It’s finally September! Which means it’s time for the 2019 Prospects’ Tournament, training camp, and preseason games for the Chicago Blackhawks. The dog days of summer are finally over and hockey is on the horizon. In that spirit, The Hockey Writers’ contributors Meghan Dillon, Greg Boysen, and Gail Kauchak take a closer look at the upcoming 2019-20 season and what may transpire. Who will step up this season? How will the forward lines play out? What will be the defensive pairings? So many questions!
Things will become more clear in the coming weeks as the Blackhawks prepare for their season. But until then, let’s have some fun and friendly discussion about our favorite team.
It appears the Blackhawks added some depth down the middle over the summer by signing center Ryan Carpenter from the Vegas Golden Knights and acquiring Zack Smith from the Ottawa Senators. But let’s not forget they also said goodbye to Artem Anisimov and Marcus Kruger, who both held centering responsibilities in the past. Whether the Blackhawks will be stronger at this position moving forward remains to be seen. With that in mind, who do you believe will become the primary four centers for the team in 2019-20?
Blackhawks’ Top 4 Centers
History will likely repeat itself with Jonathan Toews as the top center this season. Dylan Strome had a strong last season and will likely be in the mix as well. Both have proven to be strong centers and have solid chemistry with different wingers.
After the loss of Kruger and Anisimov, the last two spots are largely up for grabs. Carpenter and Smith will likely fill those spots, but it’s all about which wingers they have chemistry with at training camp. Talent at the position and chemistry with other players are both important aspects. We’ll all know more after training camp.
The Blackhawks will be much deeper down the middle this year than they have been in quite some time. The top two lines are set with Toews and Strome, but then head coach Jeremy Colliton has plenty of options. Mentioned above are Carpenter and Smith, both of whom are very good at winning a draw. They also can line up on the wing as well.
Then there’s Kampf, who played well center last season. Guys like Drake Caggiula and Andrew Shaw are options at both center and the wing. If Kirby Dach makes the team out of camp, Colliton will have yet another weapon in the middle.
With all this being said, I don’t think the Blackhawks will have four “primary” centers. They’ll have Toews and Strome up top and then multiple guys that can be depended on to play the bottom six. The ‘Hawks will have a very versatile lineup this fall which could be a useful weapon for them.
It’s a given Toews is still the No. 1 center on this team. His two-way play and career 56.9% in faceoff wins will likely go unchallenged for at least a few more years (ahem, looking at you Dach). Strome isn’t the strongest No. 2 center with a 46.9% in faceoff wins, and only a 47.7 Corsi percentage (Toews’ is 55.7%). But what he does have going for him is phenomenal chemistry with Alex DeBrincat on his left wing. What the two can create offensively on the ice makes up for what they give up defensively. Look for Strome to center the second line, and for Colliton to find someone who is stronger defensively on the right wing.
So, the first two were pretty easy. It’s the bottom two center positions that are still very much up in the air. Carpenter and Smith are the two newest candidates for the job(s). And Kampf centered mostly the fourth line for the Blackhawks last season. Here’s a breakdown of all three players’ career faceoff percentages, Corsi percentages, defensive zone starts, and total points from just the last season.
|Center Options||FO %||CF%||D-Zone Start%||Points Last Season|
Based upon these numbers, Smith is the top candidate for the third line center position. He edges out the other two in faceoff wins as well as having a much larger sample size. Smith took 820 faceoffs last season compared to Kampf’s 609 and Carpenter’s 306. Yes, his possession numbers are the lowest, but he also managed 28 points all while starting 54.8% of his shifts in the defensive zone. And let’s not forget he played on a pretty bad team. On a more offensively-minded third line, Smith seems like a better option than the other two.
I personally see Carpenter playing on the wing and filling in with faceoff duties as needed. Kampf makes a strong argument as a solid fourth line center. It appears from last season Colliton is grooming him for the job of taking most of his faceoffs in the defensive zone and flipping the ice for the top line to take over offensively. His career defensive zone starts might be 59.4%, but last season they were a whopping 63.6%!
All this being said, remember it’s all about chemistry and there’s always two other members on each line. Who knows, Strome could slump and one of these three could challenge for second line center! We can project all we want, but the game must be played to determine the best fit.
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Now that we’ve discussed the center position, let’s move on to a winger whose been one of the more pleasant and surprising success stories for the Blackhawks and the NHL as a whole. Alex DeBrincat has taken the league by storm in his first two seasons, scoring more goals (28) in the 2017-18 season than superstar Patrick Kane (27), and finishing third on the team in points (76) in the 2018-19 season. Not to mention DeBrincat’s 41 goals were part of a six-way league tie for sixth place last season.
The Blackhawks took a chance on the 5-foot-7 DeBrincat when they selected him 39th overall in the 2016 NHL Draft. So far their gamble has more than paid off. But can he keep it up? Will DeBrincat surpass his impressive numbers this season, or will he hit a slump?
Expectations for DeBrincat
I don’t think anyone has as much pressure to do well this season than DeBrincat. He’s proven to have a reliable track record and tends to improve with time. The only way for him to live up to expectations is to have the best season of his career.
It’s a lot of pressure, but he seems to be up for the challenge. He’s young and has a lot of time to improve. If he continues on his current track, he will likely be on the same level as Kane and Toews in a few years. If he doesn’t live up to expectations, his chances of a hefty contract renewal next season will certainly decrease.
People have been doubting DeBrincat long before he was even drafted by the Blackhawks. There were plenty who felt he needed time with the Rockford IceHogs to start the 2017-18 season, and he quickly quieted them down. He thumbed his nose at those who felt he’d have a sophomore slump during his second season.
At this point DeBrincat has made a career out of proving people wrong, so there’s no reason to think his production will take a major dip. Will he have another 40-goal season? I’m not saying he will, but he sure can. I learned to stop doubting this kid a long time ago.
DeBrincat tallied 41 goals and 35 assists for 76 points last season. As a comparison, in Kane’s 12-year career he’s surpassed 40 goals only twice and earned 76 or more points five times. And we all know the caliber of player Kane is. Logic would tell us it will be very difficult for DeBrincat to surpass his 2018-19 numbers this coming season.
DeBrincat will have best friend Strome to help him work his magic. He could potentially find himself on the first line with Toews. He’ll likely be on the top power play unit again, with Kane feeding him pucks on a regular basis. He’s been training hard the past two summers in Chicago instead of going home. Not to mention scoring has been on an upswing of late for the league in general.
My point is I wouldn’t bet against him. And I’m sure we’ll all be rooting for him.
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Finally, let’s discuss the ongoing problem child for the Blackhawks, their blue line. Offseason additions have been made, so the hope is the defense won’t be such a weak link moving forward. While nothing is a given, it’s expected some combination of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Erik Gustafsson, Connor Murphy, and newcomers Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan will make up the top-six defensemen.
But Slater Koekkoek and Carl Dahlstrom are also signed on for the season. The Blackhawks’ 2018 first round draft picks Adam Boqvist and Nicolas Beaudin could potentially push for a spot. And don’t forget there’s some players from the IceHogs that might be ready for the next step in their development. The Blackhawks also recently acquired Philip Holm from Sweden. So the question remains, who do you think will earn the seventh and eighth defensive spots for the Blackhawks to start the season?
Blackhawks’ Final 2 Defensive Spots
That’s a tough question. I think Keith, Seabrook, Gustafsson, and Murphy are the only ones almost guaranteed a spot, and Maatta and de Haan have strong chances to make the top-six defensemen. At this point I say it so often I know it sounds like a broken record, but chemistry is key. Chemistry is just as important as being a skilled defenseman.
Koekkoek, Dahlstrom, Boqvist, Beaudin, and other prospects from Rockford all have chances to make the roster, but it’s truly going to come down to who proves to have the strongest connections at training camp.
I’m not sure the Blackhawks carry eight defensemen this season. It will hinder a guy like Dahlstrom or Holm to watch from the press box the majority of the time rather than playing every night in Rockford. The key player to watch will be Boqvist. If he makes the team out of camp it will really push guys further down the depth chart. However, I expect Boqvist and Beaudin to play for the IceHogs. That’s why Maatta and de Haan were brought in; to buy the top prospects more time to develop.
If I had to guess the opening night roster, the defense will have Keith, Seabrook, Murphy, Gustafsson, Maatta, de Haan and Holm on it. If the Blackhawks decide to go with eight defensemen, I would give Koekkoek the edge over Dahlstrom, even though the latter is the better defender.
De Haan is recovering from shoulder surgery and might not be available to start the season. This means there could be more opportunity for one of the fringe guys to prove himself. Look for players such as Boqvist, Beaudin, Holm, and maybe even Chad Krys to really push the envelope during training camp. It should make for some healthy competition, and Koekkoek and Dahlstrom certainly won’t be able to rest on their laurels.
But de Haan reports his recovery is going well, so if someone does fill in it will only be temporary. Look for Holm and the youngsters to report to Rockford. Koekkoek and Dahlstrom were serviceable last season, and barring anything unforeseen they will be the seventh and eighth defensemen.
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We don’t have much longer to wait until Oct. 4 when the Blackhawks take on the Philadelphia Flyers for their first game of the season in Prague. Until then, we can only speculate about how the team will look on opening day. Stay tuned for our coverage of training camp and preseason games. Never a dull moment!
Is it October yet?!
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.