5 Blackhawks’ Focal Points for Remainder of Season

The Chicago Blackhawks headed into the All-Star break having lost seven of their last eight games. Things aren’t exactly looking very good on the ice right now. Then, Blackhawks’ Chairman Rocky Wirtz’s outburst at the recent town hall meeting left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Things aren’t looking very good off the ice right now either. Let’s face it; it’s not exactly sunshine and roses in Chicago these days.

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But the break gives everyone a chance to reset and have a fresh start to the remainder of the season. Hopefully the players can drown out the outside noise and focus on finishing out this campaign on a high note. Work on developing for the future. With 36 games remaining, here are five things the Blackhawks should focus on.  

1. Determine Depth at Center

Jonathan Toews is currently in concussion protocol with no timeline for his return. We all hope Toews’ concussion isn’t serious and he can get back on the ice soon. But this is also the perfect opportunity to see who else could step up in his absence. After all, Toews didn’t play at all last season due to health issues. His future is uncertain. The organization shouldn’t be counting on Toews as their No. 1 center anymore.

Jonathan Toews Chicago Blackhawks
Due to past and recent health issues, Jonathan Toews’ future with the Chicago Blackhawks is unclear. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Dylan Strome has recently been given the opportunity as a top line center, and he’s responded well. In the last 11 games he’s contributed four goals, seven assists and over a 60% success rate in the faceoff circle. He’s showing that when put with elite players, he can make a difference and drive play.

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Strome has been the subject of trade rumors for some time now, but I make an argument the Blackhawks should keep him in the fold. The return in a trade for him would be minimal. Let’s see if Strome can keep up his resurgent play for the rest of the season, and we can pencil him in as a center for the Blackhawks in the future.

Related – 3 Reasons the Blackhawks Should Keep Dylan Strome

Kirby Dach was drafted third overall in 2019 with the hope he would be the heir to Toews. So far, he hasn’t lived up to that expectation. His biggest weaknesses are his lack for finishing plays, and his struggles winning faceoffs. But there are a lot of great aspects to his game, and he’s still just 21 years old. The Blackhawks should be doing everything they can to build his confidence and further his development.  

Kirby Dach Chicago Blackhawks
Third overall draft pick Kirby Dach is a work in progress for Chicago Blackhawks. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Currently a top prospect for the Blackhawks, Lukas Reichel has an extremely high ceiling. He was drafted as a winger, but has shown with the Rockford IceHogs and in two games with the Blackhawks that he could also thrive in the center position. But he also might be better served on the wing, especially at the beginning of his NHL career.  

With that in mind, it would behoove the Blackhawks to be looking at who else might be a viable option at center. You can never have too much depth in this position. Philipp Kurashev played some time at center in his rookie campaign last season. Perhaps the Blackhawks will try him there again. Henrik Borgstrom has played center up and down the lineup, but with limited success. Other possibilities down the middle include MacKenzie Entwistle, Sam Lafferty, Jujhar Khaira and Ryan Carpenter.

The Blackhawks should be evaluating all these players to determine who could fill out their center depth for next season and beyond.

2. Develop Defensive Prospects

In a recent article, I argued Seth Jones and Connor Murphy are two defensemen the Blackhawks will build around. Jake McCabe, Riley Stillman and Caleb Jones have struggled on and off this season, but they all could be serviceable on the back end moving forward. The organization will need to determine who will stay and who will go.

Seth Jones, Chicago Blackhawks
Seth Jones is a defenseman the Chicago Blackhawks should build around. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Erik Gustafsson was signed as a stopgap because of injuries earlier in the season, but I certainly don’t see him being a long-term solution. Beyond that, veteran Calvin de Haan is a prime candidate to be traded to a contending team at the upcoming Mar. 21 trade deadline. If that happens, the Blackhawks will have quite the hole to fill.

But the organization also has numerous prospects on the cusp of being NHL-ready. Wyatt Kalynuk is currently on the Blackhawks’ roster and has suited up for five contests this season. Last season he played in 21 games and recorded four goals and nine points. Jakub Galvas had an impressive three-game stint in January. Ian Mitchell has participated in eight games, and Nicolas Beaudin in two games. Both got a taste of the NHL last season with 39 and 19 contests, respectively.

Wyatt Kalynuk Chicago Blackhawks
Wyatt Kalynuk is just one of many defensive prospects the Chicago Blackhawks will be evaluating for the future. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

My colleague Greg Boysen, who covers the IceHogs, makes a case to be patient with these prospects. Heavy minutes in Rockford and a potential playoff run are more beneficial than limited minutes with the Blackhawks. I agree with this assessment, but I also like the way the organization is sprinkling them in here and there to give them a taste of the NHL. I’d like to see them continue to do this as the rest of the season unfolds.  

3. Groom the Goalies

The Blackhawks have been riding veteran goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury a lot this season. After all, he is one of the best at his craft and a future Hall-of-Famer. He arguably gives the team the best chance to win every night. But they are out of playoff contention now. It’s not as much about winning as it is developing for the future. Fleury likely won’t be with the team next season. As the Blackhawks biggest trading chip, he probably won’t even be with the team for the remainder of the season.

So why aren’t the Blackhawks seeing what they have in their other goaltenders? Kevin Lankinen has only gotten the nod in net for 13 of the Blackhawks’ 46 games so far this season. He’s currently out with a hand injury, but he’s expected to be facing shots again around February 15. Give him more starts to find his groove as the season winds down. He’s certainly not developing just sitting on the bench.

Collin Delia is Fleury’s back up right now. I personally don’t think Delia is part of the Blackhawks’ future. Arvid Soderblom likely is, which is why the Swedish netminder is being given most of the starts in Rockford. This is as it should be, especially if the IceHogs are headed to the playoffs. But Soderblom impressed many with his calm and poised play in relief of Delia against the Nashville Predators in early January, and then the following night when he faced the Calgary Flames. If the stars align to give Soderblom a few more starts with the Blackhawks at the end of the season, I sure would like to see it.

4. Improve the Power Play

Let’s face it, when a team has an effective power play this is a huge benefit towards their success. The Blackhawks have been hot and cold in this department all season, not being able to develop any sort of consistency. They are currently rank 19th in the league on the power play, right in the middle of the pack. I’d like to see them focus on improving this and making it more of a strength.

The current power play units are as follows:

PP1: Hagel, Strome, Kane, DeBrincat, S. Jones

PP2: Dach, Borgstrom, Kurashev, Kubalik, Gustafsson

The first unit is pretty strong, and I don’t see the Blackhawks changing much there. This group should work on their cycling and movement of the puck to create chances. But some experimenting might not be out of the question. When Toews comes back, would he be best utilized on the first or second unit? And perhaps interchanging Dach and Dominik Kubalik on the first unit might be something to look at again, as the Blackhawks have done in the past.

Dominik Kubalik, Chicago Blackhawks
Dominik Kubalik is a player that could be used on either the first or second power play unit for the Chicago Blackhawks. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The second unit is where most of the work can be done. How can the Blackhawks make this group more of a threat, to take some of the pressure off the top unit? I mentioned above I don’t see Gustafsson as part of the Blackhawks future. So, let Caleb Jones quarterback that second unit. Or Kalynuk or Galvas if they happen to be called up.

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It also might not be a bad idea to try some new faces on the man advantage. Perhaps someone like Sam Lafferty or MacKenzie Entwistle might give that second unit a bit of a spark. In other words, this is the time to throw some things at the wall and see what sticks.

5. Score More Goals

I understand that the team defense needs work and is extremely important. Defense wins championships, after all. But the Blackhawks aren’t winning any championships any time soon. They have been struggling to score goals all season, in spite of a number of players that individually are pretty good at finding the back of the net.

So instead of this low-event hockey we’ve been seeing of late, let the team open up and play a little bit more of a run-and-gun game. Let the goal-scorers go for it, even if it means sacrificing defense the other way. Goals tend to come in bunches, and it would certainly build confidence for the team. They would have that feeling of hockey being fun again, and hopefully start building some momentum. After that is accomplished, they could slowly tighten it up again. It could work or it could backfire, but it’s worth a shot (pun intended).

The above are five things the Blackhawks can focus on for the remainder of the season. They are out of playoff contention, but they can still salvage their season with the right attitude and mindset. This is the time to experiment, grow and develop towards the future. If we see them focusing on improvement, the last 36 games will not be in vain.