Though they haven’t looked like a playoff contender, you can easily make the argument the Chicago Blackhawks have played better than expected so far. A team projected by many to finish in last place, they haven’t yet (key word: yet) looked like a true bottom-feeder, despite losing six of their last seven games. They’ve maintained an identity based on grit and tenacity, keeping them mostly watchable, unlike the start of the 2021-22 season where they lost 11 of their first 12 games.
Overall, it’s hard to say where this team finishes come April. A playoff appearance still seems like it’s out of the question, but just how much the Blackhawks bottom out remains to be seen. After an up-and-down first four weeks, here are five takeaways as they approach the one-month mark.
Richardson’s Presence Has Paid Dividends
Aside from dealing Brandon Hagel and Marc-André Fleury at last year’s deadline, hiring Luke Richardson back in June was Kyle Davidson’s first significant move as Blackhawks general manager (GM). It felt refreshing to see the team go outside the organization, and the move has greatly paid off. He has brought a calm yet steady demeanor to the bench, which has positively impacted his players. He’s also played a key role in helping the Blackhawks establish a grind-it-out, hardworking identity.
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From running zone defense to keeping his structure mostly consistent, most of the changes Richardson has brought to the Blackhawks have been successful. It’s too early to tell if he becomes the next Jon Cooper or Jared Bednar, but it’s hard not to see him being here long-term, even if they are ultimately a last-place team. As flawed as the roster might look, he has gotten the best out of his players.
Toews Has Shown Hints of His Old Self
It sure seems like Jonathan Toews has embraced what might be his final season in Chicago. The 34-year-old has played his best hockey in years, recording an impressive 10 points (seven goals, three assists) through 13 games. After facing so much adversity these past few years, his success has been nothing short of impressive.
Toews could always regress, but there are just as many reasons for optimism. He looks revitalized under Richardson and has stayed in the moment, despite constant trade speculation. Of course, his success could boost his value should he waive his no-movement clause. With his future remaining uncertain, Chicago fans should make the most of his current performance.
Blackhawks’ Goaltending Might Be Better Than Expected
At first glance, Petr Mrázek and Alex Stalock might not seem like a tandem that would win you a lot of games. Yet, while not all of their numbers suggest it, both netminders and 23-year-old Arvid Söderblom have given the Blackhawks surprisingly competent goaltending.
Considering he’s only played four games due to injury, it’s hard to say what the Blackhawks will get out of Mrázek long-term. However, he looked great in Thursday’s (Nov. 10) 2-1 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings, stopping 33 of 35 shots in his first game since Oct. 21 against the Detroit Red Wings. While Mrázek was out, Stalock did a reasonable job of holding down the fort, despite sometimes looking a bit out of position.
The biggest surprise out of the three, though, might be Söderblom. The Blackhawks recalled him after Mrázek’s injury, and with Stalock now out, it sure looks like he’ll be around for the foreseeable future. After a few appearances in Chicago last season, he made his 2022-23 debut back on Oct. 29 against the Buffalo Sabres, stopping 41 out of 45 shots.
Through four games, Söderblom is 1-2-1 with a .924 save percentage (SV%). Whenever Stalock returns, he’ll probably still go back down to the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Rockford IceHogs, but he’s been a positive surprise nonetheless.
Chicago’s Offense Has Been Up & Down
During their early-season success, the Blackhawks benefited from a balanced offense. The first line of Andreas Athanasiou, Max Domi, and Patrick Kane was finding its groove while depth forwards Sam Lafferty and Jason Dickinson were exceeding expectations, especially on the penalty kill. Over their past four games, however, Chicago’s offense has slowed down, combining for just four goals.
The Blackhawks’ forward group isn’t amazing, by any means, but it’s tough to imagine the offense staying this quiet. With Kane and Toews driving their own lines, it seems like only a matter of time before we see the offense get going again. That said, there are many players who need to step up. Before recording an assist in Thursday’s loss to the Kings, Domi was pointless in his previous five games. Dickinson and Lafferty, on the other hand, have combined for just four points (three goals, one assist) over the last seven games.
After facing a trio of stingy squads in the Kings, New York Islanders, and Winnipeg Jets, Saturday night’s matchup against the Anaheim Ducks could be a great opportunity for the forward group to get going again. The Ducks have a minus-26 goal differential, the league’s worst. It’ll take a full effort, but with the club using a “win-by-committee” approach defensively in Seth Jones’ absence, applying this strategy to the offense might pay off.
Blackhawks Aren’t Great but Not Bad Enough to Tank
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Entering the pandemic-abbreviated 2020-21 regular season, a bottom-five finish also seemed like a good possibility for the Blackhawks, despite Kane and young forwards such as Alex DeBrincat, Dominik Kubalik, and others being around. While they ultimately finished nine points out of a playoff spot, a better-than-expected first half was enough to keep them in the hunt until the final few weeks or so of the season.
Two years later, the difference is the team has committed to a full rebuild, as they’ve let go of DeBrincat and others. Yet, even with a lack of star power beyond Kane, the Blackhawks haven’t necessarily played like a last-place team. In fact, they’ve looked competitive in just about every game, despite their 5-5-3 record. Even in Saturday’s (Nov. 5) 4-0 shutout loss to the Jets, there were times when their toughness was on full display.
Compared to the beginning of 2021-22, the Blackhawks aren’t getting blown out every other night. The biggest reason for this might be having Richardson at the helm. His players are simply responding to him in a way they weren’t to Jeremy Colliton and even Derek King, as effective as he was during his time as interim head coach.
All things considered, the Blackhawks’ first month has been a mixed bag. They’ve played an entertaining, tough style of hockey, and it’ll be interesting to see how much longer they can sustain it. From the forward group’s production to when players such as Jones and Tyler Johnson will return from injured reserve, there are a lot of questions entering month two, but it should provide a better picture of this club and where they may finish in April.
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Connor Smith covers the Chicago Blackhawks for The Hockey Writers. He’s based in the Chicago area and is currently pursuing his master’s at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He received his bachelor’s degree from Ball State University in May 2022 and has experience reporting and editing for The Ball State Daily News, the campus’ student newspaper, along with interning for Best Version Media (BVM) Sports. You can learn more about Smith and his work through his online portfolio, connornsmith0719.wordpress.com.