The Chicago Blackhawks haven’t competed in an actual hockey game since Dec. 18, where they fell to the Dallas Stars 4-3 in overtime. When they suit up against the Nashville Predators on New Year’s Day, it will be a full two weeks between games. We know that the holiday break was extended due to rampant COVID outbreaks throughout the National Hockey League. The Blackhawks were fortunate enough to not be one of the teams hardest hit. But their contests on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week were cancelled, nonetheless. The team regrouped for their first practice after the break on Monday, and they tried to make the most of this idle week to prepare for the weekend’s contests. Here are the latest developments.
COVID Count Now at Two
Some positive news coming out of the break was that defenseman Calvin de Haan was released from COVID protocol on Monday and joined his teammates for practice. Unfortunately, it was then announced goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had entered protocol. The situation remained that way until Friday, when Kevin Lankinen joined his fellow netminder on the COVID list. Considering the trouble so many other teams have been having with players testing positive, just two players is still a positive sign for the Blackhawks. Although it’s unfortunate it’s the two goaltenders.
Collin Delia was correspondingly recalled from the Rockford IceHogs in Fleury’s stead. It appears Arvid Soderblom will back him up in Saturday’s contest against the Nashville Predators (more on this below).
Taxi Squad Returns
On Sunday night, the NHL announced they would reinstate the taxi squad that was utilized last season. As of now, this will be in effect from Dec. 26 through the All-Star break in early February. They have made a few adjustments, however.
The NHL has temporarily reintroduced the Taxi Squad system between today and the All-Star break.— CapFriendly (@CapFriendly) December 26, 2021
Attached are some of the important rules that we have been made aware of so far. pic.twitter.com/TQ4LoycY36
Some of the biggest changes include flexibility in how many players can be assigned, a maximum of 20 days on the taxi squad (to hopefully not hinder player development), and cap-hit implications to provide every team the opportunity to ice a competitive product regardless of their COVID status.
On Monday, the Blackhawks announced that forward Brett Connolly would be their first member of the taxi squad. You may remember that Connolly was suspended four games for his hit to Dallas Stars’ Tanner Kero on Dec. 18. Some pundits, myself included, thought perhaps being on the taxi squad would count towards Connolly’s suspension. But head coach Derek King put those rumors to rest on Tuesday. Connolly must be listed as an active player for any time to come off his suspension.
On Wednesday, the Blackhawks added Rockford IceHog’s goaltender Soderblom to the taxi squad, and on Friday they further added forward Josiah Slavin and defenseman Alec Regula. Finally, as a bit of an insurance policy, the Blackhawks signed AHL goaltender Cale Morris to an NHL contract and then assigned him to the taxi squad. Soderblom was officially promoted to the NHL roster.
Tyler Johnson Practicing
Tuesday brought some excellent news in that forward Tyler Johnson was on the ice skating after practice. Johnson underwent neck surgery on Dec. 3, and his timeline to return was slated at three months.
It’s great to see Johnson back so soon. He skated before practice on Thursday and Friday as well. Although Coach King couldn’t commit to whether the veteran forward would be able to return ahead of schedule.
Penalty Kill Work
The Blackhawks took advantage of their practice time this past week to work especially on the penalty kill. They haven’t had the best of luck in this department of late. In their last 11 games, they’ve given up 13 goals on 33 opponent opportunities on the penalty kill, for just a 39.4% success rate.
Coach King discussed what they are focusing on,
[We’ve talked about] pressuring down the ice — when to go, when not to go. In the neutral zone, what we’re doing, what our responsibilities [are]. And then especially in the D-zone, not getting seamed, not getting up too high. Everybody’s on the same page and running our routes. [It’s the] exact same thing we do with our power play, but you never really work on your PK. Obviously ours has been struggling a little bit, so we needed to work on it.(from ‘Blackhawks refreshing penalty kill after poor December results’, The Chicago Sun-Times -12/30/21)
Not taking so many penalties would certainly be helpful. But penalties happen, and it’s beneficial that the members of the PK unit had some extra time to concentrate on their craft. Hopefully it will lead to some improvement in this area moving forward.
Blackhawks’ Lineup Changes
They practiced with the Blackhawks all week, but on Friday forwards Henrik Borgstrom and Jujhar Khaira were officially activated off injured reserve. Borgstrom has been out with an illness, and Khaira was in concussion protocol from the hit he sustained from the New York Rangers’ Jacob Trouba on Dec. 7.
Here’s a look at the forward lines and defensive pairings from practice.
De Haan-Caleb Jones
So it appears Borgstrom might get a shot centering DeBrincat and Patrick Kane. He’s struggled this season and lined up mostly on the third line, so this seems an unlikely spot for him. But Coach King is partial to Dylan Strome on the wing next to Jonathan Toews. So the top line center position is currently vacant. It will be interesting to see how Borgstrom handles this promotion.
Khaira projects to return to his usual spot, adding grit and physicality to the fourth line. He can actually be utilized throughout the lineup, but I assume the coaching staff wants to ease him in after his concussion.
Lost in the shuffle of the new forwards re-entering the lineup, Erik Gustafsson might be the odd man out on the blue line now that de Haan has returned.
Ready to Play!
All this time off has been a blessing in many ways. The players received some extended time to spend with family over the holidays. Players who were out have joined the team again, and hopefully the COVID impact will remain minimal. The extra practice time was beneficial for all. But you can only practice so much before you’re anxious to get back to it. Defenseman Jake McCabe put it best.
I think it’s fair to say McCabe echoes the sentiment of most of the team. They’re ready to get back to work! All signs point towards a return to play against the Predators on Saturday and the Calgary Flames on Sunday.
Here’s to the Blackhawks getting 2022 started on the right foot!
Gail Kauchak has covered the Chicago Blackhawks as a content writer since 2014. She previously wrote for Fansided’s Blackhawk Up, and has been part of The Hockey Writer’s team since 2017. It’s not always easy to balance life’s responsibility’s with one’s passion, but Gail’s doing her best to make it happen. Let’s put it this way; she’s probably reading and writing about hockey instead of cooking and cleaning. Shh, don’t tell her husband!
Follow Gail for her unique commentary about this storied franchise. And be sure to catch her and the rest of the Blackhawks’ crew on their weekly Blackhawks Banter show, as well as follow her on Twitter.