The 2021-22 NHL season was supposed to be a step forward for the Chicago Blackhawks on the ice. Off the ice, we all know the story, and that is a thousand steps backward. But the revamped roster, with the additions of Seth Jones, Jake McCabe, Marc-André Fleury, and Tyler Johnson (and the return of Jonathan Toews) was supposed to make the Blackhawks a Stanley Cup Playoff-contending team. That was all supposed to happen.
What has happened so far through the first 11 games, or 13.4% of the season, has been nothing short of a disaster.
The Blackhawks sit in 31st in the NHL with a 1-8-2 record, only ahead of the winless Arizona Coyotes. So far, the very few bright spots of the season have been the unsurprising ones: Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat are playing at All-Star levels to begin the year. That was supposed to happen, and it has. But that’s it so far.
Seth Jones is playing better than he did last season, so far, but not at the level of a defenseman who is about to be making the same amount of money as Cale Makar and Adam Fox.
Marc-André Fleury, the 2021 Vezina Trophy winner, has been one of the worst goaltenders in the league so far this season. We all knew he would face a much more difficult task than he faced in Vegas, playing behind the Blackhawks defense, but even so, having a sub-.900 save-percentage and giving up nearly four goals per game was not to be expected. Behind him, Kevin Lankinen has not been able to find the same level of play he showed last season as a breakout rookie for the Blackhawks. Not all of the poor play in net lands squarely on the goaltenders, but they’re having difficulties pulling their weight behind a supposedly improved Blackhawks defense.
While the special teams’ units have been a revelation so far this season, with the powerplay ranking 11th in the NHL at 23.3% and the penalty-kill ranking fourth at 89.2%, it’s the other 47:38 minutes per game at even-strength where the Blackhawks have been terrible out of the gate.
A look at the 5v5 numbers for Chicago to start the season; remember, with the Seattle Kraken now, rankings are out of 32 teams:
• Corsi-For%: 45.60 (30th)
• Shots-For%: 44.64 (32nd)
• Expected Goals-For%: 42.59 (32nd)
• Scoring Chances-For%: 44.16 (28th)
• High-Danger Chances-For%: 49.34 (17th)
• High-Danger Goals-For%: 33.33 (t-32nd)
• Shooting%: 6.02 (29th)
• Save%: .873 (32nd)
• PDO: 0.933 (32nd)
It’s bad and it’s hardly getting any better. The 1-8-2 record is an increasingly deep hole that the Blackhawks are forcing themselves to have to dig out of. At this rate, Chicago would have to go on a seven-game winning streak just to reach 18 points in the standings, which the Carolina Hurricanes already reached with their win last night over the Blackhawks. At their current pace, the Blackhawks, Canadiens, and Coyotes are slated to finish in the league’s bottom three.
All this comes to my point: If the Blackhawks are this bad this season, they must make it count by ending up with either the first or second overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft.
The Blackhawks traded their 2022 first-round draft pick as part of the deal to land Seth Jones. The condition on that draft pick to the Blue Jackets is that Columbus will get the pick in 2022 only if the pick is not the first or second overall pick. If the Blackhawks “earn” one of the top two overall picks, the first-rounder to the Blue Jackets becomes Chicago’s 2023 first-round pick.
I am in the boat of wanting the Blackhawks to suck for as little time as possible, when possible. I wasn’t expecting this season to turn out to be what we expected 2020-21 to be, but here we are. If Chicago continues on their current trend, the 2021-22 season needs to end with Chicago having a 50-50 chance at drafting Shane Wright, the consensus top overall draft prospect in the 2022 NHL Draft class.
Wright’s name has been on scouting radars since the 2018-19 season. He earned “exceptional status” in the OHL Draft heading into the 2019 season, becoming just the sixth player to earn that denomination as an underage player in the league at 15-years-old. John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, Connor McDavid, Joe Veleno, and Sean Day had earned the status before him, and 2023 top draft prospect Connor Bedard earned it last season.
As a 15-year-old in the 2019-20 season, Wright was named the OHL rookie of the year and the CHL rookie of the year, tallying 39 goals and 66 points in 58 games with the Kingston Frontenacs. Due to COVID, the OHL didn’t have a season last year, so Wright’s only hockey was the U-18 World Junior Championships. As Captain of Team Canada, Wright skated in five games and finished tied for the second-most points in the tournament with teammate Connor Bedard, notching five goals and 14 points en route to winning the Gold Medal. Wright has ten points through the first nine games of the OHL season with Kingston this year, serving as the Team Captain.
Here’s what a few NHL Draft analysts have to say about the 17-year-old centerman.
Not only is he an incredibly athletic kid who boasts a wide gait and boxy shoulders that will allow him to stay over pucks and play through checks at the NHL level, but those physical tools are complemented by a lethal wrist shot release (which he can get off from several stances and pops off of his blades heel or toe) and excellent hands in traffic that allow him to take pucks off of the wall from won battles and create scoring chances to the interior. And on top of all of that, he’s also one of the most diligent three-zone players in the draft, with a powerful stride that helps him push play up ice when he’s done providing support low in his zone or above the puck. I don’t think he’s going to put up gaudy point totals at the NHL level but he checks all of the boxes, blending versatile skill with a heady, detailed game that will allow him to drive a line and be relied upon in all situations down the middle at the next level.
He plays a strong two-way game with pro structure and habits and has an excellent shot with an unpredictable release that can beat goalies from any angle. Shane is the definition of a hockey player and will be a franchise player in the NHL in a few years.
What makes Shane stand out is the way he approaches the game to compete with his exceptional skating, skills and smarts. Perhaps the best compliment to come his way is the fact that he plays in a manner in which he makes other players around him better. His style of play is reminiscent of the best parts of Nico Hischier and Mathew Barzal, both of whom play with a drive that can impact the play.
Without question, Wright’s best asset is his hockey IQ and ability to process the game. This has always been his standout quality, dating back to his minor hockey days with the Don Mills Flyers of the GTHL. Even as a 14-year-old playing with U16 players in the GTHL, he dominated both ends of the ice with his advanced decision making and understanding of how to play without the puck. It is this polished and advanced two-way game that has scouts aptly comparing him to Boston Bruins standout Patrice Bergeron.
Like Bergeron, Wright has no weaknesses in his game. His skating ability and quickness are well above average. His shot and release are major weapons. His vision and IQ make him an elite level playmaker. He competes physically. He is already a captain in the OHL as a 17-year-old. This is a player you want your team to have a shot at, slow start or not.
Needless to say, if this is the year that the Blackhawks end up “tanking,” this is the guy to do it for. Also, can it be considered “tanking” if you came into the season with full expectations that you would not be in an NHL Draft lottery position? If Chicago does not finish in one of the bottom two spots in the league this season, there is no guarantee that next season will allow them to be in a position to get another player of Wright’s stature, like Connor Bedard, in the 2023 Draft class.
Chicago doesn’t have a true future franchise-building prospect in their system. Alex DeBrincat is a star in the NHL, but he shouldn’t be the load-bearing player alone. Kirby Dach still has that star potential in the league, but he’s yet to realize it as quickly as DeBrincat did in his first few years. Recent top draft picks like Lukas Reichel and Nolan Allan seem like they will be good NHL players that can help drive a team’s success down the road, but again, are not projected to be load-bearing star type of players. Wright is, and if the 2021-22 season continues down this road for the Blackhawks, the destination needs to end with selecting him first-overall in July.