The Chicago Blackhawks just earned four out of four must-needed points against the Florida Panthers this past week, and are headed into back-to-back tilts with the Nashville Predators over the weekend. Every matchup is important and every point counts if the Blackhawks want to make a push for the playoffs. In this week’s Blackhawks Banter preview post Shaun Filippelli, Brooke LoFurno, Greg Boysen and Gail Kauchak discuss Kirby Dach’s imminent return, the state of defense and the team’s biggest competition for a postseason berth.
There’s been a lot of scuttlebutt lately that Blackhawks’ center Kirby Dach is getting closer and closer to a return to play. He appears to be a full participant in practice, and was spotted after practice on Wednesday working on his draws with faceoff specialist Yanic Perreault. Head coach Jeremy Colliton isn’t giving a specific date, but it’s clear Dach could be returning to the lineup soon. Which begs the question. Where do you think he will slot in when he does return, and who will likely be taken out?
Where Will Dach Slot In?
First of all, how amazing is it that we’re even talking about Dach’s return at all?! I’m extremely excited to see him back in this lineup, and look forward to what that means for the team as they close out their 2020-21 season.
As far as where I see him slotting in, it’s hard to assume anything other than a top-six role for Dach. He needs to be playing alongside the most prolific on this roster, to help support getting them the puck while also benefitting from the same synergies in his own regard.
With that said, I think it’s fair to assume Colliton might ease him in with a lesser workload to start. As such, and given the versatility they are illustrating throughout this lineup, I could see someone like Matthew Highmore being the odd man out and it creating a shuffle of who slots where to get Dach back in as soon as he’s ready.
My first thought is that Dach will replace David Kampf. Because Kampf is now being used on the second line, I think it makes the most sense for Dach to slot in there since he will most likely end up there anyways. Furthermore, I think it will help create the most depth throughout the lineup.
Dach should go right in between Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat, the new nuclear option. I still think he is a couple of weeks away, at the very least. The Blackhawks have had issues at five-on-five as we’ve discussed many times, so get your best three players together. They will still be in the thick of the playoff race and will need all the offense they can get.
As far as who comes out, that’s hard to predict. Dach likely won’t be back until after or right before the April 12 trade deadline, so roster spots could be opened up. If guys like Mattias Janmark and/or Carl Soderberg are flipped for picks, then Kirby can slide right in.
I’m a bit surprised the Blackhawks eased Dylan Strome back into the lineup by putting him on the third line, and the wing to boot. Strome is still in the bottom-six mix, because Colliton likes his combinations on the top two lines. But I don’t see them doing that with Dach.
It sounds like the Blackhawks are taking a very conservative approach with his timeline. Meaning when Dach returns, he’ll be 100% ready. So we won’t have to wait to see Dach centering DeBrincat and Kane. Colliton will probably limit his minutes at first, and shelter him with mostly offensive draws, but other than that he might as well get right into the action. After all, there’s no time to spare to get him and the team ready for some playoff action.
This will free up Pius Suter to be more of a play-making center in between Dominik Kubalik and Brandon Hagel (watch out for that!), and Soderberg and Kampf can then man the bottom two lines. Ryan Carpenter will move back to the wing, and unfortunately for them, Highmore and Lucas Wallmark will see even less time in the lineup.
Moving on, a question was submitted by one of our readers that I thought we could all address. It’s short and sweet and honest, but also something all Blackhawks’ fans are questioning, and have been questioning for quite some time.
“Defense! What are the Blackhawks going to do about defense?!”
It’s true the Blackhawks currently rank sixth in the league in goals given up, and fifth in the league in high danger chances allowed. What are your thoughts on the state of the Blackhawks defense?
State of the Defense
I have to admit I’m just not that concerned when it comes to Chicago’s blue line. Now, that’s not to say I don’t think there are improvements they need to make. It’s simply that I’m fairly realistic about what’s going on at the moment while letting myself feel optimistically enthusiastic about what’s to come.
I continue to remind myself that this wasn’t supposed to be a year surrounded by achievements for the Blackhawks. So, therefore, as long as they are focusing on progress and development then any level of success they happen to find is a bonus. This was also to be a season that allowed their youth to lead. As such, it only makes sense that rookie mistakes are being made as their inexperience learns along the way.
It’s even more exciting to see players like Ian Mitchell, Nicolas Beaudin, and Wyatt Kalynuk break into this lineup, while a 20-year-old Adam Boqvist is starting to show us what we’ve been looking forward to seeing in his game. Their defense is going to be just fine, for years to come.
The defense still concerns me. They are allowing a ton of shots during games and are out of position most of the time. They seem like they’re more of a cohesive unit than last year, but I think it still leaves a lot to be desired. I think it’s an area that still needs an upgrade.
Frankly, I’m more concerned about the offense that the defense right now. As a whole, the defensive corps has a promising future with the likes of Boqvist, Beaudin, Mitchell and Kalynuk. I think the team defense problems still go back to Colliton’s scheme.
The man-on-man system has morphed into a strange marriage of that and a zone structure. It still leads to players out of position, the slot left uncovered and three players below the goal line, but it’s a bit of an improvement over the straight man-on-man.
Both systems allow a ton of shots on goal, but as long as the majority of them are from the outside you can live with that. However, as mentioned above, the Blackhawks have given up the fifth-most high danger scoring chances in the league. That has to improve.
Let’s be clear; the Blackhawks are headed in the right direction with their future on defense. Unfortunately, it doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s taken time for players to embrace Colliton’s system, and then to gel together as a group.
As a grizzled veteran who’s played a different system his entire career, Duncan Keith has arguably had the hardest time adjusting. That and the fact that he’s no spring chicken anymore. But he still plays heavy minutes and takes on some of the toughest assignments. Connor Murphy and Calvin de Haan have developed into very serviceable defensemen. Their contributions should be commended, and hopefully the Blackhawks can keep them both around.
Then there’s a deep pool of NHL newbies and prospects. The talented Boqvist is gaining more confidence every day. Mitchell is as good as advertised and learning on the fly. Beaudin exceeded expectations in his games played earlier in the season. Kalynuk looks promising and Lucas Carlsson is another steady and solid option.
The long and the short of it is that what has been a weakness in the past now looks to be an asset moving forward. It’s just a matter of putting all the pieces together.
The Blackhawks (37 points) are currently in fourth place in the Discover Central Division. But they are neck and neck for this final playoff spot with the Columbus Blue Jackets (34 pts.), the Nashville Predators (33 pts.), and the Dallas Stars (30 pts., but four games in hand). Unless one of these teams really pulls ahead, it could be a fight to the finish to see who makes the postseason.
With that in mind, who do you believe is the Blackhawks’ biggest competition in their playoff race?
Blackhawks Biggest Competitor in the Playoff Race
While the Stars certainly had an interesting start to their season and aren’t earning the type of success you’d expect the reigning conference champion could, the reality is that there is still so much hockey left to play. With four games in hand on Chicago and with the types of injuries that are getting in their way, it’s tough to not look to Dallas as having the biggest upswing potential of the division.
I still think their biggest competition is the Blue Jackets. Although they have been a mess, they have the most depth to compete for that last spot. They’re also continuing to get points through overtimes. They’re definitely a team worth monitoring.
The Blue Jackets and Predators have both been playing very well of late. We will get a good look at the Preds this weekend in two huge games. Honestly, the Blackhawks should be concerned about all three teams, so they need to focus on handling their business by trying to get at least one point each night.
If I had to pick a team that could go on a serious run, it would be the Stars after they get Tyler Seguin and Ben Bishop back.
I wouldn’t count any of these teams out, although I’m more inclined to worry about the Blue Jackets and the Stars than the Predators. But the Preds meet the Blackhawks six more times, so a lot still hinges on these direct matchups.
For some reason I have a sneaking suspicion it will come down to Columbus and Chicago for that final spot, but I certainly wouldn’t count out Dallas. And of course there’s always the possibility the Blackhawks won’t be in the running at all. One thing is for certain; the Hawks’ final two regular season games against the Stars look to be nail biters.
What do you think Blackhawks fans?!
Where will Dach slot in? Are you happy with the way the defense is headed? And who do you think it will boil down to for that final playoff spot? We’d love to hear your comments. And let us know if you have a question for our crew. We’d be happy to address it in writing, or on our next Blackhawks Banter show. You can find us at the The Hockey Writers YouTube Channel or our Facebook Page. Our latest episode is featured below.
Avid Chicago Blackhawks fan and follower! Would much rather be reading and writing about hockey than cooking and cleaning. Otherwise known as The Hockey Housewife.