Breaking down the Blackhawks’ chances in the Central Division

  

With the 2021–22 season upon us, the Chicago Blackhawks are in preparation to get back into playoff contention. Chicago was gifted the 24th seed in the shortened 2019–20 season and defeated a top-heavy Edmonton Oilers squad, but have not “officially” qualified for the playoffs since the 2016–17 season when they were swept by the Nashville Predators in four quick games.

Fans will remember at the time, former executive John McDonough and still current General Manager Stan Bowman mentioned that the failure in the playoffs were “unacceptable” and changes were on the way. Bowman made changes a short time later, but fans have yet to taste success since.

Fast forward to last season, and Bowman, the son of legendary hockey icon Scotty Bowman, declared the Blackhawks were going to rebuild (many would argue that was a year or two too late). Not so fast. Early this offseason, Bowman seemingly diverted from that plan and traded for center Tyler Johnson, last season’s Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury and top-pairing defenseman Seth Jones, along with other signings that showed his idea of “rebuilding” were short lived.

Let us take a look at the competition in the division to see how the Blackhawks may fare this season.

Teams Chicago cannot compete against
Colorado Avalanche — The loaded Avalanche just cannot seem to figure out the second round of the playoffs, having lost three straight against San Jose, Dallas and Vegas, but come into this season as a favorite to win the Western Conference and finally etch their names into the Stanley Cup for the first time since the 2000–01 season. With the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar and Mikko Rantanen, Chicago just cannot compare to these elite-level stars. Add in the depth that helps win games and the Blackhawks would be a long shot in catching the Avalanche in the division. If Colorado were to be caught (and most likely not by Chicago), their goaltending situation would be the reason should Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz struggle in net.

Team Chicago should not catch
Winnipeg Jets — The team “up north” in the division this season is screaming “we can finally compete with the best” on any given night. Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck keep the Jets a possible contender to win the division and possibly make some noise in the playoffs. Throw in the likes of Kyle Connor, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler and Winnipeg has the horses on offense to compete. The Jets saw that the “tough parts” of the game were a need on defense and added veteran defenseman Nate Schmidt and Brendan Dillon to help keep pucks out of the net. This is a team that could be on the verge of a solid season.

Teams Chicago should compete with for final playoff spots
Minnesota Wild — As a team loaded with “solid” veteran talent throughout the lineup, the Wild will be competitive on most nights as long as Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen can keep the puck from bouncing off the twine. An offense with Kirill Kaprizov should scare anyone, but the rest of the offense screams “possible 20-goal scorer” with Joel Eriksson Ek and Kevin Fiala not really scaring you as an opponent. With Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba, Alex Goligoski and Jared Spurgeon, the Wild’s chances rely on a steady defense to keep them in games.

St. Louis Blues — The fans’ team to hate just across the Mississippi River, the Blues are going to rely on Ryan O’Reilly, former Blackhawk Brandon Saad and disgruntled Vladimir Tarasenko to lead the charge. Add in the likes of Torey Krug and Brayden Schenn and the Blues have some veterans that play a smart game between the ears. If goaltender Jordan Binnington were to falter, the Blues could be on the outside looking in for the playoffs. The overall depth and talent level should keep St. Louis in the playoff hunt and most likely make them a tough out when the ice shrinks and the referees’ whistles are put into their back pockets come April.

Dallas Stars — When a team has the likes of Jamie Benn, Roope Hintz, John Klingberg and Tyler Seguin, one would think the team would be a lock to be better than Chicago, but, all things considered, the Stars are definitely a wild card when it comes to predictions. After having made an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final two seasons ago, the Stars are relying on two veteran goaltenders in Braden Holtby and Anton Khudobin to keep them in the playoff hunt every night (though I, for one, really like Jake Oettinger as the future in net in Dallas). If Miro Heiskanen takes another step forward, that may be a huge difference-maker for a team fighting for a playoff spot. If aging veterans like Alexander Radulov and Joe Pavelski slide, this could be a team in a tail spin.

Nashville Predators — Not so long ago, it seemed like the Predators were in for a long run as a possible Cup contender each season. That does not seem to be the case anymore. With that being said, the Predators are still a team to be reckoned with in the division. Defenseman Roman Josi is a top-five defenseman type of player, and the rest of the defense is littered with size and speed. The offense does not quite scare you, though, as Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen lead the way. If goaltender Juuse Saros continues to excel taking over for the legendary Pekka Rinne in net, the Predators’ system and defense will keep them in the playoff mix.

Team Chicago is better than
Arizona Coyotes — When your top-line center is former Blackhawks draft pick Nick Schmaltz, you are in for a long season. Throw in Jakob Chychrun, Clayton Keller and Phil Kessel and the Coyotes have some nice players, but do not have the high-level skill that should scare Blackhawks fans this season. The most exciting part about watching the Coyotes in the Central Division will be the next city that could purchase them and move them, since the state of Arizona seems to have had enough watching them struggle on the ice and only thing worth watching is whether the state will come through and build an arena.

Chicago prediction
With the additions of Fleury and Jones, the Blackhawks became a better team in net and on defense almost overnight. Last year’s goaltender, Kevin Lankinen, will not be shouldered with keeping the team in the playoff hunt for most of the season while an unqualified backup sits on the bench. The Fleury-Lankinen tandem should really work for Head Coach Jeremy Colliton. The unproven coach can run with the 36-year-old multiple Cup winner and let Fleury tell him when to be benched. Seems like a match made in heaven for Chicago.

Outside of Jones, Bowman also added defensive defenseman Jake McCabe to the mix of the top four on the back end. McCabe plays a simple game and can compete against top-level talent without looking lost (like so many young defensemen on the Blackhawks last season). He could be a sneaky-good signing playing 20 minutes per night. Calvin de Haan and Connor Murphy help round out the other two defensemen that should hold down around 18–22 minutes each night. That is a solid group of four veterans that should compete at a high level in the defensive zone each night. Add in the fact that Jones could approach 15 goals and 50 points in a good season, and this is a defense that is primed to make huge strides compared to last season. However, Jones has had some subpar seasons of late and needs to show he can truly be a No. 1 defenseman with how much Bowman gave up to acquire him and then sign him to a huge contract extension.

The bottom pairings will consist of a combination of Nicolas Beaudin, Caleb Jones, Wyatt Kalynuk, Ian Mitchell and Riley Stillman, and none strike fear into anyone, but if that collection of five are playing third-pairing minutes, then the fans should not notice them much, or, at least hope they are not noticed on most nights. In the mix for time will be Chad Krys and Alec Regula, as well.

The Blackhawks’ playoff chances rely on offense with a healthy Patrick Kane. When on the ice, Kane has proven he can score in bunches and can make everyone one the ice around him a threat. Fans have seen it for over a decade, and the 32-year-old is not slowing down. Kane is Kane on the ice.

The other “obvious” forward to be successful, push for 40 goals and give you a chance to win is Alex DeBrincat. “The Cat” has shown strides in maturity and looks to be the face of the franchise moving forward on the offensive side of the puck. If he shoots anywhere near his career average, he is a lock for 30 goals. His defensive game will never confuse you with a Selke Trophy finalist, but he has proven he is more than just an offensive guy.

Captain Jonathan Toews is the wild card. After missing all of last season, the health of the captain is a major concern, even over the importance of him taking 66% of draws on any given night. If Toews can show he is capable of playing at a high level in all three zones as we became accustomed to in his prime, then Chicago will no doubt be better in the center of the ice. If Toews cannot regain his form, the offense is still below average down the middle.

That “down the middle” consists of youngster Kirby Dach (probably better suited to play wing in the NHL, at least for now), Dylan Strome (probably better suited playing wing somewhere else) and Tyler Johnson (better playing wing). All three are considered options, but have not shown the center of the ice is a comfortable spot for them. Young newcomer Henrik Borgstrom would be a wild card coming over from Florida. With that being said, I would not expect much from him in regard to being a significant, consistent threat at center in the NHL this season.

Chicago will also see a lot of minutes from Dominik Kubalik and Alexander Nylander. Kubalik has the skill and two-way maturity to be a successful middle-of-the-order winger. Nylander may be running on fumes in his NHL career.

The “try hard” players of Ryan Carpenter, Brett Connolly, Adam Gaudette, Brandon Hagel, Jujhar Khaira and Philipp Kurashev will give you some fun minutes and play a bottom-six role to a tee. With any luck, one of these five will push for more minutes as he continues to grow his game at the NHL level (namely Hagel).

When the dust settles in April, Chicago will be on the outside looking into a playoff spot by four to six points at around 90 points. With any luck and some unfortunate injuries to the four teams Chicago is competing against for most likely two playoff spots, the Blackhawks could sneak into the first round.

The night-in and night-out talent will be better than last season, and Chicago fans should not have to endure too many nights of the “I cannot believe I stayed up to watch that” episode on the ice they have been accustomed to viewing these past two seasons. However, to look at all the question marks in the lineup, the health of the captain and the need for everything to go right for Chicago to compete with the best in the division may well be too much to ask.

Enjoy the season and keep an eye on those last playoff spots!

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