The Chicago Blackhawks are less than a month away from the start of the regular season (October 13th), when they’ll take on the Avalanche in Denver, Colorado. But with training camp set to begin in the next week, we’re keeping an eye on a number of key position battles that have yet to be decided. For example, top-line center.
Of course, that particular position has been locked down by one man longer than pretty much any other position, in every other major sport in Chicago for a while now. Since the 2008-09 season, Jonathan Toews has been that go-to guy for the Blackhawks in every situation. Powerplay, penalty-kill, final minutes of a game when you need one goal … you name it, and Toews has been on the ice. Or at least, that was the case until the 13 months ago during the 2020 bubble postseason in Edmonton.
When the Blackhawks were trailing late in Game Five of the opening round series against the Golden Knights, Toews was planted on the bench. And that was the last game he played for the Blackhawks.
I wasn’t too vocal about the things I went through this year. I appreciate the understanding and support and wanted to share this message on where I’m at. pic.twitter.com/3qgftKki10
— Jonathan Toews (@JonathanToews) June 30, 2021
After missing all of last season due to an illness, Toews is now back with the club ahead of this season at the age of 33. In his absence last year, the top-line center spot was a gigantic question-mark. Players like Dylan Strome, Pius Suter, Philipp Kurashev, and even David Kämpf were among the players that rotated through. But while Suter started to fit into the role late last year, he’s no longer with the team (ditto Kämpf). One would love to think that upon his return, Toews slots right back into that top-line center spot so things can go back to the way they used to be … But that may not be the case. It might not even be close.
We still don’t know exactly where Toews is with regard to his health. He is saying all the right things, and we have seen him return to the ice with the Blackhawks this summer, but even when things are back to 100%, we won’t know how his body will hold up. Optimistically, if Toews can play upwards of 70-75+ games this season, that’s all the better. But he may not be able to be the Toews of old, playing in all situations and playing 20+ minutes a night.
What might be best for Toews and the Blackhawks is a more limited role right out of the gate. Possibly as a second-line or third-line center to ease his minutes, keep his body as fresh as possible, and maximize his impact. In doing so, someone would need to step-up and play in that top-line role.
One player, also looking to return to 100% health this season that could fit that bill, is third-year forward Kirby Dach. Dach is coming into the 2021-22 season looking to prove his worth to the Blackhawks as a future franchise-leading player. And, indeed, his future with the organization could be in that top-line center role.
Some obstacles do stand in Dach’s way, however. The biggest of which is that he’s coming into this season after missing two-thirds of last year with a broken wrist that required surgery. As a centerman, healthy, strong wrists are kind of important. Moreover, Dach has split his time in the NHL playing on the wing and playing center. In his professional career, Dach has a 36.8% face-off percentage, which is terrible. It was better over his 18 games last season (40.3%), but that was just 191 faceoffs and still not where you want a top-line center to be.
— Charlie Roumeliotis (@CRoumeliotis) April 11, 2021
With that said, Dach has shown – in flashes – that he has what it takes to be a top-six forward in the NHL. Plus, being fully healthy and having a full offseason and training camp to prepare for the year should help. If the wrist is 100%, don’t be surprised if Dach is pushing Toews in training camp for the top-line spot down the middle.
Long story, short: The Blackhawks are thin at the center position when it comes to top-line talent. They are fine down the middle with depth options like Dylan Strome, Tyler Johnson, Henrik Borgström, Adam Gaudette, Jujhar Khaira, Philipp Kurashev, and Ryan Carpenter, but none of them scream “top-line center.” Lukas Reichel is also getting some play as a centerman this summer after playing down the middle over the last two years in the DEL with Eisbären Berlin, but you simply cannot expect Reichel to step into the NHL right away, let alone as the Blackhawks’ top-line center.
If you’re asking me who will end up playing the most minutes this season as the Blackhawks’ top center, my heart says Toews, but my head tells me Dach. Playing the youngster in that top-line role, with Toews slotting in behind him, gives the Blackhawks the flexibility to say, “go ahead kid, be the guy” with the option to play Toews behind him and pick up Dach’s slack. And again, this is assuming that Toews is truly healthy and capable of playing the full season, which we won’t know for sure until we are in the thick of it.
If neither of them can play that role this season, the Blackhawks are in a heap of trouble.