What’s Next for the Blackhawks’ Center Group Without Jonathan Toews?
Change is inevitable. Sometimes we can choose when it happens, but more often than not, it arrives without much warning. Both of those have been a reality for the Blackhawks over the past ten months at the center position, and how they have adjusted continues to be one of the more admirable elements of this roster — and its construction.
The Blackhawks’ collection of centers and could-be centers has been a point of a lot of conversation here this season.
Everything about the 2021-22 season was an epic disaster for the Blackhawks organization, so I won’t spend much time focusing on what went wrong (again). At the dot, with Jonathan Toews returning from almost a full calendar year away from the game, they finished under 50 percent at the dot as a team and in the middle of the NHL.
So the front office decided to make changes.
Last year at the trade deadline, general manager Kyle Davidson opted to not trade Dylan Strome; he then chose to not make him a qualifying offer and allowed him to walk away as a free agent. Over the summer, Davidson traded Kirby Dach to Montreal for picks.
In their places came free agent Max Domi and Jason Dickinson via trade from Vancouver. On paper, it certainly felt like the Blackhawks were taking a significant step backwards down the middle.
And yet, in October, the Blackhawks surprised more than a few people when they got off to a strong start and were leading the league in faceoffs. A big part of that was the return to form by Toews, but Domi was having the best season of his career in the circle while Dickinson, Sam Lafferty and others were contributing as well.
Fast forward to today. The Blackhawks are still, on the 21st day of February, tied for the NHL lead in team faceoff percentage (with the best team in the NHL, the Boston Bruins). Unfortunately they’ve been doing it more and more without Toews in the lineup and will continue to have to make it work without him for the foreseeable future.
It’s a testament to the group of guys on the roster and the coaching they’re receiving this season that the collection of guys who many viewed as castaways at the start of this regular season continue to do so well.
Over the full season, Blackhawks centers not-named-Toews have won 51.9 percent of their faceoffs. For many of those games, guys were healthy and Toews was available on the bench to provide leadership — which all of the centers in the room acknowledge has been a big factor for them.
“When [Toews] is in the lineup we can all learn so much from him on both sides of the rink,” Domi said. “He’s unbelievable at the faceoff dot. There’s so much to learn from him and we’re grateful for that but now we have to go show it. Whether it’s on the PK or power play or 5-on-5 or 6-on-5, any element of the game. There’s a spot here that will never be filled in terms of Jonathan Toews. He’s an absolute legend like Kaner.”
But the change they didn’t sign up for is upon them. Toews has taken a step away from the ice to take care of his health. And now it’s on the rest of the room to pick up the slack.
At this stage of the season, almost nobody is really, truly 100 percent and the task is more significant. Dickinson has been fighting though a few lingering issues for some time, but he’s battling and giving it a go every night. MacKenzie Entwistle has missed a couple games and is expected to miss at least the next couple nights as well.
Enter organizational depth.
Here comes Cole Guttman from Rockford. Add him to the center group for three games and you’ve got a young guy who comes with an NCAA championship ring in his locker and some intriguing skills. One of the more impressive things he’s brought to the table has been a willingness to learn as much as possible.
“They’re all pros they all know day in and day out I think the biggest thing is watching their daily habits and seeing what they do and what helped them get to this level,” Guttman said on Monday. “I’ve just been taking it all in over the last week.”
Guttman came up and was immediately inserted as a center on the Blackhawks’ second line with Tyler Johnson and Taylor Raddysh.
“There are a lot of young guys in here who are playing really good hockey,” Domi said. “You look at like Guttsy last game. He played outstanding. His goal was one thing but defensively he was killing lots of plays, battling all over the ice and using his speed. There have been lots of guys stepping up all year. You need to keep building on it.”
A big reason for Guttman getting run on the second line is the Blackhawks’ third line has been skating so incredibly well as a unit, head coach Luke Richardson didn’t want to mess with a good thing.
With Lafferty skating between Dickinson and Andreas Athanasiou, the Blackhawks have a line that can skate with anyone in the league and has some of the versatility that was very intentionally incorporated as Davidson built his roster. All the way back in the preseason, Richardson noted that he liked being able to put two “centers” on the same line so they can confidently take draws on their strong side; the line shouldn’t have much of a weakness in theory.
We saw Lafferty’s line get the call to skate against one of the toughest lines in hockey on Sunday night against the Maple Leafs, and they were marvelous.
“We’ve been playing really well together,” Lafferty said about his line’s effort against Auston Matthews’ line. “We can all skate we can all defend and we’re all pretty interchangeable down low in the defensive zone. It’s a collective effort when we get a tough assignment like that. It’s nice that coach trusts us in situations like that.”
Domi was more emphatic with his compliments of Lafferty’s line after they played so well against Toronto’s top group.
“Guys are getting roles and they’re doing great jobs in them,” he said. “You look at the job that Lafferty’s line did last night with Double-A and Dickie and the speed that they had. They went against one of the top lines in hockey last night and gave them absolutely nothing. That’s how you win hockey games and how you get better as a group.”
How you get better as a group… that’s been a hallmark of the Blackhawks’ centers all season.
When this season started, I think most Blackhawks would have laughed out loud if I told them Lafferty would be perhaps the most intriguing and in-demand name on the roster as we approach the trade deadline.
But that’s a microcosm of the silver linings all over this Blackhawks’ roster. In spite of the awful, almost-worst record in the NHL, there are a lot of little victories on this team that we can and should celebrate more often. And the center ice position has been one of the biggest surprises.
It comes back to Davidson building a roster of players who are getting their chance to prove to the rest of the NHL that they have what it takes. And many of them have grabbed their opportunity and run as fast as they could this season.
“Chicago has exceeded my expectations,” Lafferty said. “I was super excited to come here because I knew I would have an opportunity to play. I just wanted to play as hard as I could and see what happens. I want to keep taking advantage of the opportunities I’m given.”
Lots of players on this roster are in that mindset. And, as some of the guys who have contributed to this team undoubtedly move on before the deadline — potentially Lafferty included — others will be asked to fill the void left behind on the roster.