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Blackhawks Season Preview: Winter Is Here

Welp...we are here. The 2021 Season is starting in the dead of winter which is symbolic because that is exactly where the Blackhawks are...a cold, dark, bleak, midwinter. There's one light in the darkness and his name is "Patrick Kane", but the rest are gone. Memories of the good ole days are more and more like a distant star flickering in the night sky. I am normally the eternal optimist. I think anyone who has read my blogs on this site for the last 7 years will know that. Even I can't get there now. Toews, Dach, Saad, and Crawford are gone. Bowman and Colliton are still here. It's impossible to be optimistic when looking at this roster with this coaching staff. 

In the early off-season I started to tell myself a few things to make myself feel better about the upcoming season. "A full year of Dach development and a true top 6 center to go with Toews...that'll be good". "Wallmark and Janmark will be tough to play against and help the bottom 6". "Debrincat will bounce back and score 30 again". "Boqvist will take a step forward". "Mitchell will be good". "Maybe Waite can make something out of Delia and Subban". That's how I operate. I say things and squint and try to find a reason to be optimistic. You say those things to yourself enough and all the red flags about the roster start to turn pink if you squint your eyes enough. At this stage now there's no way to do it. Let's have an honest season preview

Goalies:

The Blackhawks moved on from Corey Crawford because...I still don't quite understand that one. That was the major sticking point with Stan in our interview. Crawford is better than the goalies they have. He wanted to be here(or nowhere apparently) and Stan gave him a one year low ball insulting offer and moved on to the goalies in house who they didn't think were good enough to play even 3 months before in the bubble. Covid-Corey was a better option then but he isn't now. Whatever. I don't want to re-litigate that again because we are on to 2021

Colin Delia-- I like Colin Delia. His game is quiet. It's sound. I think he is a perfectly suitable back up NHL goalie. Scott Darling(Scott is a goalie nerd and knows more about goalies than anyone including 99% of NHL goalies) compared his game to Carey Price. Not to say he's Carey Price because nobody would make that mistake, but just that the foundation of his game is so solid. He's limited in some capacities, but he's the type of guy embodies the cliche "makes the saves he's supposed to make". Delia won't steal you too many games like we saw Crawford and Lehner do last year, but he won't lose that many by himself for you either. 

Malcolm Subban-- This is one of those situations where I am trying to talk myself into a goalie based on his draft pedigree. A 2012 first round pick. A guy who put up GREAT numbers in the OHL and good numbers in the American League for the Providence Bruins, but his game at the NHL level seems to have regressed year over year while in Vegas until they traded him as a part of the Lehner deal last season. I really believe in Jimmy Waite as a goalie coach. People rave about him. I don't think it's impossible that with more opportunity, experience, and reps with Jimmy Waite that Subban could take the athleticism that made him a 1st round pick and the light could come on where he belongs in the NHL. Is that likely for a guy who just turned 27? Probably not, BUT...I don't think it's impossible either

Kevin Lankinen-- I won't lie... I don't know much about Lankinen. I think he was probably close to being out of North American hockey a couple years ago then he won gold at the Worlds and looked pretty good doing it for Finland. I think the Hawks are probably one of the few teams in the league that will give 3 goalies a fair shake this year, which probably stunts all of their development, but that's where we are

Defensemen

It seems impossible to say given how things have gone the last several years, but I think the blue line is the strength of the team this. Which is not to say it's going to be a strong unit by league standards, just that it's the best group going for the Blackhawks. These pairings are projections based on reports from training camp

Keith-Murphy

In my opinion both of these guys are bonafide top 4 defensemen and I think they pair nicely together. Murphy is going to be simple things well. He takes away space with skating that is better than he gets credit for and a long reach. He has grown into his game and role very well in the last couple of years. Duncan Keith has had to babysit young defenders for several years now and I think people have been overstating his decline. Maybe he isn't the player he was in 2015, but I absolutely trust him out there in all situations and if he had a better team around him then people would still be singing his praises. I love Duncan Keith's entire game and his competitiveness. He is a perfect defenseman for this era and I hope the young guys can absurd as much as possible from him. 

de Haan-Mitchell

Two guys I have space for in my heart. 

I think I might be the #1 Cal de Haan fan on the internet. To use an old Joel Quenneville "compliment", de Haan in predictable. His game is quiet. It's simple. He is never out of position. He doesn't make dangerous plays. He retrieves the puck, gets it out of the zone, and gets off the ice then you can rinse and repeat for the entire game. He has Hjalmarsson qualities and he goes very much underappreciated both locally and nationally. 

I think de Haan is the perfect partner for Mitchell in his rookie year. I also think the world of Mitchell and have been following him for all three years at Denver. Even skated with them during his freshman year. Love his game. Love his personality. He can skate, defend, he has skill that will eventually lead to PP time in his career, he has leadership traits, and he sounds like a kid who wants to be great. I think he will be a top 4 guy in the league eventually and it looks like he is going to get top 4 minutes this year as well. That is probably asking a lot of him, but if any rookie can do it I think it is Mitchell. Really excited to watch him this year. This pair might have a learning curve as Mitchell adjusts to life in the NHL but by the end of the year I expect these two to be guys you trust in big spots

Zadorov-Boqvist

In some respects these two together make sense on paper. You have the big, stay-at-home type guy in Zadorov complimenting and covering for the free-wheeling, undersized, but exceptionally skilled Adam Boqvist. Perhaps Zadorov's presence will give Boqvist the green light to get up the ice, join and in some cases lead the rush, and really blossom into an offensive weapon because he knows he has Zadorov back there covering for him. 

Zadorov is a very good one-on-one defender. He is so big and has such a long reach that he can take away space in a hurry because his feet aren't terrible either. He is a hard guy to play against, physically. Teams are going to leave these back to games against the Blackhawks bruised and the bruises will come from Zadorov. 

Having said that...he's not a great defender inside the zone as part of a system. If you watched Colorado the past couple years you saw him get lost several times which led directly to goals. There is a reason why he was a 3rd pair guy for Colorado and played less than 18 minutes per game. There is a reason why they traded him...the Avs went out and got Devon Toews, they have Ryan Graves, Connor Timmins, Cale Makar, and Sam Girard ahead of him on the depth chart. Along with Erik Johnson under contract and former top pick Bowen Byram who starred for Canada in the WJC. They're loaded and they flipped a guy they had no use for anymore to Chicago for a guy who is slated to be a top 6 winger for them in Brandon Saad. 

So you have two guys who struggle in their own zone playing together. That is...not great. I hope we see the Adam Boqvist we were promised after he was drafted, but I hated the pick then and I am more pessimistic about his future than ever after watching him get dominated by Vegas. He was bullied. He was timid. He was benched. I always saw Boqvist as a guy who is a specialist and a guy who never should've been drafted that high. I am hoping for the best and therefore hoping I am wrong, but I just don't see some future top 4 all-star level defenseman. The 3rd pair could be rough here this year. Hopefully they both provide enough special teams value to justify their place on the roster

Extras: Brent Seabrook, Lucas Carlsson, Nic Beaudin

Some interesting storylines with the extras. Obviously Seabrook has not enjoyed his time under Colliton and he has been pushed away. It seemed like he worked hard to get ready for the bubble and they told him to stay home. He hasn't been with the team because his back flared up but he's expected to return in a couple weeks. Could an in-shape and healthy version of Brent Seabrook be a better partner and mentor for Mitchell/Boqvist/Carlsson/Beaudin...I think you could make that argument. Having said that there is no way he is going to jump those guys on the depth chart because anyways you slice it, management has made it clear that he is not part of any sort of future. 

I like Carlsson's game. I don't think his ceiling is that high but if he's your 6th or 7th defenseman I think you're okay. 

Beaudin has reportedly put on 10lbs of muscle. He supposedly had a rough first year in the AHL and people started to question his NHL future. Colliton called him one of the surprises of training camp. I liked him when I saw him against the Sharks. He might be a guy whose game is just better suited for the NHL. He is smart, skilled, and can move. Sometimes guys like that benefit from the more skilled, predictable, and controlled style of the NHL where the AHL can be more helter skelter. We'll see I guess. I think unless there are significant injuries 

Forwards

I saved the worst for last. I think this is the worst forward group in the NHL and the worst we've seen in Chicago in probably 14 years. Injuries and illness(?) obviously played a huge role, but it also speaks to the Blackhawks lack of organizational depth that this group is horrendously bad on paper. 

Debrincat-Strome-Kane

These are probably the Hawks' best three forwards to start the year so all the eggs are in one basket. Colliton has tried this combination before and it hasn't really worked. There's no forechecking to speak of on this line. Debrincat isn't that guy. Strome isn't that dog on loose pucks. Unless this group breaks out and breaks-in cleanly it'll be tough for them to produce. Debrincat should bounce back and shoot at a clip higher than the 8.7% he had last year. If he is closer to the 15% he had as a rookie then I think he score 25-30 assuming PP success. Kane will be Kane, but he will be largely wasted this year because of matchups and teammates. Strome I think will struggle. I like Strome as a 3C when he gets offensive zone starts against bottom 6 forwards and 3rd pair defensemen. I think he will get eaten up playing against top competition as a 1C this year. It's not Strome's fault that he's not a 1C. He's a nice player down your lineup, he's just not a 1C. Asking him to be that because the Blackhawks don't have a natural 1C or even a 2C is a Stan problem. 

Pirri-Soderberg-Kubalik

So much for the youth movement...Blackhawks traded Sikura for Pirri who turns 30 this year and they signed Soderberg who is 35 years old. 

I've always had a soft spot for Pirri. He can flat out shoot the puck. An elite release. A guy who scored 22 goals in 49 games for the Panthers one year. He has that type of ability but he's never really been put in an ideal position to play his game. I don't think this line is it either because again...no real forechecking to speak of on this line and both he and Kubalik score in similar ways. Wallmark is centering this line until Soderberg can get his immigration stuff figured out, but neither wing forechecks and neither wing really distributes. 

I like Kubalik a lot, but no Toews and no Saad means that he's not scoring 30+ goals again. I think the Hawks will be lucky to get 15 out of him in the 56 game season. 

I like Pirri, but this a BAD 2nd line. We could see Pius Suter move into that LW or even C spot at some point. 

Janmark-Wallmark-Shaw

Stan's two free agent moves could end up together once Soderberg joins the team. I actually like both of these guys and I wouldn't hate this as a checking line that is hard to play against if the other guys in the lineup were capable of scoring, but they aren't so this line stinks too. It's all linked. Janmark and Wallmark combined for 18 goals last year. Shaw is not going to be what he was. I am glad he is feeling healthy and that he's able to play but expecting him to be the Andrew Shaw we saw when he left for Montreal is just not possible. 

Highmore-Kampf-Carpenter

Another group that I like simply because they compete so hard on the ice. The problem is that they just aren't super effective. This isn't 2013 when Bolland-Kruger-Frolik made the best and possibly most dynamic 4th line in the game. These guys are just trying to play their opponents to a stalemate and get off the ice. Which is a normal expectation for a 4th line, but the problem of course is that if your first three lines are going to be underwater then your 4th line being at a stalemate isn't good enough. 

The Blackhawks forward group consists of one Hall of Famer, another top 6 wing, six guys who are 4th line NHL guys, one guy who should've stayed retired, a specialist type center who needs Ozone draws even though he can't win them, and a winger who probably shouldn't be in the NHL. Colliton stinks but even Barry Trotz couldn't win with this group. 

Extras: Kurashev, Pius Suter, Brandon Hagel

I likely made a mistake by not having Suter in the lineup from day 1, but I am going off of lines based from practice reports while also speculating where Soderberg fits in once he gets his paperwork figured out. It's not like Suter vs Pirri is going to be the difference between the playoffs and the bottom of the league. I'd like to see Kurashev. He always impressed me at the WJC level for Switzerland. He has the most upside of any young Blackhawks forward not named Kirby Dach so I hope he is able to get in the mix here at some point. Brandon Hagel is similar to Matthew Highmore. I am sure that Highmore, Shaw, or Carpenter will get banged up at some point this year and when they do Hagel will slide right into their role as a hard ass grinder type. He will be a fan favorite based on work ethic. 

The bleak mid-winter. Cold, sad, and dead on arrival. The problem is that Stan Bowman and Colliton aren't going anywhere. Promotions and extensions and excuses. Platitudes and not plans. "Visions" not victories. The Blackhawks used to be the Roman Empire, now the emperor has no clothes. It's depressing and we haven't seen a game. I am going to watch out of respect for Kane and Keith. I am going to watch because I am excited about Mitchell. I am going to watch because I am a diehard, but I can blame the rest of the city for not wanting to watch a doormat. Happy opening day, everyone.