Just a few years ago, the idea of the Chicago Blackhawks removing the captaincy from Jonathan Toews would’ve seemed unfathomable. While still unlikely heading into 2022-23, Toews has one year remaining on his current contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer. Though, of course, he could sign an extension and remain a Blackhawk for life. A series of comments following last March’s trade deadline made some fans question whether or not he’s still the right fit for team captain as Chicago enters a rebuild.
As the Blackhawks continue prioritizing the future this offseason, it’s worth discussing what direction Chicago could go in if the club moves on from Toews next offseason or potentially even beforehand. After missing all of 2020-21 due to chronic inflammatory response syndrome, Toews returned in 2021-22 and appeared in 71 games. However, he’s years removed from his prime, and it’s certainly not a given he’ll be with the Blackhawks the next time they contend again. Here are three potential candidates for team captain if and when Chicago moves on from Toews or decides to pursue a different direction for the position.
It’s hard to believe it since he’s just 24, but Alex DeBrincat is one of the longest-tenured Blackhawks since he made his NHL debut in 2017-18. The club’s 2016 second-round draft pick just finished his fifth NHL season in which he posted a career-high 78 points in 82 games, with much of his success coming alongside linemates Patrick Kane and Dylan Strome. He currently has one year left on his current deal at $6.4 million before becoming a restricted free agent in 2023.
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DeBrincat’s quietly emerged into a consistent scoring threat since his rookie year and has no doubt been Chicago’s top goal scorer these last few seasons. However, his leadership has also developed, as he was one of Chicago’s three alternate captains last year. He’s also young enough that by the time the Blackhawks become contenders, he could still very well be under 30 and yet have a solid understanding of the team’s culture to mentor new faces and younger players. Compared to Toews and Kane, he might lack big-game, postseason-type experience right now, but he’s stepped up for Chicago on many occasions and has become just as much of a fan favorite, too.
While anything’s possible, it’s hard to see a situation in which the Blackhawks move on from DeBrincat, and I’d say he stays around as a cornerstone throughout the rebuild. As he gains more experience, he’d be a perfect fit for the Blackhawks’ next captain.
In his first season as a Blackhawk, Seth Jones posted a respectable 51 points in 78 games. He gradually improved defensively, too, as the year progressed. Though his play was a long way off from his 2017-18 campaign with the Columbus Blue Jackets, arguably his career year thus far in which he finished fourth in Norris Trophy voting, he anchored Chicago’s defense and provided a boost to what’s been a major weakness since the Blackhawks last contended.
As a four-time All-Star, most of the time, Jones’ accolades would make him a solid trade chip for the Blackhawks as they rebuild. However, his eight-year, $76 million contract extension with Chicago begins next season, meaning he’s not set to hit the open market until 2030. Much like DeBrincat, there are few situations in which I could see the Blackhawks moving on from Jones and while he might not be Chicago’s top defenseman when they finish rebuilding, he will likely have seen the process through.
It also helps that Jones is currently captaining Team USA at the 2022 IIHF World Championship, which will no doubt be an invaluable leadership experience for the 27-year-old. Like DeBrincat, his experience and success could make him an intriguing fit to take over the captaincy post-Toews.
I’ll admit, this is a bit of a long shot. Three years into his NHL career, Kirby Dach hasn’t lived up to the expectations he faced when the Blackhawks drafted him third overall in 2019. There’s absolutely room for concern — before missing Chicago’s final eight regular-season games in 2021-22, Dach struggled offensively, recording just five points in his final 19 games. I also wouldn’t say it’s a given he stays around as a cornerstone of the rebuild like DeBrincat and Jones, especially as the Blackhawks get even younger through upcoming NHL Drafts and potential trades.
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Like many fans, I’m not sold on Dach as a long-term piece just yet. However, it’s important to keep his career in perspective — he’s just 21 and was arguably rushed into the NHL back in 2019. Facing a number of injuries hasn’t helped him either. But, through more development and time, I still think it’s possible he develops into a solid two-way, middle-six forward even if he’s not the next Toews.
The pressure is on for Dach. It’ll certainly be interesting to see how the Blackhawks handle him as they rebuild, but if he eventually begins improving and meets expectations, he could be another option to take over the captaincy even if his future is a little uncertain now. Even if he hasn’t lived up to his expectations on the ice, he’s been honest about areas of improvement and has generally stayed positive about his future, according to Ben Pope of the Chicago Sun-Times (from ‘Blackhawks’ Kirby Dach has ‘improved a lot’ with managing frustration, staying positive,’ The Chicago Sun-Times, 04/05/22). These are, of course, good traits for any leader.
If I had to guess which of these three players is the likeliest to take over the captaincy after Toews, I’d say DeBrincat because of his longevity with the Blackhawks and his overall dedication. With that said, both Jones and even Dach remain intriguing choices depending on how Chicago’s rebuild goes. If one of Chicago’s prospects emerges and exceeds expectations such as 2020 first-round pick Lukas Reichel, they too could be a fit.
Time will tell what direction the Blackhawks go in post-Toews. Despite his gradual recovery after missing all of 2020-21, I don’t envision Chicago removing the “C” from Toews soon, at least for next season. However, with his contract set to expire next offseason — as well as Kane’s — analyzing potential future leadership should be a goal of Chicago’s management and coaching staff in 2022-23. That might come from outside, or the Blackhawks may already have it in DeBrincat, Jones, and/or Dach.