The NHL opens the regular season tonight, with the return of Hockey to ESPN, which is incredibly exciting. The Chicago Blackhawks will begin their regular season tomorrow night, with the premiere of Hockey on TNT, which is equally as exciting. Last season, we went through a number of bold predictions for the 2020-21 season, some spicy, some more mild. So here we are again, looking ahead to the 2021-22 season with a much different vibe than we had at the start of last season.
Gone is the rebuilding mentality from the Blackhawks and in with the new is a mentality where the club expects to be not only contending for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but for the Stanley Cup itself. A lofty goal for a team that is so hard to pin-down heading into the year. There is a ton of “boom” potential with the Blackhawks this season, but at the same time, a ton of “bust” potential as well. So where does the club fall this season?
Will the Blackhawks make the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
Right out of the gate, I’m going to dowse the fire: No, they won’t.
While the Blackhawks made a lot of positive additions to the roster and have Jonathan Toews coming back, I don’t think they have enough in the tank to get over the hump of the Central Division, which might end up sending five teams to the postseason in the Western Conference. The team will be much more watchable than last season, that is for sure. I think Chicago finishes in the 88-93 point total range for the season, and misses the Western Conference wild card just barely.
I want to be wrong. I hope to be wrong.
Seth Jones will be better, but not “Norris-level” this season.
There is so much of the success or failure of the Blackhawks this season sitting on Seth Jones’ shoulders. He comes to the Blackhawks as the new No. 1 defenseman in the group, but hasn’t lived up to that kind of billing in his play over the past few seasons. He was a Norris Trophy-caliber player during the 2017-18 season, but has not replicated that kind of performance since. He comes to Chicago and has a hefty eight-year contract extension kicking-in after the season. I hope he lives up to it in the long-term. I think this season goes decently for Jones, but he is ultimately not considered as one of the top defensemen in the league again.
Marc-André Fleury plays the entire season with the Blackhawks.
For better or for worse, I don’t see Fleury moving during the 2021-22 season. He had to make the decision to come with his family to Chicago after being traded by the Golden Knights in the summer. While he ultimately made the decision to come to the Blackhawks and play the final year of his current deal in Chicago, the last thing he wants to do is make his family move again. I believe Fleury will be with the Blackhawks all season, and I think it will be because they are in contention for a playoff spot at the trade deadline.
Dylan Strome is getting traded.
Speaking of trades, Dylan Strome is already the subject of potential trade rumors and the season hasn’t even started yet. Unless he starts the season on a tear, I don’t see Strome finishing the year in a Blackhawks sweater.
Alex Nylander is getting traded.
Alex Nylander is starting the season with the Rockford IceHogs after missing all of last season due to a knee injury and having surgery. If he plays his way back into the NHL lineup, all the better, but he has an uphill battle ahead of him to not only get his NHL legs back under him, but to also make his way to the front of the line of IceHogs forwards that the Blackhawks would want to bring up to the NHL if/when they need a call-up. I want Nylander to succeed, but I don’t see him getting that shot with Chicago and he ends up heading to another organization.
Patrick Kane will once again be the Team MVP for 2021-22.
He was a top-five scorer in the NHL last season, even with a “nagging” injury (which he is still dealing with) and having hit a goal-scoring wall mid-way through the year. He’ll be paired with Alex DeBrincat all season, likely, and that will help him once again be at the top of the league in scoring. He’s still the best player on the team and I think he will once again be the straw that stirs the drink in Chicago.
Brandon Hagel will take a step forward.
Last season, Brandon Hagel was a rookie breakout player that ended up as one of the major contributors to the postseason push Chicago experienced last season. After gaining that experience and playing with Team Canada at the World Championships, Hagel came into the preseason with lofty expectations. I think he’ll meet those expectations in his second season in the NHL. He has been compared to Andrew Shaw, but with more offensive skills. I believe we’ll see more of that comparison come to life for Hagel in 2021-22. Pencil-in: 16+ goals, 45+ points
Impact Blackhawk that no one is talking about: Jujhar Khaira.
One thing the Blackhawks will need this season is a physical presence without Nikita Zadorov in the lineup. Jujhar Khaira is coming from the Edmonton Oilers and will likely start the season on the fourth-line for the Blackhawks. I like his ability to not only be physical and lay a hit every once-in-a-while, but also contribute offensively. Functional physicality is the way to go now-a-days in the NHL and Khaira has the ability to be physical and versatile for Chicago.
Impact Blackhawk that will fall short of expectations: Kirby Dach.
This is a bit tongue-in-cheek since I said Kirby Dach was going to be my NHL breakout player when I made my NHL season predictions. But, I think the expectations on Dach are a bit too high from some Blackhawks fans for this season. While I think he will have a breakout year and show that he was worthy of that third-overall pick in 2019, I don’t think he is going to end up being the No. 1 center for the Blackhawks by seasons-end. I don’t expect him to score more than 70-80 points and I don’t expect him to be winning a Selke Award anytime soon. If I’m being realistic for Dach this season, pencil him in for 18+goals and 65 points.
Chicago’s powerplay will finish in the top-third of the NHL.
So far through the preseason, the man-advantage for the Blackhawks has been relatively successful. With the ability to have Toews back, the Blackhawks can theoretically have two units on the powerplay that can pack a punch, rather than loading up one unit like last season. With the versatility and commitment to more puck and player movement in the offensive zone, I think Chicago can be a real threat again on the powerplay this season.
— Mario Tirabassi (@Mario_Tirabassi) October 10, 2021
Chicago’s penalty-kill will finish in the bottom-third of the NHL.
On the flip-side, the preseason did no favors to the penalty-kill for the Blackhawks. I’m skeptical that playing guys like Dach, DeBrincat, and Toews on both the powerplay, penalty-kill, and top lines will be feasible throughout the entire season. There will need to be solid contributions from players like Jujhar Khaira, Ryan Carpenter, and Brandon Hagel on the penalty-killing side from the forwards group, as well as defensemen like Jake McCabe, Connor Murphy, and Calvin de Haan. Having Marc-André Fleury will make a huge difference, but I worry if he’ll be able to hold up all season behind a Blackhawks defense that, while improved, is still playing a less-than-favorable system.
IceHog to watch this season: Michal Teply.
Keep an eye on forward Michal Teply in the Blackhawks farm system this year. While I don’t expect him to break into the NHL this season, the 20-year-old former fourth-round pick looked solid through the preseason and could end up being a major goal-scoring threat at the AHL level this season.
Lukas Reichel will be with the Blackhawks by Christmas AND stick with the club for the rest of the season.
Speaking of the IceHogs, sorry Rockford fans but I wouldn’t get too comfortable with Lukas Reichel in the AHL. The 2020 first-round pick looked decent in his preseason action with the Blackhawks, but with the depth of the forwards group in Chicago, Reichel ended up going to the AHL to begin his North American professional career. Maybe I’m being too bold, but I feel like Reichel will not be forced into the NHL, he will play his way into the NHL.
Jonathan Toews will play the full season AND score 20+ goals and 60+ points.
Finally, arguably the biggest storyline for the Blackhawks this season is the return of their Captain Jonathan Toews. How will his health hold up? How effective will he be? This is where I let my optimistic side run wild. Not only will Toews come back and be able to play a full season, I think he will be back to the effectiveness he has shown in recent seasons for the Blackhawks. He won’t need to be the top-line center for the club, so his 5v5 time will be less than it has been in the past, but his use on the powerplay and penalty-kill will allow us to see the “old Toews” every now and then. His presence in the locker room has already made a big impact on the team, and I think his play through the preseason has given me enough confidence that he can be the player he was before leaving the ice last year.
There you have it! The bold predictions for the Blackhawks in the 2021-22 season. We’ll check-in on these later in the year, closer to the All-Star/Olympic break to see how well or poorly they have aged. It’s all for fun anyways. Truly, I hope every good thing that can happen to the Blackhawks (on the ice) does and we are talking about a Stanley Cup contender. But I also hope that $100M just ends up in my bank account tomorrow, too. Everyone can dream.