The Chicago Blackhawks’ 2020–21 season ended last night, with a tease and ultimately a whimper, in a 5–4 overtime loss to the Dallas Stars. And, if you look at their entire season in two parts—from the beginning up to about March 1, and thereafter—that characterization also largely applies.
Were they fun to watch? At times. Was it a good year of growth for younger players? Well, that depends on how many and which of those players will be around in 2–3 years, when hopefully the time and trial investment of this season will be paying off, because it is likely not all of them will be in Chicago at that point.
So today, all Hawk fans, and especially Blackhawks management, should be looking forward. And doing so with a critical, discerning eye—instead of blind optimism.
And we confront again the question of the Blackhawks’ last four seasons of, if we are being honest, mediocrity: Is the glass half full, or is it half empty?
One thing that is indisputable: There are loads of Twitter accounts and media types (paid directly by the Hawks or not), who will tell you the glass is half full, that the 2020–21 season truly marked significant improvement—or at least promise—for the franchise.
I do not know about your household budget, but for my money, I want to see the numbers, not the hype.
So, in this article, we are going to look at actual improvement (and regression) with the Blackhawks this season—and leave relative “promise” to those who are paid to project NHL talent (scouts), and to those in the media and fanbase who choose to live in the land of pink unicorns and gumdrop houses. It is, after all, a free country.
But, even before looking at “improvement,” let’s define what the goal is, what the team is trying to improve toward.
It used to be, from say 2009 to 2017(-ish), the (One) goal of the Blackhawks every season was not just to make the playoffs, but to go deep, if not win the Stanley Cup.
Today, we (a fair amount of us anyway) seem to be almost satisfied finishing 20th or so out of 31 teams—as though a significant chunk of the Blackhawks Twitterverse would be ecstatic to finish high enough (depending on the playoff format) to just make the postseason (and get crushed).
But, if two playoff home games and a first-round elimination is your “be all/end all,” we will now return you to your regularly scheduled spring and early summer activities.
For the rest of us, the goal remains for the Hawks to not just make the playoffs, but go deep once there. And as far as reaching that goal, the Blackhawks have perhaps taken a step back in 2020–21.
“Wait, what?!” That’s right, in one hugely important area: 5-on-5 play.
We have said it here before. We have said it a lot the last couple of years on the RinkCast. Arguably the best single metric of playoff viability is 5-on-5 play—the most obvious (but not the only) reason being that a much greater percentage of the game is played at 5-on-5 in the playoffs versus the regular season. Not to mention the fact that the checking gets heavier; there is less open ice, and refs tend to swallow their whistles—and not call as many penalties—in the postseason as well.
The Blackhawks absolutely tanked at 5-on-5 this year.
“Good” news, the Blackhawks were 7–5 this season in 3-on-3 overtime, and who does not love seeing Patrick Kane or Alex DeBrincat bury a game-winner after a mad sequence of end-to-end rushes? No one.
But, 12 “charity points” (for regulation ties) and a net +2 in extra points for overtime winners does nothing to make you a good team in the playoffs, where those things do not exist. In fact, it just helps mask your 5-on-5 deficiencies over the course of the regular season.
And, at 5-on-5 over the last four years, the Blackhawks have been anywhere from slightly underwater to downright awful—that last descriptor applying especially to the 2020–21 season, where the team mustered 100 goals at full strength, versus giving up 125—and that being over just 56 games.
But, what is more important to understand is why. If you delve into the particulars of the Hawks’ last four seasons, you can see some obvious indicators.
One is defense.
It is not a big secret that the Hawks have not been a good team defensively over the last four years. And again, they were not this year, where they gave up 33.4 shots a game. Good news: That is slightly better than the previous two seasons.
But, if you dig a little deeper into the shot numbers, there is this: High-danger Corsi against at 5-on-5 was a league-worst 534 (shots generated in high-danger areas) going into last night’s season finale, and high-danger goals against was next-to-last in the league, by just one goal.
What this essentially means is the Hawks allowed opponents more top-quality scoring opportunities 5-on-5 than any other team in the league, upon which teams were able to convert at an almost league-worst rate.
Which leads to goaltending.
If you looked at the Hawks’ goaltending numbers around the end of February (which we did at the time), they were stellar. Everyone was on the Kevin Lankinen train, when his save percentage was north of .920 and his goals-against average (GAA) was under 2.50.
But, as we told you then on the RinkCast, the rookie netminder was probably going to regress at some point, perhaps significantly. And he did, finishing the season at a .909 save percentage and 3.01 GAA. For comparison sake, in 2017–18, the Hawks’ second-worst 5-on-5 season in the last four, the immortal Anton Forsberg finished at .908/2.98.
We are not here to bury Lankinen, and honestly the sample size (not to mention a porous defense in front of him) does not give you enough to make a definitive judgement on him. However, in a recent article written by The Athletic, one pro scout is quoted as saying that Lankinen’s upside is as a “1B” in the NHL (think Antti Raanta or Cam Talbot), not a legitimate No. 1 netminder. Similar was said of the Hawks’ other netminder, Malcolm Subban.
So, is it just the defense and goaltending? Probably not.
Certainly, this was a younger Hawks team than in past years (though pretty much around the median league wide), which is perhaps a slightly mitigating factor in the fall off the 5-on-5 cliff, but they were also the league’s lightest team at an average weight of 190.7 pounds.
(“Yeah, but they are super fast and skilled, the game has changed, so…” And we do not have time or, ugh, energy to have this argument for the seven millionth time since 2009.)
But, there is this: The four “heaviest” teams in the league this year are defending Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, Vegas Golden Knights (West Division leader), Washington Capitals (second in the East Division) and the New York Islanders (a playoff team).
How does this correlate to 5-on-5 play? Physics, to start.
At 5-on-5, there is less space (and more traffic) on the ice, more “50-50” pucks up for grab, etc. All else being equal, bigger players (or those who play bigger) tend to be better 5-on-5 players.
Go back to the Hawks’ abysmal 5-on-5 high-danger scoring chances numbers outlined above, which are all about how well you defend the front of your net, where all the traffic is. See a connection?
So, yes, hockey is still (and until further notice) a contact sport, and size still matters, especially 5-on-5.
“But what about ‘when’ Jonathan Toews comes back?”
Let’s veer briefly, for the sake of argument, into the aforementioned land of unicorns, magic and glitter, and assume that Toews comes riding back (on a white horse would suffice) at 100% health, heck, even “rested” and “recharged”—at 33 years of age, after missing an entire season due to a mystery ailment.
As we have also argued (over and over again, for years), faceoffs matter (as we saw last night at the end of the second period)—and without their top faceoff guy of the last nearly 15 years—the Blackhawks’ numbers suffered this year, going from a typical 49% since 2017 to around 46%. A healthy Toews also somewhat elevates overall team defense (when he is on the ice anyway), and adds an element of ability in the rough going, which is all good for the team 5-on-5.
But, Toews actually played all or most of the three seasons prior to this one, when the Hawks were somewhere between slightly and deeply underwater 5-on-5 and did not make the playoffs (either entirely, or at least not in the traditional sense).
Yes, getting a reasonably healthy Toews back would help the team at 5-on-5. But, while getting him back at all is far from assured, the numbers show he also would not going to solve the problem by himself.
So, is it all “negative” then? No. It is about really improving instead of just assuming “everything is going to magically work out” for a team that has not had a lot really work out for four years running now.
Where we are going with this is do not let “positivity” blind you to the fact (enumerated in several ways above) that this team still has significant holes that need to be filled—somehow and from somewhere.
This is where we come back to the notion of “promise.”
If I only had a dollar for every time someone told me: “Gus just needs coaching. The defense will come.” Now in his fourth organization in the last two years, Erik Gustafsson barely brings back a box of tape in trade, because he still stinks at actual defense, in spite of lots of “coaching.”
In 2018, we were told by Chicago’s intrepid, infallible general manager that Dylan Sikura would be the next big (pun intended) thing. He…eh…was not.
We were told by the same general manager that Ian Mitchell was ready for the NHL his last year in college. He really was not even ready this year.
Now, we are being told that Henrik Borgstrom, who signed a two-year contract with Blackhawks according to a report from The Athletic today, was among the greatest college players Stan Bowman ever saw.
Is there a pattern here?
We strongly suggest, if you have had the stomach to stick with us thus far, that you go read that “scout’s opinion” article from The Athletic.
The NHL scouts queried are high on Kane and DeBrincat (as they should be—and kudos to DeBrincat, who has worked hard and taken his game to another level—but, to be clear, those guys also have also been aroundthe last four years when the team struggled or stunk 5-on-5).
The scouts like Dominik Kubalik.
But, they had this to say about Kirby Dach, the guy many fans have rushed to crown “the next Jonathan Toews”: He is not another Toews.
He will be a good-to-great player in whatever role he matures into. But, is he going to be a quasi-road grader, super-productive No. 1 center (which this team desperately needs to find in addition to similar qualities in a No. 2 and No. 3 center)? Maybe. But quite possibly not.
Again, scouts can be wrong. But, they are paid to be wrong a lot less often than over-anxious fans.
The scouts say 38-year-old Duncan Keith’s minutes need to be reduced (they do). But, who takes them?
Scouts acknowledge Connor Murphy’s ongoing improvement, but pretty much condemn Nikita Zadorov for having no value beyond (effectively, mind you) moving players off of pucks—which is important, as we state above. But, he is also a chronically mistake-prone pylon—which was his reputation before the Hawks traded Brandon Saad (a good 5-on-5 player) for him.
Mitchell and Adam Boqvist? In scouts’ eyes: Offense good, defense not. “I’m not sure what they see” (in Boqvist) was stated in the article. Paraphrasing here: Mitchell will always need a certain kind of defense partner, (i.e,, be somewhat sheltered).
But, Murphy cannot play with both of these guys, and Calvin de Haan is a nice player when he is healthy, which is not often.
The scouts seem to really like Wyatt Kalynuk (for his shot and skating anyway—but, remember, our boy Gus can really skate and shoot, too) and Brandon Hagel.
Hagel, in our eyes, may end up being the biggest “find” of this season—a promising, versatile, do-what-it-takes forward—whose game is very well suited for 5-on-5 play.
And, there were positive notes on Pius Suter and Philipp Kurashev (who, unlike Zadorov, gets pushed off of pucks far too easily at this point).
What we are getting at, though, is this: There is more work to be done here—and not just by pro player development and the coaching staff. And, you should not just assume Toews will come back and fill all these holes, because he was not fully accomplishing that prior to missing this season, regardless.
The Blackhawks’ front office, now four years removed from a true playoff season, needs to step it up. Talk less in “Stan Bowman media sit-downs” about “rebuilding.” Do more of the hard work of actually rebuilding, which may mean unpopular in the near term, but ultimately better long-term decisions.
Stop over-building expectations on guys who never pan out, or at least not like the Hawks keep “promising” they will. Start being brutally honest about what they have—and, more importantly, about what they do not (yet) have.
They do not have a good 5-on-5 team; they have not for four years. And, they do not even have a lot of prospects who confidently project as solutions to that problem.
The truth is, the Blackhawks overperformed in net, on the power play and in 3-on-3 overtime until March 1. Since then, the law of averages—and the rest of the NHL—not only caught up with them, but overtook them, and the results were largely abysmal, in spite of the “fun” factor.
The No. 1 goalie the Hawks will need to return to contention may not be here—and, odds are, may not even be in the organization.
Where are the centers who can go toe-to-toe with Mark Scheifele, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Tyler Seguin, Nathan MacKinnon and down the road with, say, Quinton Byfield?
Toews is getting on in years, with a lot of miles on his body, and “coming off” (maybe) a serious “health issue.”
Will Dach even end up at center, or is his best position at wing (where the Hawks are already fairly loaded)?
After that, at center, we are banking on the “promise” of junior players, college kids and a young pro who held out on his former team for a new contract in Europe (Borgstrom).
And then, there is defense. Sure, as always, we can dream about Alec Regula or Alex Vlasic, who at least look the part of bigger, more physical defenders—but their NHL careers are not guaranteed.
The picks of Dach and Vlasic in 2019 were encouraging as far as building some size into the Hawk pipeline, a need that Bowman (to his credit) acknowledged at the time, although it was also long overdue.
Much more needs to be done, and picking 11th or 12th in the first round of the draft is not really ideal in terms of grabbing a difference-maker who checks all the needed boxes.
The Hawks may have some money in free agency this summer, but four years removed from the playoffs and floundering in the mushy middle of the league, Chicago is no longer a marquee destination for unrestricted free agents. Fact. NHL players on UFA deals want to win, and win right away.
Perhaps the Hawks can get a difference-making player or two in free agency this summer, but quite plausibly, they would have to overpay to do so.
The front office has real work to do, and a lot of it. Do not let them off the hook by buying into the “sunshine and roses” take on a season that was, at best, a mixed bag of pretty good and pretty bad—and in fact really discouraging in terms of becoming, again, the type of team that wins playoff series.
Here’s hoping the Hawks themselves know this—and have a plan beyond telling us how great, oh, I do not know, take your pick (Evan Barratt?) will be. Thanks for reading.