This has been a slow burn for the Chicago Blackhawks. But now more than ever, it’s evident that the organization has fumbled the center position.
Jonathan Toews, a pillar of the Blackhawks for the past 15+years, has carried the torch of do-it-all centerman for Chicago. Winning every important faceoff, playing the top minutes on the top line, playing on the powerplay and penalty-kill, leading the team on and off the ice, etc. However, since he was drafted third-overall by Chicago back in 2006, the Blackhawks have yet to find another player like him at his position. Though not for lack of trying.
13 years after drafting Toews third-overall, the Blackhawks drafted Kirby Dach third-overall, with the idea that he’d be the one to eventually take the place of Toews as the do-it-all centerman. But after 112 NHL games, primarily as a center, it appears Dach may not be that player. The Blackhawks may soon be without anyone to fill the role of one of the most important positions when building a winning hockey team.
Jonathan Toews’ health has been in focus for nearly an entire year. At this point of the calendar in 2020, we were getting word that Toews would miss the start of the 2020-21 season, eventually missing the entire year. We now know it was due to Chronic Immune Response Syndrome and Toews was feeling the effects of it all the way back to February of the 2019-20 season. Last summer, he announced he would be returning to the team for this season, but major questions loomed over what kind of player Toews would be upon his return. So far this season, it hasn’t been the Jonathan Toews of old.
In 30 games, Toews has just three goals and 13 points, which puts him on pace for the lowest point-total of his NHL career (while playing the fewest minutes per game of his NHL career). And remember, it took him 25 games(!) to find his first goal of the season this year. Needless to say, even from Toews himself, the season has not been what he had hoped.
Jonathan Toews: “(I’m) definitely not where I want to be, but it’s another thing I just try to be patient with. It’s not really in my nature to be patient.”
— Ben Pope (@BenPopeCST) December 7, 2021
Toews is doing most of the things away from scoring goals that you would expect of him. Playing on both the powerplay and penalty-kill, taking most-to-all of the important faceoffs, and playing in the top-six forwards group for the Blackhawks. But it’s not the same and we also don’t know when or if Toews will be able to get back to his version of being 100% on the ice.
Jonathan Toews (roughly): "I feel like my instinct and the I'm way thinking the game, it's like riding a bike. … (but) three or four games into a week, the recovery's not quite there."
— Phillip Thompson (@_phil_thompson) December 21, 2021
Since he made his NHL debut in 2007, Toews has skated in 1,100 games for the Blackhawks between the regular season and Stanley Cup Playoffs. He’s won three Stanley Cups, the Conn Smythe in 2010, the Selke in 2013, and has been a four-time NHL All-Star. He’ll have his No. 19 retired by the Blackhawks and will go down as one of the best players the organization has ever seen. But what happens when Toews, very soon, is no longer able to be the top centerman?
Kirby Dach, while still just 20-years-old, is not the answer.
After being selected third-overall in 2019, the Blackhawks had high hopes for Dach to come into the NHL right away, make an impact, and soon be dubbed the next “it” kid in Chicago. In 112 career NHL games, Dach has 15 goals and 46 points, while averaging 16:19 minutes per game in his career, 19:20 per game in the 2021-22 season. He’s a big kid at 6’4″ and 200+ pounds, still maturing into his frame, which is good when you look at a player you want to be an NHL centerman. He is learning to play effectively at both ends of the ice, which is again great for a budding NHL centerman. But through 100+ NHL games, he has a career 35.1% win-percentage at the faceoff dot and a 32.7% mark of the 2021-22 season.
— Phillip Thompson (@_phil_thompson) December 27, 2021
Of the 146 NHL players to take at least 700 faceoffs since the beginning of the 2019-20 season, Dach ranks 146th with his 35.1% win-percentage. 2019 NHL Draft top-overall selection Jack Hughes ranks ahead of Dach by just 0.3% at the dot, but has taken over 400 more faceoffs in his career. It’s the biggest glaring hole in his game that is keeping him from being that next “it” player for the Blackhawks.
Kirby Dach: "I just want to become the player I know I am. It’s been 2 ½ years, the ups and downs, the lulls, the highs and it’s frustrating. It sucks. As much as an athlete shouldn’t be paying attention to outside noise, it’s tough to turn away from that stuff."
— Scott Powers (@ByScottPowers) December 28, 2021
Both Scott Powers of the Athletic and John Dietz of the Daily Herald have looked into Dach’s game and profiled his development as the next top centerman for Chicago. Aside from his putrid numbers at the faceoff dot, a lot of what is holding Dach back is his ability to finish scoring chances. His 15 goals in 112 NHL games is just an 82-game average of 11 goals. Your top centerman is not allowed to only be potting 11 goals in a season unless he is also tallying 60+ assists, which Dach is obviously not.
Since the 2019-20 season, 14 forwards have played over 600 minutes at all strengths for the Blackhawks. In per-60 minute marks, Dach ranks 12th in Goals (0.50), 11th in points (1.46), 12th in shots (5.87), 8th in expected goals (0.71), and 11th in individual scoring chances (6.33). In most categories, the only forwards Dach is consistently ranking higher than are David Kämpf and Ryan Carpenter, two fourth-line forwards. It’s not the production you need from a player that is: A) selected third overall, and B) supposed to be the follow-up to Jonathan Toews.
If you ask me, the jury is out: Dach is a winger.
So that leaves the Blackhawks out a top centerman of the future. Again, it’s not for a lack of trying, but rather a lack of right decisions. Here is a quick rundown over the last decade of what the Blackhawks have done to address the center position through the draft and free agency, especially after the departure of Dave Bolland after the 2013 season.
• In 2011, the Blackhawks drafted Mark McNeill (18th), but could have drafted William Karlsson (53rd) or Vincent Trochek (64th). They also drafted Philip Danault, who was eventually traded away.
• In 2012, the Blackhawks used draft picks on Dillon Fournier (48th), Chris Calnan (79th), and Garret Ross (139th), all of which never played in the NHL, and could have drafted Andreas Athanasiou (110th) or Alex Kerfoot (150th) in that same draft class. They also drafted Teuvo Teräväinen that year, who was eventually traded away.
• In 2014, Chicago missed out on Brayden Point (79th) by five picks, eventually selecting Matteson Iacopelli, who never played in the NHL. They also drafted Nick Schmaltz that year, who was eventually traded away.
• In 2015, Chicago had a double-doink in the draft when they selected Graham Knott (54th), who never played in the NHL, when they could have drafted Anthony Cirelli (72nd). Later in that same draft, they drafted both Radovan Bondra (151st) and Roy Radke (164th), both never played in the NHL, and could have drafted Mason Appleton (168th).
Additionally, since Dave Bolland left the Blackhawks, there has been a revolving door of second-line centermen for the Blackhawks, all of whom were short-term stop-gap types. Those include Michal Handzus (2013 & 2013-14), Brad Richards (2014-15), Artem Anisimov (2015-2019), Nick Schmaltz (2016-18), and currently Dylan Strome.
What does the future hold for the Blackhawks? Since Dach was selected third-overall in the 2019 NHL Draft (six spots ahead of Trevor Zegras), the Blackhawks have picked a handful of players that are considered centermen at the prospect levels: Lukas Reichel, Colton Dach, Ilya Safonov, and Jalen Luypen. It’s far too early to tell for most of these players, but one has stood out in the past two seasons since being drafted by Chicago.
Lukas Reichel is giving Chicago hockey fans something to look forward to at the center position. In two years playing in the German DEL as a center for Eisbären Berlin, Reichel skated in 80 professional games and recorded 22 goals and 51 points in the regular season, and two goals and five points in nine games during the 2020-21 postseason, helping them win the DEL Championship.
Since coming to North America and playing with the Rockford IceHogs in the AHL, Reichel has eight goals and 14 points in 18 games. He leads the team in both categories and has been playing on the top-line as a center for essentially the entire season.
Reichel has a major “Teuvo” vibe to him with his physical stature and skill set, but his game plays more around the net than Teräväinen did in his younger days. Again, it’s still early to tell, but from his performance professionally overseas, in Blackhawks training camp, and with the IceHogs this season, Reichel looks the part of a player who could make a difference at the NHL level.
Both the #Blackhawks and #IceHogs are playing in Texas tonight. In his 2nd game back in the lineup, rookie Lukas Reichel gets his team-leading 8th #AHL goal and 14th point of the season pic.twitter.com/akfGWavnjE
— Mario Tirabassi (@Mario_Tirabassi) December 19, 2021
Does that translate to the next “do-it-all” centerman at the NHL level? In the case of Reichel, likely not.
What we are left with after over a decade of the Stan Bowman era of Blackhawks hockey is still three Stanley Cups, at least four Hall of Fame players, a sexual assault cover-up scandal, and an already glaring hole in the organization that, unless Kyle Davidson (or whoever is going to be the permanent General Manager) can fix it quickly, might keep the team from true Stanley Cup contention for years to come.