As organizations navigate through their offseason, all are working to position themselves as ideally as possible prior to the start of next season. One of the most active clubs, thus far, has been the Chicago Blackhawks. Fortunately, that gives us a lot to talk about on our show — Blackhawks Banter.
As we prepare for Episode 40, which will include a full agenda’s worth of topics, I hand-picked this one specific question for our crew to cover in this sneak peek of what’s to come. My name is Shaun Filippelli and joining me on this week’s show will be Gail Kauchak, Brooke LoFurno and Greg Boysen.
Be sure to tune in when the episode drops on Tuesday to hear even more of what we have to say. In the meantime, let us know your take in relation to ours. We welcome you to comment below and engage with us across social media.
Grading Chicago’s Game
Given the abundance of roster movement for the Blackhawks so far this offseason, what we know for sure is that we’ll see a drastically different lineup to start 2021-22 than we did through 2020-21. What is not yet determined, however, is how this new group will fare as a collective.
They brought in a future Hall of Fame goaltender, acquired a highly coveted top-pairing defenseman, infused depth throughout every inch of the lineup, and teased a potential return of their captain. Needless to say, the Blackhawks have given fans reason to feel optimistic.
Let’s dive into some year-over-year predictions. With an area of Chicago’s game assigned to each of us, we’ll give a letter grade for our section’s overall performance through 2020-21 and predict the mark we expect them to achieve by the conclusion of 2021-22.
Gail — Coaches
Ha, you would assign me with coaching, since I’ve been the most optimistic of the four of us regarding Coach Colliton and company. Can you imagine if Greg was tasked with this? Lol!
All right, here goes. My coaching grade for the Blackhawks’ 2020-21 season is a C. Head coach Jeremy Colliton is known for working well with the youngsters. He communicates with them, gives them feedback, lets them know where they stand and how they can improve. Many players have raved about his guidance. He also took a hodge-podge team, one that was missing their top two centers, unproven in goal, weak on defense; yet led them to some unexpected success last season.
Yes, they petered out as the season wound down. And it was a shortened season to begin with. Colliton also struggled with his consistency as he experimented with finding the optimal lineup. It left players such as Dominik Kubalik and Dylan Strome, to name a few, without the best chance at success. Not to mention his stubbornness in sticking with his man and a half defensive system when he really didn’t have the personnel for it.
So where will the 2021-22 season take us? As Shaun mentioned above, the Blackhawks are a much-improved team than they were last season. This will likely be Colliton’s “make it or break it” year. But I, for one, think he will rise to the occasion.
Chicago’s 36-year-old bench boss will have a lot more options on his forward lines, with depth up and down the lineup. He will have an improved defense; one with enough talent to hopefully thrive within his system. Goaltending, well hello! A Vezina winner helping an up-and-coming netminder find his way?! That’s an ideal situation.
In addition to these improvements, Colliton will have one more season of experience and experimentation under his belt. It will be up to him to put it all together and lead the Blackhawks to the playoffs. I expect a final 2021-22 grade of a B. And it will need to be a solid B with the expectation of further improvement to come. Anything less will result in Colliton’s ticket out of Chicago.
Brooke — Forwards
C. I give the forward group that grade because there were a lot of aspects that were “average” from them. Besides the scoring brilliance from Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat, the roster itself left a lot to be desired. They had trouble in the faceoff dot. Their scoring average ranked 21st in the NHL. And the forward group’s two-way play was basically non-existent. There wasn’t a lot of versatility.
The forwards seemed to be very one-dimensional and could only produce in one way, such as hits or forechecks. By the end of the 2021-22 season, I expect them to be at a “B” because they made improvements at center and with scoring, so those elements should work in their favor.
Greg — Defensemen
To start, the defense is the most improved aspect of the team this offseason. But the bar was set very low last season. The Blackhawks gave up 184 goals in 2020-21 the seventh-most in the NHL, for a 3.29 goals against per game average. They allowed 33.7 shots per game, tied with the Buffalo Sabres for the most in the league. Their collective 45.9 Corsi for percentage (CF%) was the second-lowest only behind the Detroit Red Wings.
When you look at those numbers, you have to give the defense a failing grade for the 2020-21 season. If it weren’t for some excellent goaltending for much of the season, the team would have finished much farther down in the standings than they did. It was evident that Stan Bowman wanted to improve his defense, and he did just that. Gone are Adam Boqvist, Duncan Keith, and Nikita Zadorov, and in are Caleb and Seth Jones and Jake McCabe.
The Blackhawks have gotten better, more athletic, and more responsible on the back end. If Calvin de Haan does remain with the team, you have a proven veteran on all three pairings. The likely new top pairing of Seth Jones and Connor Murphy should be quite good. Plus, guys like Nicolas Beaudin and Ian Mitchell will be able to get more meaningful time with the Rockford IceHogs, which they probably should have had last season.
The trick to the improved defense will be how it fits into Colliton’s system and how he deploys them during the game. On paper, the blue line looks much better, but we will see if that translates to actual results on the ice. If it does, they should be able to increase their grade to a C by the season’s end.
Shaun — Goalies
First off, it’s relevant to reflect on and celebrate the impressive rookie campaign that Kevin Lankinen was able to string together, especially after starting the season as the third in line for the role. What he accomplished, both in helping the Blackhawks battle for a playoff spot and with regards to being among the best rookies showcased last season, was nothing short of amazing. His counterparts, on the other hand, didn’t fare as well.
Collin Delia and Malcolm Subban were both pushed aside early on in the campaign, after tough starts that saw their numbers balloon. While each would find some sense of redemption by the season’s end, Lankinen’s stat line balanced back the other way as their collective effort landed them in 17th for save percentage (SV%) and 25th for goals-against average (GAA). It was a roller coaster ride for the whole team — goalies included. Overall, they earned a C.
As far as what to expect through 2021-22, you have to assume good things are on the way when you infuse the most recent Vezina Trophy winner into the mix.
Marc-André Fleury alone improves this lineup’s outlook. He should see the majority of playing time, which means incorporating his career .913 SV% and 2.55 GAA will help adjust the team’s averages in both regards.
Whether they can muster up enough success to make the playoffs is yet to be seen, but that will be a result of the entire squad’s efforts. As far as what lies on the goalies’ shoulders, I’m predicting they’ll be a full grade higher by season’s end and I’m foreshadowing a B.
Making the Grade
Collectively, our crew handed the Blackhawks a C for forwards, C for forwards, F for defense, and C for goalies. Given the moves this organization has already made this offseason, it should come as no surprise that we’re expecting each of those marks to increase by the conclusion of 2021-22.
If our predictions hold up, that would mean their coaching, offense, defense, and goaltending are all poised to improve to a B, B, C, and B respectively. With grades like that, one would have to suspect they’ll be battling for a playoff berth.
Time will tell if they can make that their reality. What we can say with certainty, though, is that the Blackhawks have positioned themselves to be far more competitive next season than they were during the last one.
Tune in on Tuesday, as we further this discussion and add even more insight into Episode 40 of Blackhawks Banter.
Miss last week’s debate? Get caught up, below.