Blackhawks Surprising Early Success Will be Hard to Maintain

The Chicago Blackhawks haven’t looked like a “tanking” team seven games into the 2022-23 regular season. While it’s still early, a 4-3-0 start has been nothing short of a surprise for Chicago.

From head coach Luke Richardson’s presence to an impressive penalty kill, there have been many reasons behind the Blackhawks’ solid start. That said, it would be a pleasant surprise to see the team maintain this momentum. As competitive as they have looked, the roster is still far from complete.

Just how long Chicago sustains this success remains to be seen, but fans should enjoy it while it lasts. Here are a few reasons why regression could come for the Blackhawks, along with some positives that could continue long-term.

Stalock Might Not be the Answer

With Petr Mrázek out, Alex Stalock has been one of the Blackhawks’ top feel-good stories. The 35-year-old goalie played in just one game with the San Jose Sharks last season and sat out all of 2020-21 due to myocarditis from COVID-19 complications. For someone who hasn’t seen much NHL action over the past few seasons, he has looked eager to succeed, with a respectable .913 save percentage (SV%) through five games.

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For as good as Stalock’s looked early on, however, it’s hard to see him keeping it up long-term. He’s years removed from his career season, in which he posted a 1.87 goals-against average (GAA) with the Sharks in 2013-14. There have been many times when he’s looked a little out of place, too, especially in Thursday’s (Oct. 27) 6-5 loss to the Edmonton Oilers, where he stopped 32 of 38 shots.

By no means do I think Stalock’s incapable of holding down the fort, but Thursday’s loss might be a better indicator of his abilities compared to his wins against the Seattle Kraken (Oct. 23) and the Florida Panthers (Oct. 25). For someone who’s dealt with so much pressure these past few seasons, you can’t ask much more from the veteran goaltender, but it’s hard to see him continuing to have a major impact in net moving forward.

Johnson’s Recent Injury

Recording six points (two goals, four assists) through Chicago’s first six games, the Blackhawks received a blow on Wednesday when Tyler Johnson was placed on injured reserve due to a right ankle injury. After an injury-plagued 2021-22 campaign, much like Stalock, he was a feel-good story for Chicago, scoring at a point-per-game pace.

Tyler Johnson, Chicago Blackhawks
Tyler Johnson, Chicago Blackhawks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Johnson’s versatility has certainly benefited the club as well as his experience. Not set to become an unrestricted free agent (UFA) until 2024, he could serve as a great mentor for some of the Blackhawks’ younger players should the team keep him past deadline day.

Unfortunately, for Chicago, the timing of Johnson’s injury couldn’t have been worse. He should remain a useful, middle-six forward whenever he returns, but it’d be shocking to see him replicate the performance he had with the Tampa Bay Lightning during the mid-2010s. Since recording a career-high 72 points in 2014-15, he’s hit the 50-point plateau just once. It would be surprising to see him do it again with the Blackhawks, who remain far from a true contender.

Dickinson’s Offense Could Come Down to Earth

One of the newest Blackhawks, Jason Dickinson has been a welcome addition, even with a small sample size of five points (two goals, three assists) through five games. A useful bottom-six role player, he’s gelled well on the third line with Philipp Kurashev and Sam Lafferty and has been a good penalty-killing specialist.

Granted, Dickinson recorded three of his five points during his season debut, a 5-2 win against the Sharks on Oct. 15. He’s looked effective since, but his stats still make him a point-per-game player. Dickinson certainly isn’t that, with a career-high of 22 points, even though a bounce-back season could be in store for him.

Don’t get me wrong: Dickinson’s a useful player. Like Lafferty, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him move up and down the lineup, and he has a decent two-way game. The Blackhawks have a place for him, and it’s possible he becomes one of general manager (GM) Kyle Davidson’s most under-the-radar pickups thus far, similar to when he acquired Lafferty last season. It’s just very tough to see him sustaining this level of production moving forward.

Kurashev & Domi Capable of Sustaining Success

It’s easy to see why the Blackhawks could regress. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t players who can build off their encouraging starts and exceed expectations. Two of those names are Philipp Kurashev and Max Domi.

It’s crazy to think about it, but Kurashev is the fourth-longest tenured Blackhawk behind Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Connor Murphy. The 23-year-old forward had a decent rookie campaign with Chicago in 2020-21 but couldn’t find a regular spot in the lineup last season. However, he’s developed some nice chemistry with Lafferty and Dickinson, having recorded four points (two goals, two assists).

Philipp Kurashev, Chicago Blackhawks
Philipp Kurashev, Chicago Blackhawks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Through these first few weeks, Kurashev’s played some of the best hockey of his NHL career. He’s far from a complete product, but he’s shown he can do a bit of everything. While he might not be the biggest player, he brings tremendous skill. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him get top-six minutes later in the season, especially if the Blackhawks move on from some of their veterans closer to deadline day.

Domi, on the other hand, has been fun to watch this season, and he’s looking like a great bargain signing. He also effectively fits Richardson’s structure, and it’s worth noting he played under him during his Montreal Canadiens tenure.

It’s possible regression comes for both Kurashev and Domi. Having said that, I think both are capable of 40- and 50-point campaigns, respectively, which would be encouraging. Both faced their own challenges last year but have thrived so far this season.

Toews Looking Hungry Despite Possible Farewell

Like Kurashev and Domi, Jonathan Toews has also been a major reason for Chicago’s success. For someone who’s expressed a bit of concern with the Blackhawks’ direction, he sure seems to have bought into this season’s team. It’s admirable to see him fully healthy, and he’s looking the best he has in years.

Related: 3 Reasons Why the Blackhawks Could Keep Kane & Toews

Now, it’s not as if Toews has fully resembled his best self from Chicago’s dynasty days of the early-to-mid-2010s. Despite his leadership, his play hasn’t been mistake-free, most notably making a turnover during the final minute of Thursday’s loss to Edmonton which led to the game-winning goal from Leon Draisaitl.

With a revamped culture under Richardson, it’s tough to see Toews wanting to waive his no-movement clause (NMC) and request a trade, at least not right now. That could, of course, change if the Blackhawks bottom out as many have expected. However, I’m cautiously optimistic Toews reaches at least 50 points, if not more. After the adversity he’s faced these past few years, this is a good benchmark considering he recorded 37 points in 71 games last season.

Blackhawks Fans Should Soak in Team’s Positive Start

With a brand mantra of “Ready to Work” entering the year, the Blackhawks have mostly lived up to that slogan. Aside from their season-opening 5-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Oct. 12, the club has quickly established a grind-it-out identity, which is a welcome change after how lackadaisical they looked early last season under former head coach Jeremy Colliton.

Kyle Davidson Chicago Blackhawks GM
Kyle Davidson, Chicago Blackhawks GM (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Some fans might naturally have mixed feelings about this. After all, Davidson didn’t build this roster to win. A finish outside the bottom five would mean a lesser chance of drafting a generational talent come next summer, which might be detrimental to the rebuild.

Seven games aren’t much, but who knows where this team will be weeks from now, or even later in the season. It’s hard to see Davidson deviating from his long-term plan, and rougher days could be ahead. With such low expectations, Blackhawks fans should enjoy the team’s success so far and the positives that have come with it.

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