Before this season began, the Blackhawks had plenty of questions. The biggest was an easy one: “How bad will this team be?” Many people outside the organization had the Blackhawks penciled in for somewhere close to the basement of the NHL.
But being around practices and the room before/after games, even during a mostly lackluster preseason, there was a belief that this team could — and would — defy expectations. We’ve all heard the soundbites and read the quotes from veterans talking about proving the doubters wrong.
There were a few people out there who saw the possibility of this roster being better than the expectations, though. Back in late September, we wondered if the Blackhawks were bad enough.
This team needed a lot of things to go right for them to make noise. And early in the season, many of those things did in fact go right. The Blackhawks have seen offensive production — something that wasn’t supposed to happen — come from all over the roster. They’ve been good enough at times defensively. And they’ve picked up some timely goaltending.
The duct tape with which that potential was clinging together was health. Chicago dealt with a couple injuries during the preseason — a sprained ankle for Boris Katchouk and wrist injury for Ian Mitchell — that weren’t deal breakers by any means but certainly hurt the opportunities for those two individuals. The biggest missing piece was Jake McCabe, who had back surgery over the summer and didn’t play in a game until the Hawks’ home opener.
Unfortunately, that health feels like it’s disappearing quickly right now. And the Blackhawks are going to have an incredibly tough stretch coming up with significant players missing.
One week ago, the Blackhawks put goaltender Petr Mrazek on IR. He’s dealing with the same groin issue that cost him a big part of last season. Mrazek got off to a pretty good start in net, but losing him opened the door for Alex Stalock to get more ice time and he’s been decent as well.
While Mrazek’s status remains TBD, the Blackhawks were able to win without him. And they did that, in large part, because they were developing pretty good chemistry on four lines up front. That took a hit (literally) on Tuesday night when Tyler Johnson suffered an ankle sprain (which has been compared to Katchouk’s injury by head coach Luke Richardson). Johnson had been really good to start the season; with him out of the lineup the last two games, the Hawks have lacked consistency up front and taken a ton of penalties.
So we’re down one goalie and one top-six forward. The blue line hadn’t been hit… yet.
That shoe dropped on Sunday afternoon. The Blackhawks announced Seth Jones will miss three to four weeks with a thumb injury. Seth blocked six shots and was the only defenseman to skate over 20 minutes in Buffalo on Saturday night (he skated 24:08). He apparently suffered the injury on a shot block in the second period but remained in the game.
With eight games played, Seth was averaging 25:12 on ice per game, which ranks seventh in the entire NHL. It’s almost five minutes more than any other defenseman on the Blackhawks’ roster right now.
Obviously injuries open doors for others. And the Blackhawks have enough organizational depth — and, again, aren’t actively trying to win a championship this season — that they don’t need to go out and make a trade to cover the holes they’ll have for the next month or so.
The Mrazek injury created another opportunity for Arvid Söderblom to come up. The injury to Tyler Johnson created a top-six role that someone might grab, but it made a spot possible for Reese Johnson to get back on the ice. This injury to Seth Jones will likely push his brother, Caleb, up the lineup and get Filip Roos back on the ice.
Reese got into the lineup on Thursday night and scored a goal. Söderblom got the start in Buffalo and was the Blackhawks’ best player in an underwhelming loss. And Roos showed some good signs early before McCabe came back and he found himself staying ready for the next chance to dress — which should come frequently with Seth on the shelf.
The part about these injuries that is the most frustrating for fans is seeing how much fun the players were having early in the new season. They were competing hard, working their tails off and enjoying — really enjoying — some unexpected success.
What is going to make these injuries even tougher on the lineup is the calendar. Chicago will play its sixth game in ten days on Sunday evening. And, while five of the six have been at home, that’s still a lot of hockey. After hosting Minnesota on Sunday, the Blackhawks play Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday again.
There is a four-day gap after playing in Winnipeg this coming Saturday followed by games in Los Angeles and Anaheim on what amounts to an awkward 3-games-in-10-days stretch with all three being on the road. But then the Blackhawks get one of the harder weeks on their entire schedule: Carolina, St. Louis, at Boston and Pittsburgh in a six day stretch.
It’s somehow hard to take a step back now and remind ourselves as fans that this season was supposed to be a struggle. The play of the team has maybe spoiled us starting this season. Injuries could slow down a team that was rolling fairly well, also bringing the Blackhawks back closer to their expected performance level.