In their last 10 games, the Chicago Blackhawks have posted a 7–1–2 record. Not too shabby for a team without injured players Kirby Dach, Alexander Nylander, Brent Seabrook and Jonathan Toews. What was originally thought to be a “tank” of a season and instant relegation into a 2021 NHL Entry Draft lottery position has been anything but.
The Hawks have been trotting out a handful of rookies every night. Nicolas Beaudin, Brandon Hagel, Philipp Kurashev, Kevin Lankinen, Ian Mitchell and Pius Suter have been among the notables that have sparked the club to a recent run. Lankinen has a posted a .925 save percentage in goal while going 6–2–3 in his first 11 starts. Newcomer Mattias Janmark has played a pivotal role to date, Alex DeBrincat looks to have returned to form this season and Patrick Kane is, well, still Patrick Kane. The superstar still brings it every night. As of right now, the Hawks sit fourth in the Central Division and look ready to compete night in and night out.
It has been exciting and fans should like what they have witnessed thus far from this group, whether they expected it or not. There is, however, a fine line between optimism and realism when it comes to the 2021 Blackhawks. Yes, people should feel optimistic about the recent play from the Hawks’ young group. There is a lot of promise in their young careers, and when Dach is added back to this mix of young professionals, the Blackhawks have some young talent to make them competitive in the next few years. But, being competitive and being real Stanley Cup contenders are completely different things. Realistically for this year’s club, there is a good chance they will find themselves outside of the playoffs come late spring.
As of right now, the Hawks are 8–5–4 in their first 17 games, and truthfully a far cry from a Stanley Cup contender. If you turn back the clock a mere five years ago, 8–5–4 to start the season would have been more a cause for concern than a rallying cry. Now, I do not want to be a complete “Debbie Downer,” and as a fan, tuning into this club every night has been stimulating, but the month of March could be the wake-up call for the loyal fanbase. With 11 of the Hawks’ 16 games against the top-three teams in the division—Tampa Bay, Florida and Carolina—the Blackhawks will have their work cut out for them. In order to change your fate of “pretender” to “contender,” you have to beat the real contenders. It may be as simple as that, and are the Hawks up to it? Umm, don’t know.
If the Blackhawks sputter in the month of March and struggle against the top-end teams in the division, then the euphoric tune many are singing may turn into a song of apathy in the sellers’ market in the Stan Bowman era.
While the kids play, it is as critical that players like Janmark, Carl Soderberg and perhaps a few others, such as Nikita Zadorov, show well in the event they become movable assets for moderate returns come the trade deadline. Do not expect a blockbuster deal from Bowman come April 12, though. Duncan Keith likely is not going anywhere, and if the Hawks can get anything for the underachieving Dylan Strome, they should listen to offers, but that is unlikely as well. If any trades happen, they will be marginal. More than likely, the Blackhawks will not make the playoffs and will have a mid-round pick in the first round come this summer.
And although the recent energy from the youth movement has provided a boost, the Hawks still have a lot of missing parts if they want to get back to where they were not too long ago atop the NHL mountain. Keith will not be a No. 1 defenseman for much longer. Is the Hawks’ future No. 1 defenseman currently on the roster? Maybe, maybe not. I, like many, want that to be Mitchell, but time will tell. If Toews’ career is significantly impacted or halted by his recent health issues, is Dach the No. 1 center of the franchise? Again, that is very uncertain. There will need to be players added and some to be developed to once again contend, and it does not happen overnight.
As a fan, I am fired up. There is excitement on the ice with the Hawks every night, and of course, I am rooting for them just like anybody else. But there is a larger picture, and if fans want to hold this club to the standards that they did from 2009–2017 (or so)—meaning Cup or bust—it is critical to limit those expectations for now.