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 tomorrow, we’re keeping an eye on a number of key position battles that have yet to be decided.
Let’s all assume, for the purpose of this post, Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat are playing on the top-line for the Blackhawks. Easy enough. Also, let’s assume Ryan Carpenter and Jujhar Khaira are playing in fourth-line roles. Beyond that, where do the Blackhawks fit their middle-six forwards in a lineup that is much deeper than Chicago has seen in recent years?
Dominik Kubalík comes into his third season with the Blackhawks, having yet to show what he can do in a full, 82-game season in the NHL. In his two abbreviated seasons, the 26-year-old has scored on a 36-goal and 55-point pace in 2019-20 and at a 24-goal and 55-point pace in the 2020-21 season. So yeah, he’s good to go in either a second or third-line role. One ask I have of Jeremy Colliton this season is to play Kubalík on the powerplay more and utilize his cannon of a shot.
— NHL on NBC Sports (@NHLonNBCSports) April 22, 2021
Brandon Hagel is a lock to play in the middle-six after a breakout season last year as an NHL rookie. Hagel finished second in rookie scoring for the Blackhawks and fifth on the team last season with 24 points in 52 games played, a 38-point pace over an 82-game season. Expectations are much higher for Hagel in his second year in the NHL and his new contract extension with the club amplifies those expectations.
Like Hagel, Philipp Kurashev is coming off a breakout rookie season last year and will again be looked at as a complimentary scoring option for the Blackhawks this season and will likely slot into a middle-six role for Chicago. Although, with his versatility to play at center and at wing, Kurashev may end up being moved around the lineup this season.
— Blackhawks Talk (@NBCSBlackhawks) April 13, 2021
Also able to play both center and wing is Dylan Strome, a player with a lot to prove for the Blackhawks this season. After coming to Chicago in the 2018-19 season and putting up 51 points in 58 games, Strome has tallied just 55 points in his last 98 games with the Blackhawks. He’s in the final year of his current deal, which could be an additional motivating factor for the 24-year-old to find his previous form.
Tyler Johnson was brought into the Blackhawks fresh off of winning back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Nearly reaching the 30-goal plateau twice in his NHL career (29 goals in 2014-15 and 2018-19), Johnson’s role on a stacked Lightning team over the years has been subdued since his breakout season in 2014-15. Likely coming to Chicago to play as a third-line centerman, Johnson will undoubtedly be given a lot of flexibility and opportunity with the Blackhawks that he had not seen in Tampa for some time.
When it comes to rookie Lukas Reichel, the Blackhawks expect him to play in the NHL this season. But when he will do so is still up in the air. After a positive showing at the Tom Kurvers Prospect Showcase, expectations are high for the 2020 first-round pick. Blackhawks President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Stan Bowman said he would be surprised if Reichel doesn’t play in the NHL this season, with some thinking he’ll be an NHL-regular right out of the gate. I’d like to see Reichel earn his NHL roster spot out of camp, rather than having something handed to him if he isn’t ready for it.
Adam Gaudette is an interesting player for the Blackhawks this season. After coming to the team at the trade deadline last season, Gaudette worked his way into the lineup and showed a bit of promise as a bottom-line forward. He’s dealt with health issues for years in his NCAA and NHL career that he believes hindered his abilities. Now on a healthier diet and on a healthier path forward, Gaudette has been able to add and hold more weight (assuming it’s muscle weight) and play a stronger, more consistent game. His words. I’d like to see what he can do with his one-year deal in Chicago.
— Blackhawks Talk (@NBCSBlackhawks) April 30, 2021
A player that a lot of people are seemingly forgetting about it Henrik Borgstrom. Acquired by the Blackhawks at the trade deadline as well, Borgström played in Europe last season after failing to get his NHL career lifted off the ground early-on with the Florida Panthers. In 30 games with HIFK in the Finnish Liiga last season, Borgström tallied 11 goals and 21 points. He’ll come back to the NHL this season with Chicago having 58 games of experience, most of which came in the 2018-19 season in Florida. He has a good mixture of size, foot speed, and flash to his game, hopefully the change of scenery and opportunity with the Blackhawks can bring it all out of him more consistently.
Finally getting down the list to Alexander Nylander, another player looking for a fresh start with the Blackhawks this season. But unlike Borgström and Gaudette, Nylander has been here before. After suffering a knee injury in the 2020 postseason bubble, Nylander had surgery and missed all of the 2020-21 season. He comes back to the Blackhawks with a lot to prove and a lot to earn regarding his playing time. Another former first-round pick that the Blackhawks acquired recently, Nylander’s only full season in the NHL came with Chicago during the 2019-20 season where he tallied ten goals and 26 points in 65 games. Also needing consistency in his game, the battle between Nylander, Gaudette, and Borgström for ice-time will be intriguing to watch.
— Charlie Roumeliotis (@CRoumeliotis) March 12, 2020
Some others with outside shots at being involved in the group include Brett Connolly, MacKenzie Entwistle, Mike Hardman, and Reese Johnson, but they would have to really out-play their competition to not end up with the Rockford IceHogs to begin this season.
And this is all without having said one of Kirby Dach or Jonathan Toews will be in the Blackhawks’ middle-six group this season as well. One of them will be the top-line center, the other the likely second-line center. Toews is coming back from missing the entire 2020-21 season and we are to believe that he is coming back in full force. Or at least that is how the team continues to market him, even if Stan Bowman continues to tell everyone to pump the brakes on Toews’ return. If he is the Toews of old, Dach will then slot behind him as the second-line center for the Blackhawks this season. The 2019 first-round pick missed two-thirds of the 2020-21 season, but in the games he did play, he played well considering he wasn’t playing at 100%. A fully recovered and fully prepared Kirby Dach should be primed for a breakout year with the Blackhawks in his third NHL season.