Basement Dwellers to Possible Postseason
The Chicago Blackhawks have now played 27 games on the season after their heartbreaking 5-4 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 11. This means they’re one-third of the way through the 2021-22 campaign. There have already been numerous ups and downs, including a coaching change 13 games in. But in essence, there’s still a long way to go in this long, 82-game grind. Let’s take a look at where the Blackhawks stand to this point, as well as step back and consider the big picture.
Blackhawks Early Season Woes & Turnaround
A 1-9-2 start under former head coach Jeremy Colliton obviously did not do the Blackhawks any favors. That, and the off-ice Kyle Beach scandal, put the team in a pretty dark place. As a result of the Jenner & Block investigation going public, general manager and president of hockey operations Stan Bowman was relieved of his duties on Oct. 26 (or he “resigned”, whichever you care to believe).
Kyle Davidson, who’s been with the Blackhawks organization since Nov. 2010, was named interim general manager. His first big decision took place on Nov. 6, when he fired Colliton and promoted Rockford IceHog’s head coach Derek King to interim head coach for the Blackhawks.
King’s first order of business was to come in and get everyone to simply relax and start enjoying the game again. His laid-back personality and humorous ways were just what the team needed to band together again. Under King, the Blackhawks have gone a respectable 9-6-0. Three of those six losses have been close, one-goal games (the San Jose Sharks 2-0 loss involved an empty-net goal). It’s been an impressive turnaround, and one the Blackhawks hope to build on moving forward.
Blackhawks New Grind-It-Out Mentality
A big focus for King has been to tweak the defensive system. Colliton had a very complicated structure, which had the players thinking too much instead of instinctively reacting on the ice. King has simplified things, and the defense has improved in leaps and bounds.
Under King, the Blackhawks have concentrated on giving up nothing off the rush and through the neutral zone. Beyond that, they’ve tightened up in their own end. They’ve worked hard on keeping teams to the outside and limiting their chances, especially in high-danger areas. They’ve focused on the slot area and right in front of the net. This has involved the forwards buying in as well, supporting the defensemen as much as possible. It’s demanded a lot of communication, commitment and trust in each other.
But this has come as the expense of scoring goals on the other end, especially with the Blackhawks lack of depth in that area. Their bottom-six forwards don’t offer much in the way of an offensive upside. Instead, the Blackhawks have become a grinding, hard to play against team whose focus is to prevent goals, while at the same time scoring just enough themselves to win.
In other words, low-event, boring hockey. But let’s face it; it’s working for now! Considering all those odd-man rushes we witnessed at the beginning of the season, this improved defense is a breath of fresh air. It needs to continue. But if the Blackhawks want to compete, they must figure out how to score more goals.
Current Production Leaders
Speaking of which, let’s look at who’s contributing the most in the scoring department.
Alex DeBrincat leads the way by a country mile with 14 goals on the season. He’s always had a knack for finding the back of the net, and this season has been no exception. Beyond that, DeBrincat has developed his all-around play. He’s more responsible defensively, and even contributes on the penalty kill. He’s also a feisty little guy. He’s not afraid to check and make hits. He also boasts six assists for 20 points.
Second place in goals is, surprisingly, second-year forward Brandon Hagel, with eight tallies. Hagel brings energy and grit with every shift. Most thought he was more suited among the bottom-six forwards, but he’s proving he can hang, and thrive, in a top-six role.
Patrick Kane comes in third for top goal-scorers for the Blackhawks with seven goals. His additional 15 assists for 22 points is nothing to scoff at. But as you will see below, it doesn’t make first on the team in any category. Considering Kane is usually on top of the leaderboard for the Blackhawks, it leaves a little to be desired. Look for Kane to pick up his play as the season progresses.
Defenseman Seth Jones leads the team with 20 assists. Jones had a slow start to the season, and many were questioning his mega contract with the Blackhawks. But he has since quieted the critics with his solid play. Not only is he leading in assists (and points), but he’s living up to his top-defenseman billing. He takes on the toughest assignments and leads the team with a whopping 25:57 minutes of average ice time.
Related – Blackhawks Bytes: Fleury & Toews’ Night, Strome, McCabe
Second place in assists is Kane, with 15, and third place is Jonathan Toews, with nine.
Jones also sits on top of the points stat with 23; his three goals rounding out this achievement. Second place is Kane, with 22, and DeBrincat’s 20 points comes in third place.
As you can see, DeBrincat, Jones, and Kane are leading the production for the Blackhawks. Headed into the season most predicted these three players being top performers, so it’s nice to see them living up to expectations. Let’s hope they can continue to do so. But if this team wants to compete, others will have to step up as well.
Blackhawks Who Need to Step Up
While it take an entire team effort to win, and every player’s contributions are valuable, I’d like to pinpoint three players who should be contributing more offensively, and need to step up their efforts moving forward.
It’s difficult to be too hard on Toews, since we know he missed all of last season with Chronic Immune Response Syndrome. Most were ecstatic the Blackhawks’ captain was even able to play this season, much less be competitive. But he’s doing his best at getting his body and his play back up to speed.
Toews has gotten off to the worst start of his career this season. It took him 26 full games to score that elusive first goal. But he finally found the back of the net on Dec. 9 against the Montreal Canadiens, and once again the very next game. Hopefully this will open the floodgates for Toews to contribute with more goals. We already mentioned above that he’s third on the team with nine assists, but that’s still pretty low for Toews’ standards. He just needs to keep picking away at it.
Let’s remember he’s also by far the best on the team in the faceoff department (58.7%) and his strong two-way play is definitely an asset. But if Toews can pick up his offensive production, it would certainly help the Blackhawks.
Similar to Toews, Kubalik has struggled to score this year. In his 2019-20 rookie season, Kubalik scored a whopping 30 goals, and his 17 goals in 56 games last season was second for the Blackhawks. The Czech native has a wicked shot, and he’s known for being that guy who scores goals.
Related – Blackhawks’ Dominik Kubalik’s Slump Is Cause for Concern
So recording only three goals his first 21 games doesn’t exactly cut it. Fortunately, Kubalik has scored two more times in the last six games. More of that please! The forward’s ice time and deployment have always been a bit erratic. But the coaching staff appears to be working on tweaking their line combinations. Hopefully Kubalik will be set up for success as the season progresses.
He was the third overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. Obviously, that comes with high expectations. Dach does a lot of things right. He’s strong on the puck, he battles hard in the corners, he’s a skilled player that complements other skilled players.
But he can’t win a faceoff to save his life (32.2% on the season), he’s constantly trying to pass the puck when he has prime opportunities to score, and even his passes don’t seem to connect when they should. Quite frankly, people expected a whole lot more of Dach at this point in his career.
In his defense, Dach missed training camp and the beginning of his rookie campaign with a concussion, and most of last season due to a wrist injury. And he’s only 20 years old. Hopefully its one of those situations where it takes a little bit longer to develop into his full potential. The young center has four goals and six assists so far this season, which is respectable from an overall standpoint. But most of his production came at the beginning of the season. He needs to figure out what was working earlier and build on that.
Special teams is something we can revisit as the season goes along. At the one-third point, the Blackhawks’ power play has a 17.1% success rate, which ranks 23rd in the league. It started out hot, but the team has struggled in this department since then.
Recently, the coaching staff experimented with balancing the units a little bit. They moved DeBrincat and Jones to the second unit, while Dylan Strome and Erik Gustafsson transferred to the first unit. Kane also mentioned that they were dearly missing the injured Tyler Johnson in the bumper role.
They’ve since put DeBrincat and Jones back up top, and Ryan Carpenter in the bumper role as they’ve tried a handful of times in the past. This has all led to limited success. Power play production certainly be a helpful tool toward winning, so let’s hope the Blackhawks can get something to click soon.
The Blackhawks penalty kill currently has a 79.7% kill rate, which is good for 20th in the league. In the last four games alone, the Blackhawks have given up five power play goals on 10 attempts. That’s not so good. Of course, the best way to avoid goals against on the penalty kill is to not take the penalty to begin with. The Blackhawks can work on shoring that up, for sure.
The penalty kill always goes through it’s ebbs and flows throughout the season. Hopefully at the two-third mark we will see some improvement here.
The Fleury/Lankinen Duo in Net
After a rough start to the season, the duo of Marc-Andre Fleury and Kevin Lankinen is for the most part doing their job in net. As the 13-year veteran and Vezina Trophy winner, Fleury has been the No. 1 goaltender this season. In 18 games played, Fleury has a .913 save percentage and a 2.79 goals against average. As we all know, he recently earned his 500th career win and 69th shutout. These stats speak for themselves, and the Blackhawks are lucky to have Flower in between the pipes on most nights.
Lankinen has an .882 SV% and a 3.39 GAA so far on the season. It would be nice to see some improvement here. But in Lankinen’s defense, it’s harder to maintain your rhythm in the back-up role. And Lanks has drawn some of the tougher opponents in the Maple Leafs, the Edmonton Oilers, and the Carolina Hurricanes, to name a few. All in all, Lankinen has proven a solid backup.
Blackhawks Record & Standings
Through 27 games, the Blackhawks have a record of 10-15-2 for 22 points. This is nine points outside of a wildcard spot in the Western Conference, with only the Seattle Kraken and the Arizona Coyotes beneath them. Across the league, this is good for 26th in the league.
Doesn’t look too promising, does it? But like I said, it’s still early in the campaign. And the Blackhawks are playing much better hockey than they did at the beginning of the season. Which brings us to our final consideration.
Are the Playoffs Still in the Picture?
While I think the playoffs are a bit of a longshot for this team, as the ultimate optimist I’m not about to rule it out just one-third of the way through the season. Most importantly, the Blackhawks must continue to be consistent defensively. They have made huge strides in this department under King, but they can’t let their foot off the gas.
In tandem with that, they must pick up their offensive play. This might have been sacrificed a bit of late, but now it’s time to combine the improved defense with more offense. It’s no secret that Kane, Toews, Kubalik and Dach all need to start scoring more goals. If these players don’t perform, the Blackhawks don’t have a playoff shot. Keep an eye on them moving forward.
Also, there should be consistency when it comes to effort in every game. It’s a tough 82-game grind, but the Blackhawks can’t afford to take a single shift off. They’re already behind from their disappointing start to the season. They need to find a way to bring it every night.
Finally, the Blackhawks have only faced their fellow divisional opponents six times in their first 27 games. They have 20 more games against division foes, not to mention 18 more contests against Western Conference opponents. Since a win against these teams represents a four-point swing in the standings, focusing on beating divisional and conference opponents is key.
Related – Blackhawks Banter: Can We Talk About the Playoffs?
This next portion of the season will be vital for the Blackhawks to have any shot at a postseason berth. Tune in when we revisit their progress at the two-thirds mark. Since there is one odd game to reach 82 games, 28 more games puts us at the end of February, right after the Blackhawks host the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 27. Let’s revisit where this team stands at that point.
As always, send your thoughts and comments my way!
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.
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