The Blackhawks get their 2021-22 home slate going tonight when they welcome the Islanders to the United Center. Hopefully, it won’t be a warm welcome for New York, but there are a handful of Blackhawks that will need to play much better – individually – if they’re to help the Blackhawks change the tides of a dreadful 0-2-1 start to the season.
I think that it’s important to note that small sample sizes can be dangerous, but these four players need to step it up for the Blackhawks starting tonight when the puck drops against the Islanders.
It’s been a rough go of it for Jake McCabe in his first three games with the Chicago Blackhawks. Less than five minutes into his regular-season debut with the Blackhawks, McCabe was off his feet, and Colorado’s Jack Johnson scored on a 1-on-1 opportunity against Marc-André Fleury. Unfortunately, it hasn’t gotten any better from there.
Jack Johnson with quite the goal to open the scoring for the Avalanche.. pic.twitter.com/1SW558WNSG
— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) October 14, 2021
McCabe wasn’t much better on Friday night when Connor Murphy and McCabe combined for a plus/minus of -5 in an overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils. Overall, McCabe has no points, a -4 plus/minus, and has looked lost in Jeremy Colliton’s defensive system.
As Scott Powers points out in his latest column at The Athletic, the pairing of Jake McCabe and Connor Murphy has been pretty bad through three contests:
“This was supposed to be the Blackhawks’ shutdown pair. So far in 39:33 of ice time together, opponents are outscoring the Blackhawks 5-1 and have a 23-16 advantage in scoring chance. They have an expected goals percentage of 31.34.”
McCabe and Murphy will have to be better, but it starts with McCabe, who signed a four-year, $16 million contract this summer.
In another offseason acquisition, veteran forward Tyler Johnson has looked ineffective in his first three games with the Blackhawks. Playing on a line with Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane for much of the time, Johnson and his line-mates have struggled to get anything going offensively in 5-on-5 play.
Johnson, like McCabe, is new to the Blackhawks and Jeremy Colliton’s system, and it’s showing in the early stages of his tenure with Chicago. He’s often lost and often just not in a position to make a play. Johnson said on Monday that the team was getting away from the structure in which Jeremy Colliton wants them to play. Johnson talked about how guys not being where they need to be when they need to be there creates many prime opportunities for their opponents to score.
“It’s just being in the right spots, taking (fewer) chances, backing each other and playing within the structure that we talk about,” Johnson said. “Sometimes we just get away from that a little bit. The NHL is too good of a league that when your structure fails you and guys are in the wrong spots, other teams make you pay. … We almost have to play a little bit more of a boring game.”
Again, like McCabe, the good thing for Johnson is that time and repetitions should help them become better in Colliton’s structure that Johnson spoke about on Monday at practice.
As of now, it appears that Johnson won’t be skating with Chicago’s best player, Patrick Kane, anymore after that line struggled mightily through three games to contribute anything in 5-on-5 play. This problem has plagued the Blackhawks, who have just two goals in that department in three games. Johnson was skating with Jujhar Khaira and MacKenzie Entwistle on the fourth line at practice on Monday.
You have two 5-on-5 goals in three games, you'd think Dylan Strome would finally get a crack at the lineup. Instead, he's on the "fifth" line with Carpenter & Gaudette.
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) October 18, 2021
Johnson is a veteran coming off of back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships with the Tampa Bay Lightning, so he’s no stranger to what good hockey looks like. I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, for now, but the Blackhawks need more out of him if they want to right the ship before it’s too late.
Marc-André Fleury hasn’t gotten much help in front of his in his first two starts with the Blackhawks, but he has to be better than he has thus far, and I’m sure the reigning Vezina winner would tell you that. Fleury was run out of the building just past the halfway mark of the first period on Saturday night when his former team put four goals on him early. He was ambushed, but he has to do better on odd-man rushes coming his way.
Fleury has allowed eight goals on 46 shots through his first four-ish periods in the Blackhawks net, and that’s not going to cut it. The defense is an issue. It’s something he’s not used to having to deal with. Playing in Vegas last season, he only saw 36 or more shots three times. That’s what he saw in his first start with the Blackhawks last week against Colorado.
Fleury is 0-2-0 with a 7.06 GAA and .826 Sv% in two starts, and after a couple of days off, he’s back in the crease for the Blackhawks tonight against the Islanders.
— Charlie Roumeliotis (@CRoumeliotis) October 19, 2021
Alex DeBrincat was a stud during the 2018-19 season when he scored 76 points (41 G, 35 A) in 82 games for the Blackhawks, but followed that performance up with a down season (45 points in 70 games). Last season we saw DeBrincat head back in the right direction with 56 points in 52 games. This season was supposed to be an opportunity for DeBrincat to prove which version of himself he is, but he’s off to a less than promising start in the infancy of the 2021-22 season.
DeBrincat has managed to show on goal when the Blackhawks are in 5-on-5 play in his first three games. As one-third of the struggling 12-90-88 line, DeBrincat just hasn’t maximized his early opportunities because his slow start hasn’t been for lack of opportunities. We’ve seen DeBrincat with the puck on his stick in some pretty good spots, but he’s failed to convert them into anything of substance. DeBrincat’s lone goal and assist this season have both come on the power play.
— Blackhawks Talk (@NBCSBlackhawks) October 16, 2021
It seems like the 12-90-88 experiment is over for the time being, so hopefully, a change of scenery for Dach will help him out. Like most of the guys on this list, I’m not worried about DeBrincat long-term, but the sooner he can turn it up, the sooner the Blackhawks will begin to look more like their potential on paper than the product they’ve rolled out thus far.
On his individual performance: “I’ve just got to be sharper, win more battles. I’m definitely not happy with my game.”
— Ben Pope (@BenPopeCST) October 19, 2021
The important thing to understand, or take away from this, is that small sample sizes are just that — small sample sizes. It’s been only three games, but these guys have to turn it around, and if they can play closer to their potential, the Blackhawks would largely benefit from it.