After another disappointing season and in the midst of a rebuild-on-the fly, can the Blackhawks salvage the 2021 season? Here are the 5 biggest questions that will determine their fate, for better or worse:
1. How healthy is Brent Seabrook?
Over the past few seasons, Brent Seabrook’s play has steadily declined since 2015. Mobility was always a problem for Seabrook, but his lack of speed was all the more glaring this year – so much so, that Jeremy Colliton benched the three-time Stanley Cup champion. Soon after his benching in December, injuries to his right shoulder and both hips would shelve Seabrook for the remainder of the 2020 season.
In addition to Seabrook’s health, his age (35) and contract ($6.875 million through 2024) are the two biggest concerns for the organization. One silver lining is that, due to the extended Covid-19 pause of the NHL season, Seabrook was able to undergo surgery on his shoulder and both hips. By electing to miss the post-season, he was able to gain valuable recovery time; and has recently said that he feels as good as he’s felt in his career.
“I haven’t felt this good in 10 years,” Seabrook said. “Getting up out of bed, or little things like tying your shoes, just getting on the ground and playing with my kids, all that stuff has been a lot better.”
Only time will tell, but if Seabrook can regain even a fraction of his old form, he would work wonders for a blue-line that struggled mightily last season.
2. Will the Blackhawks have a capable starting goaltender?
With the departure of long-time stalwart Corey Crawford, the Blackhawks now find themselves without a bonafide starting goaltender for the first time in at least a decade. General Manager Stan Bowman has yet to sign a veteran goalie via free agency. In fact, Bowman has gone on record stating he believes it’s time to give his young goaltenders a shot.
Malcolm Subban, Kevin Lankinen, and Colin Delia will all have an opportunity entering the season – the question is, are any of them truly ready to be a number one goalie? With 66 games played, Subban has the most NHL experience. Delia played only 16 NHL games in the 2018-2019 season, but was fairly solid during the stretch, posting a .908 save percentage. Lankinen is the greenest of the three, with no NHL experience under his belt.
There really is no true front-runner among the three. Delia does have the most experience within the organization and has actually backstopped for the Blackhawks, whereas Lankinen and Subban have yet to do so.
3. Is Dylan Strome Expendable?
When Strome was acquired for Nick Schmaltz two years ago, he seemed to be the missing second-line center the Blackhawks had desperately needed. He immediately clicked with his old Erie Otters line-mate Alex Debrincat, notching 51 points (17G, 34A) in 58 games his first year in Chicago. So what happened?
Unfortunately, Strome reverted back to the player he was while with Arizona. The post-trade productivity he displayed in 2018 had waned his second year, as Colliton struggled to find a proper spot for him within the lineup. In addition to Strome’s lack of productivity, the Hawks were also eager for their 3rd overall pick in Kirby Dach to get some reps as the second-line center. With one full year under his belt, the Hawks will be even more eager to see what Dach can do in the top-six this season.
Strome is a solid player, but only when he’s producing offensively. As a center, he is less effective as a two-way, checking-line player, which limits his flexibility within the lineup. In addition, Strome is a liability in the face-off circle. Ironically, the Blackhawks had a similar problem with ex-Hawk Artem Anisimov, who was only effective in a top-six offensive center role.
Although the Blackhawks did present a qualifying offer to Strome, he has yet to sign with the team. Seemingly, the door is still open for both sides to come to terms, but the Blackhawks are not willing to over-pay for his services, especially when they have Dach in the wings. In addition to Dach, the Blackhawks now have a plethora of bottom-six centers without Strome, including these newly-acquired players: Mattias Janmark, Lucas Wallmark, and even Brandon Pirri.
4. Will the Hawks be tougher to play against?
Dating back to last off-season, one of Bowman’s priorities has been acquiring players who can make the Blackhawks tougher to play against. Andrew Shaw, Zack Smith, and Calvin de Haan were all brought in because of their grit and physicality. This year is certainly no different with Nikita Zadorov: a bruising 6’6” defenseman who led the Colorado Avalanche in hits last season with 175.
Zadorov is the type of defenseman the Blackhawks have always lacked: mean, consistently physical, and who can effectively clear the crease. Not only does Zadorov have a mean streak, but he’s also quick to drop the gloves. Having a guy like Zadorov on the back end will help a team that will once again have many young players within the lineup.
The sample size for Shaw (concussion), Smith (concussion, back) and de Haan (right shoulder) was very small last year, but if these three can stay healthy for the majority of the upcoming year, the Hawks will no doubt be a tougher team to play against. Whether this toughness will translate to more wins is still debatable.
5. Can the Hawks’ young players – particularly Dach and Boqvist – take the next step?
Expectations have been sky-high for both Kirby Dach and Adam Boqvist since they were selected 3rd and 8th overall in their draft classes, respectively. Although Boqvist was drafted one year before Dach (2019), both played their rookie seasons last year.
Overall, Dach had a successful rookie year. He didn’t blow up the stat sheet (8G, 15A), but he showed flashes of a solid two-way capable center. Dach was selected because he was the total package: a player with size, speed, skill, and smarts, who can contribute both offensively and defensively. He displayed all of these attributes last year – including in the post-season – but like any rookie, he is still learning and lacked consistency at times. Nevertheless, his play last year still solidified his trajectory of being a future top-six forward.
It’s been said that defensemen take longer to mature than any other position, and Boqvist was no different his rookie year. The urgency for Boqvist to develop quickly was magnified when Bowman traded his other highly-touted defensive prospect Henri Jokiharju. That pressure may have affected Boqvist, who had an up-and-down year. The young defenseman struggled with the speed of the game and his positioning. He showed encouraging glimpses in the regular season, but struggled mightily in the post-season, particularly against the Vegas Golden Knights. Compared to Dach, Boqvist still has a long way to go in his development – both mentally and physically – but with the additions of Zadorov and a healthy Seabrook/de Haan, he may be able to develop and gain confidence against bottom-six opponents, as opposed to top-six opponents.