The Chicago Blackhawks started their 2021-22 season on Oct. 13 with a three-game road trip against the Colorado Avalanche, New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins. It ended with a Blackhawks’ record of 0-2-1. It was a terrible, lackadaisical start that I don’t think many were expecting. When a team starts cold, it can be easy to point out who’s hot and who’s not. However, with this team, it isn’t set in stone. They dug themselves into a three-game hole, meaning every player on the roster needs to step up their game. It seems routine for people to point out the big names, like Seth Jones and Marc-Andre Fleury, as players that need to have big seasons. But, there is plenty of other players that need to have an impactful year too. Here are some other candidates that need to make their mark this season.
1. Kirby Dach
Dach was the third overall pick for the Blackhawks in the 2019 NHL Draft. He is an interesting case because he hasn’t played a full NHL season through no fault of his own. His first season was cut short because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, he only played in 18 games last season because he fractured his wrist at the 2021 Junior Ice Hockey Championships before the NHL season began. Because he had to miss a significant amount of time, it has been hard to evaluate his game fully.
Now, Dach is at full strength and this season is slated to be big for him. As a third-overall pick, the expectations for him are enormous. Some of the qualities that spectators want to see are goal-scoring, defense and faceoffs. Faceoffs, especially, because he is a center considered a potential Jonathan Toews replacement in the future. In 85 career NHL games, he has 13 goals, 23 assists, 34 points, is a minus-4 with a faceoff percentage (FO%) of 37.3%.
In three games this season, Dach has two goals and two points. In those games, his FO% is very inconsistent. Against the Avalanche, his FO% was 60%. Against the Devils, his FO% was 30%. Against the Penguins, his FO% was 56%. He needs to improve on goal-scoring and faceoffs.
He started on the right foot with goals in back-to-back games. Hopefully, he can continue to build on that. Faceoffs will be paramount for him going forward because he seems to lose faceoffs at the most desperate times, like the power play, which relies heavily on faceoff wins. However, I have a good feeling about this year being his year. He started the season as a third-line center and worked his way up to first-line center between Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat. That should serve him well.
At 6-foot-4, he is a big-bodied forward with talent for days. The sky is the limit with those traits. The 20-year-old now has 79 more games to prove it. The team really needs him to if they’re going to take the next step forward.
2. Dominik Kubalik
Kubalik has entered his third year with the Blackhawks and this is a big one for him because he is in a contract year. He will be an RFA (Restricted Free Agent) after his two-year, $7.4 million contract expires after this season. He started his career off hot by leading all rookies in scoring with 30 goals, was second on the Blackhawks in scoring, and finished third in the Calder Trophy voting for best rookie in the league. The following season was tough because he was placed up and down the lineup and his ice time was greatly diminished. It’s still a head-scratcher. Because of that, his goal-scoring dipped exponentially, as he went from 30 goals to 17 goals. Although the goals went down, he was still third on the team in scoring. However, with a 13-goal difference, he will surely want to up his game. Like Dach, he also has two goals in two games. One of the two goals came on the power play.
The power play is where he will find success and that is exactly what they need from him. Moreover, he finds himself on the second line alongside Toews and Philipp Kurashev to start the year. Having Toews back is huge for Kubalik. They have great chemistry and that translated into his terrific rookie campaign. That pairing should translate into more five-on-five scoring opportunities for him this season as well. Overall, he will want to make last year a distant memory and play for a bigger contract. If the Blackhawks are to make the playoffs, they’re going to rely heavily on his offense.
3. Dylan Strome
Strome is another interesting case. He had a breakthrough moment in his career when he came to the Blackhawks in a trade with the Arizona Coyotes in 2018. He had 17 goals, 34 assists, 51 points, and was a plus-2 in 58 games. In 2019-20, he had 12 goals, 26 assists, 38 points, and was a plus-1 in 58 games. Chicago rewarded his play with a two-year, $6 million deal in January. Then the wheels fell off. Last year, he had nine goals, eight assists, 17 points, and was a minus-16 in 40 games. Simply put, the Blackhawks are not paying him $6 million for nine goals. He now seems to have played his way out of the lineup.
Strome has been a healthy scratch in all three of the Blackhawks’ games to start the season. With Toews’ return and the emergence of Henrik Borgstrom, MacKenzie Entwistle, and Adam Gaudette in training camp, it looks like he has no future with the team. According to journalist Elliotte Friedman, he stated on his podcast that he is hearing the potential of Strome getting traded. But as of right now, he is still with the Blackhawks.
It is unclear when head coach Jeremy Colliton plans to put Strome back in the lineup, but whenever that happens, he needs to show out. He needs to play well to earn a job with Chicago or elsewhere. He can be a great asset to a team when he is on his game. Unfortunately, that seems to be few and far between. So, this year is huge for him to regain his footing in the NHL.
4. Jake McCabe
It seems like the entire spotlight is currently on defenseman Seth Jones. It’s a fair assessment considering the Blackhawks gave him a mega-contract this offseason. However, some may be forgetting about the other defenseman that the Blackhawks invested largely in; McCabe. He signed a four-year, $16 million deal with the Blackhawks in July. He is a defenseman that isn’t considered to be worrisome. He was highly regarded as a strong, defensive defenseman through his eight-year tenure with the Buffalo Sabers. Because all of the pressure was put on Jones, no one was going out of their way to point McCabe out. Now, they are.
In three games with Chicago, McCabe is a minus-4. In those games, he has had multiple turnovers that resulted in goals for the opposition. He had two bad turnovers against the Avalanche and Devils in back-to-back games that resulted in goals in the first period. $16 million is no small amount for a defenseman and he can’t continue to struggle. He needs to be a strong force on the back end, or the Blackhawks’ defense will continue to trend downward. It was evident in the three losses. Granted, he is on a brand new team and the season just started. He has plenty of time for redemption, but he needs to figure it out quickly.
All the players listed are no slouches. These are good players that have a lot to bring to the table. But because Chicago has been underperforming for almost five seasons, they can’t afford to dilly dally. The team went all-in in the offseason to make a push for the Stanley Cup. They can’t right the ship if the players that are depended on don’t show up. Although this is a make-or-break year for most of the roster, the names aforementioned will surely be worth noting.
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Just a small town girl with Midwestern charm; combined with a love of dogs, writing, frappuccinos, Chicago-isms, sports, and a whole lot of Blackhawks hockey. Twitter: @brooke_lofo.