Are the new-look Chicago Blackhawks a “Dark Horse” contender for the 2021-22 season?

With the recent success of some of the best teams from the 2010s, the team has become synonymous with the term “dynasty” in the NHL. Many Chicago Blackhawks fans would love nothing more but to relive the days of coach Joel Quenneville’s team making deep playoff runs yearly, and some still think that riding the nostalgia of players like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews will take them back to the promise-land alone, though the weak group around them has failed to do so in the past few seasons. The days of a blueline consisting of the likes of prime Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are long gone, and in addition to regression, Keith was traded to Edmonton earlier this off-season, and Seabrook unofficially retired. The 2015 Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawks after the losses of Andrew Shaw, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook are now left with only two players still on the roster, Kane and Toews.

Last season, the Blackhawks struggled to say the least, but this years team looks to solve many of the problems they were faced with last year. Chicago suffered from a lack of experience, very poor defense, and subpar goaltending. How would General Manager Stan Bowman and the rest of Chicago’s management handle the issues was the main question heading into the off-season, as it was speculated that the team thought they weren’t so far off from playoff contention.

The first move made by Chicago were the departures of defenseman Duncan Keith and minor league forward Tim Soderlund, who were traded to the Edmonton Oilers for young defender Caleb Jones, and a conditional third-round pick. From an emotional standpoint, I can guarantee you that many die-hard Blackhawks fans were sad to hear that arguably the best defender in the franchises history was traded before he could retire wearing red, white, and black, but it isn’t as simple as that. Unfortunately, like many players of Keith’s age in the NHL, his regression did a number on him. Mistake after mistake, he showed that he was nowhere near the Hall of Famer that he was before, and was simply not living up to his steep cap hit. He was arguably the worst defenseman in the league defensively, and it was time for a change. Personally, with the recent play and cap hit, I suspected that it would cost the Blackhawks an asset or two to get another team to take him. Shockingly, it went quite the opposite direction and Chicago acquired a promising young defender from Edmonton, Caleb Jones, along with a third-round pick. Although this move isn’t by any means the biggest move of the off-season for Chicago, I think it was absolutely necessary to obtain cap space, and begin to fill the biggest hole on the team; their defense.

The agenda and plan for the Blackhawks remained simple; continue to upgrade the defense, now with the added cap space from the Keith trade. The question many fans were left with, was how would Chicago utilize this asset of cap room. Dougie Hamilton? Ryan Suter? David Savard? Or was the Blackhawks recent move alluding to a trade for newly acquired Caleb Jones’ brother, Seth? Well, as speculated by many, Chicago made their biggest splash of the off-season on receiving highly touted 26-year-old defenseman Seth Jones along with the thirty-second overall pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft (Nolan Allan) and a 2022 sixth-rounder from the Columbus Blue Jackets in a blockbuster transaction sending off second-year blueliner Adam Boqvist to the Jackets with the twelfth and forty-fourth picks in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft (Cole Sillinger was picked 12, pick 44 was flipped the same day to the Carolina Hurricanes for young defenseman Jake Bean.), and Chicago’s first-round selection in the 2022 NHL Draft. How does this trade look for the Blackhawks and their playoff contention hopes? In short, the Blackhawks made two major upgrades in this trade, although it was for a very steep price. Jones likely gets number one defenseman minutes and responsibility coming to Chicago, formerly held by veteran Duncan Keith, which by itself is a massive upgrade for the Blackhawks to say the least, and as for the main piece they lost in this deal, Jones is a significant improvement over Boqvist defensively, as Boqvist unfortunately never showed any flashes of prowess in his own end. Jones brings a new aspect of size, strength, experience, and mobility to the Blackhawks, and gives real reason to be optimistic about where the team is today and the playoff hopes they hold.

Any hockey fan knows that a good defense is backed by the goaltending behind them, and without a steadily good tandem, an above-average defensive core is irrelevant. Last season, Chicago tried out using three different goaltenders, Collin Delia, Malcolm Subban, and Kevin Lankinen. Delia and Subban were originally projected to be the number one and two goalies respectively, but with shaky starts from both of them, the Blackhawks called upon rookie goaltender Kevin Lankinen and gave him a chance to prove his worth at the NHL level, which he ran with and won the starting role. No matter how good Lankinen was this year, he was still just 24 years old with no prior NHL experience, and you can’t rely on a rookie goaltender without a consistently good backup option to be your starter, and the Blackhawks knew this. How would they solve this issue? Well, some of the goalies about to hit the open market this summer consisted of starters like Philipp Grubauer, Linus Ullmark, Frederik Andersen, Petr Mrazek, and Antti Raanta. However, in a shocking move just a couple days before free agency began, the Blackhawks acquired reigning Vezina winner Marc-Andre Fleury to backstop the newly improved defense and take on somewhat of a mentor role in Lankinen’s development. Although it was speculated by many that Fleury would hang up the pads and opt to not play for the Blackhawks, he arrived in Chicago just a few days later to confirm we would see him in their uniform in 2022. As for what Blackhawks fans should expect from Fleury, well, we’re not quite sure yet. Of course it would be ideal for him to replicate his previous year and win another Vezina, however it’s incredibly unlikely for him to put up numbers in the same ballpark that he did with Vegas. I am confident though, that Fleury can play a majority share of games and still be a consistent and steady goaltender for Chicago, just not nearly as outstanding as last year. But of course, the numbers on the ice aren’t everything for a veteran add like this. Fleury has been described as the best teammate players have had by many, and previous goalies backing him up have praised his leadership and ability to make them better, which is why this is such a crucial add for a young goalie like Kevin Lankinen, and the rest of the Hawks locker room.

The last of the major trades made by Chicago, was to acquire middle-six center Tyler Johnson and a second-round pick in 2023 in exchange for Brent Seabrook. I see this move as a depth add for Chicago’s forward group bracing for the later loss of rookie forward Pius Suter to free agency, who signed a two year contract in Detroit. I believe Johnson can be a solid contributor for the Hawks, as he’ll get more minutes in Chicago than he did in Tampa. For a recent comparable production-wise, I would expect Johnson to put up similar numbers to Brandon Saad, though they’re quite different stylistically and physically. I could see Johnson centering Kane at some point or another, and would likely beat out Dylan Strome for that role.

On July 28th, this year’s free agency period kicked off. The Blackhawks began the day by trading the signing rights of Nikita Zadorov to the Calgary Flames in exchange for Toronto’s third-round pick in 2022, as there was simply no room for the 6’6″ hard-hitting defender anymore. With the loss of David Kampf who left for Toronto, Chicago signed bottom-six forward Jujhar Khaira to a cheap two-year deal. I don’t expect much more out of this signing than an extra depth option and do not foresee him playing opening night, or in any major roles in the lineup going forward. The main addition the Blackhawks made this free agency was the signing of defensive defenseman Jake McCabe to a 4-year contract worth $4 million dollars annually. McCabe, though injured most of last year, was analytically one of the best defensive defensemen in the NHL. I look at McCabe as someone who can play big minutes in a top-four role, with good leadership ability. No telling quite yet on who McCabe could pair with but it wouldn’t shock me to see him on a pair with his friend Connor Murphy, as they formerly played together as teenagers on the USNTDP team. If not Murphy, maybe you could see McCabe with Jones, but I personally don’t find it likely.

The off-season is still yet to come to a close, and moves could still be made. I do think defenseman Calvin De Haan and goaltender Malcolm Subban could still get moved, but as of right now the Blackhawks haven’t made anymore trades. Looking at the new and improved Blackhawks, it’s very possible they could make a run at the playoffs this year, but I wouldn’t be so quick to say they will. The Central Division is arguably the best division in the NHL as of right now, with the only two teams I’d rule out of playoff contention being the Arizona Coyotes and Nashville Predators. The key teams Chicago has to exceed this year are the St. Louis Blues, and the Dallas Stars. Although both teams did improve this off-season, there’s no doubting Chicago has too, and I think if the new additions go as planned, the Hawks could sneak up on the rest of the Western Conference and make a run at a playoff spot. With the additions of Seth Jones, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Jake McCabe, anything is possible for the Hawks. The last piece to this puzzle is their captain, Jonathan Toews. If Toews can come back within the first couple months of this year and be as good as he was the last time he hit the ice, I truly think that Chicago can be a real threat to the wild card spots the Western Conference holds, but time will tell, and we will see come October.

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