting storylines as they unfold.
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