The Chicago Blackhawks 2021-22 Season Preview: Rebuild, Return, or Rerun?

Despite being one of the most successful franchises in the salary cap era of the NHL, the Chicago Blackhawks have seen their fair share of struggles recently. Starting with the 2017-18 season, the Blackhawks have been plagued with 3 straight years of mediocrity. With the 2020-21 season approaching rapidly, Blackhawks management decided it was finally time to announce that the glory days had come to an end. It was time for a rebuild.

Blackhawks fans were relieved to hear that Stan Bowman was ready to take steps to bring the Blackhawks back into contention, and things were starting to look promising at the end of the 2020-21 season. They ended the year with a 24-25-7 record. While this record felt like a blow to those fans hoping for a potential playoff run, this felt like a step in the correct direction for others. Kirby Dach and Jonathan Toews both would be potentially hitting the ice after injuries took their season away, and there were plenty of promising rookies who would surely improve their game in the offseason. Going into next year, it looked like all the Blackhawks had to do was make a few moves here and there, but most importantly, draft well and wait.

It seems like waiting was not in the Blackhawks’ game plan this offseason.

The Blackhawks made a series of decisions this offseason that left many fans scratching their heads. While a rebuild can be handled in many different ways, normally, a model rebuild involves not giving away a first-round pick, which the Blackhawks would be responsible for on draft night. This sudden backpedaling has left many fans wondering which direction the team is heading for the 2021-22 season. To fully paint an accurate picture, it is important to break down the moves made by Hawks management this off-season and what exactly it could mean for the future as well.

Is the Rebuild Still On?

The Blackhawks continuing with their rebuild seems to be the most unlikely option of the three. After just one year, management seems to have strayed from the beaten path to try bringing Patrick Kane and Johnathan Toews another Stanley Cup. However, not all of their moves reflected that ideology. Trading Duncan Keith for Caleb Jones was a decent move that freed up a good chunk of cap space for the Hawks. Keith is loved deeply by Chicago, but all good things must eventually come to an end. As far as other rebuilding moves made in the off-season, well, there aren’t any.

The Blackhawks have often been accused of letting go of their best players and not getting great returns. There are plenty of examples of this as well. Panarin for Saad and Jokiharju for Nylander are just two of the trade returns fans have been less than keen to see. However, what is more, unheard of is letting go of a player who received Calder votes for nothing, at least until this off-season.

Pius Suter was one of the best performing rookies on the Blackhawks this past year. 27 points in 55 games was a decent enough performance to warrant keeping him around and seeing how he played next year. Blackhawks management had different plans. Suter did not receive a qualifying offer from the team. Why? It was likely from a fear of arbitration. However, what would have been the harm in qualifying Suter and trading him for something? On top of that, the contract Suter received was more than reasonable if he lives up to his skill set. $3.2 million average annual value (AAV) for the next two years is not a franchise crushing salary whatsoever. To make matters worse, the former Central Division rival Detroit Red Wings nabbed him in free agency. If Steve Yzerman is taking a player in day one of free agency that you did not qualify, you definitely may have messed up a bit.

As egregious as the Suter situation was in the eyes of some fans, one could argue that Bowman made a much more controversial move this offseason that could singlehandedly sink the ship. This, of course, is referring to the Seth Jones trade.

Are They Looking to ReInvigorate Stanley Cup Hopes?

The Chicago Blackhawks making a move for a huge defensive talent in Seth Jones has left many fans in a massive state of confusion. Only a few short years ago, Jones was seen as a potential Norris candidate-level defenseman. This past year was a different story. Jones managed to put up 28 points in 56 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2020-21. This was actually just two points less than he scored in the same number of games the year prior. However, points were not the issue many noticed in Jones’ game last year. He went from being a plus-10 to a minus-18, which was extremely close to being the worst plus/minus on the team.

Despite this, the Blackhawks made a trade for him on July 24th, and he immediately signed an extension for 8 years at $9.5 million AAV. The return for Jones on the Blue Jackets’ end was Adam Boqvist, 2021 first and second-round picks and a 2022 first-round pick. Sending Boqvist and 2 first-round picks away more or less destroyed the idea of a rebuild, but more importantly, it left a shared competitive mentality across the organization.

During the 2020-21 season, the Hawks showed they have a decent amount of talent brewing. Many rookies (including the aforementioned Pius Suter) managed to put up respectable point totals. Kevin Lankinen became the starting goalie in a year that coaching more or less handed to Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia. Jones was brought in with the hopes that he would not only be a strong defensive presence for the team going forward, but he also could be a mentor for some of those younger players looking to become full-time NHLers.

Bowman was far from done when it came from boosting firepower after the Jones trade. On July 27th, the Blackhawks made a trade that brought Marc-André Fleury from the Vegas Golden Knights. Fleury just came off a Vezina winning season and was traded as a cap dump. Management wasted no time nabbing him. There is no doubt that Fleury is an amazing goaltender. Pairing him alongside Lankinen will not only provide stable goaltending for the 2021-22 season but hopefully help Lankinen continue his development.

Alongside a trade for Tyler Johnson, free agent signing Jake McCabe, and other offseason moves, the Blackhawks have a team that could definitely make a run for the playoffs this next year. Repeating the glory days is something that Hawks fans have dreamt of since the team began their initial spiral. This could be the year that they’re able to do it again. All of the pieces are there; now, it’s just a matter of whether or not they fall into place. However, while a return to the playoffs would be refreshing, there is another path the team could go down. And unfortunately, it is a path that Blackhawks fans are all too familiar with.

Is Another Rebuild Phase Possible?

There is nothing more exciting than prospects. Nabbing one of the best available or finding a gem in the draft is enough to rile up any fanbase. Unfortunately, prospects are also the price for receiving big names via trade, and when the name attached happens to be Jones, there will be some top prospects headed the other way for that trade to go through. Sure enough, this was the case with Chicago. Adam Boqvist, a former 8th overall pick, is now in Columbus. Boqvist had been developing steadily as a member of the Blackhawks. He was one of the team’s best defensive prospects, but he has struggled to find his game in the NHL.

On top of Boqvist, they gave up the 11th overall pick in the 2021 draft and their first-round pick in 2022. The 11th overall pick turned into Cole Sillinger, who was absolutely lights out in the past 2 seasons in the WHL and USHL. Next year’s first-round pick comes in a very stacked draft class as well, and all of this information has led many Hawks fans to a similar conclusion, “we are going to blow this, aren’t we?”

Coming off of back-to-back-to-back seasons of mediocrity, it’s safe to say many Hawks fans are rightfully skeptical about this offseason. Making moves that tarnish the prospect pool is scary. If it backfires, the Blackhawks will be back to the same spot they have been in for years now. To make matters worse, if they miss the playoffs this year, suddenly, their 2022 first-round pick is lottery eligible.

Missing out on Shane Wright because of the Jones trade would be absolutely heart-wrenching for Blackhawks fans who have already been hurt time and time again by other moves management has made. They have to hope that this season goes exactly how they want to avoid a complete disaster. However, there are even more issues to worry about if you’re a fan.

Jones signed until 2030, and he is getting paid $9.5 million. If he does not live up to that contract, the team is stuck with him. The Blackhawks have already been in situations where they have had a strained salary cap over the past few years, and it has not been pretty. Beyond next year, there is a genuine possibility that it happens again. Some might say they’ve taken steps backward in their rebuild that would force them to start over… again. The only thing worse than the pain of a rebuild is the pain that comes with knowing you need a rebuild but avoiding committing to it at all costs.

So…What Now?

The Blackhawks need to be contenders next year for the offseason moves to pan out. When it comes to what direction the team is realistically heading in, it seems like rebuilding is out of the question. The Hawks gave away young players and first-round picks for established NHL players, which for better or for worse means that the rebuild phase has come to an end. Most likely, next year ends in a situation where they manage to work their way into the playoffs. The offense, defense, and goaltending have either stayed the same or gotten an upgrade, even if the upgrade is temporary.

If Jones can play as he did a few years ago, Fleury plays like Fleury, and the offense takes the next step forward, the Blackhawks actually look pretty good for the 2021-22 season. However, winning the cup might be a stretch. Obviously, the best-case scenario is becoming 2022 Stanley Cup champions. However, it seems more likely the Hawks will make the playoffs and burn out in the first or second round. Even with the upgrades, there is still a chance that the team does not connect the way management wanted it to, and they miss the postseason entirely. If that happens, the next few years could be very bleak.

For the time being, we will have to see what becomes of the Blackhawks next year. They made some big moves this offseason, and a lot of them look like they will work out for the best, at least in the short term. Perhaps the glory days are back. Perhaps they are even further away than they were a year ago. Who knows? For now, there is only one thing Blackhawks fans know for certain: if that first-round pick they traded to Columbus becomes a lottery pick, things could get ugly quickly.

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