The Chicago Blackhawks are the definition of a “question mark.” Going through a rebuild typically brings a lot of uncertainty, but next season will be on a different level, as they changed almost every facet of the team over the offseason. They have a brand new coaching staff with head coach Luke Richardson, a new goalie tandem, and new forwards. Moreover, they added some reinforcements on defense and, hey, they even changed their broadcast booth, replacing Pat Foley and Eddie Olczyk with Chris Vosters, Troy Murray, and Patrick Sharp. With so many changes, the questions are boundless. But for the 2022-23 season, I believe three questions stand out more than others.
Will the Blackhawks’ Defense Improve?
The word “improvement” regarding the Blackhawks’ defense seems rhetorical because they have been in the bottom 10 of the NHL for the last five years. So, naturally, the fans’ viewpoint of it has lately been a pessimistic, “No, they will not get better” stance. Granted, they were seventh-worst in the NHL in defense, allowing 3.52 goals per game last season, so that response is understandable. The primary core consisted of Seth Jones, Connor Murphy, Jake McCabe, Calvin de Haan, Erik Gustafsson, and Riley Stillman, and all the Blackhawks did to it this offseason was let de Haan and Gustafsson leave in free agency while signing free agent Jack Johnson from the Colorado Avalanche. In addition, they re-signed Caleb Jones to a one-year deal. Technically, you could argue that it will be similar to last season because most of the main characters stayed, but the bottom line is that they must improve.
Chicago has over $17 million tied into three defensemen. Seth Jones is the third-highest paid defenseman in the league with a cap hit of $9.5 million, and Murphy and McCabe have over $4 million cap hits. With the amount of money spent, the defense is expected to perform whether or not the team is successful.
Last season, Jones was minus-37, which was second-worst in the NHL. In addition, no defenseman on the team was a plus on the plus/minus scale. They had a minus-76 goal differential, which was fifth-worst in the NHL, meaning they were on the ice for more goals against than goals scored. The positives are that McCabe, Jones, and Murphy were top-20 in the league in blocked shots: McCabe (seventh-best, 167 blocks), Jones (12th-best, 155 blocks), and Murphy (16th-best, 150 blocks).
The other good thing is that last season was a career worst for most of the defense, meaning it can’t be worse next season. Surely, there won’t be a repeat of not having a defenseman score a power-play goal all season, something that hasn’t been done since the Buffalo Sabres’ inaugural season in 1970-71, and the plus/minus can’t be more abysmal.
Coach Richardson is also implementing a zone defense instead of a man-on-man defense to help the blue line. These defensemen are good in their own right, but they have had tough showings thus far. Furthermore, Stillman and Caleb Jones could take the next step in their development next season, which would greatly help the veterans. The Blackhawks also announced on Sept. 13 that McCabe underwent cervical spine surgery and will miss 10-12 weeks. This means that prospects Alex Vlasic, Alec Regula, Nicolas Beaudin, or Ian Mitchell could take his place in the meantime. Could they be a solution, and will the defense improve with the zone coverage strategy?
Where Will the Blackhawks’ Offense Come From?
It’s no secret the Blackhawks lost most of their top goalscorers this offseason: Alex DeBrincat (41 goals, team best), Dylan Strome (22 goals, third-best), Brandon Hagel (21 goals, fourth-best), and Dominik Kubalik (15 goals, fifth-best). Yet, even with those players, the offense wasn’t a strength for the team. They were fifth-worst in the NHL, averaging 2.60 goals goals per game last year. Now, it’s increasingly hard to tell where the goals will come from. The Blackhawks signed Max Domi and Andreas Athanasiou as free agents who could fill the void, but it’s not without caution. Domi has 20 goals combined in the last two seasons, and Athanasiou hasn’t gotten over 11 goals since 2018-19.
Patrick Kane will likely be the team’s leading scorer, as he is usually guaranteed to reach over 20 goals a season, and he only had less than 20 goals once in his 15-year career when he had 15 goals in 2020-21. Jonathan Toews could have a resurgence from his 12-goal season last year and return to his 29-goal-per-season average, even though that number seems like a bit of a stretch. If prospect Lukas Reichel starts the season with the Blackhawks, he could be a factor as he had 21 goals with the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League (AHL) last season. Domi, Athanasiou, and Reichel have great potential, but it’s unclear how their games will translate in Chicago. In addition, some dark horses could step up, including Tyler Johnson and Taylor Raddysh. But who will ultimately lead the team in goals alongside Kane and Toews?
How Will the Blackhawks’ Goaltending Hold Up?
The Blackhawks’ goaltending has changed drastically within the last two seasons. Corey Crawford was the starter from late 2011 to 2020, and his replacements since then have been Kevin Lankinen, Malcolm Subban, Collin Delia, and Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury and Lankinen were the mainstays in net last season, so when Fleury was ultimately traded to the Minnesota Wild in March, it was assumed that Lankinen would be re-signed as the team’s starter this summer. However, he ultimately decided to sign a one-year deal with the Nashville Predators. Therefore, the Blackhawks had to go in a different direction, and they traded for Toronto Maple Leafs’ goalie Petr Mrazek and signed San Jose Sharks goalie Alex Stalock to a one-year deal.
Mrazek has spent his career with the Philadelphia Flyers, Detroit Red Wings, and Carolina Hurricanes but signed a three-year, $11.4 million contract with the Maple Leafs in July 2021. He had a terrible year in Toronto last season, as he was plagued with injuries that contributed to his 18-12-6 record with a 3.34 goals-against average (GAA) and a .888 save percentage (SV%) which was a career worst for him. However, the 30-year-old is two years removed from a career-best season with the Carolina Hurricanes, where he went 12-6-2 with a 2.06 GAA and a .923 SV%. Mrazek stated he is healthy now and looking forward to playing as many games as possible with the Blackhawks next season as a starter, so he could potentially bounce back.
When it comes to Stalock, he has played his 10-year career with the Sharks, Wild, Edmonton Oilers, and back to San Jose last season. The 35-year-old veteran was expected to miss the entire 2021-22 season after being diagnosed with myocarditis — a heart condition that was caused by his bout with COVID-19. Amazingly, he played in one game last season for the Sharks, where he posted a 7.81 GAA and a .786 SV% against the Predators on March 5. Before his setback, his stats were the epitome of consistency, with his SV% being .908 in San Jose (six years) and Minnesota (four years), which is what one wants to see in a backup goaltender. He could be a reliable piece for the team.
It’s hard to think Mrazek and Stalock will have “success” in the win-loss column with the club missing so much depth, but both are looking for redemption seasons and could do just enough to keep the Hawks in games. There is always a chance their struggles will continue into next season, but the Blackhawks’ goaltending coach Jimmy Waite is something to keep note of. He has been with the team since 2014 and has had a tremendous influence on the goalies in the organization, to the point where goaltending has never been its most glaring issue over the years. Can Waite get the best out of Mrazek and Stalock and help them succeed this season?
The Blackhawks’ questions are intricate and may not be fully answered until the end of the season. Every position is full of concerns, which makes this team different from previous ones. Could any of these aspects end up being a strength for the team? Time will tell.