Blackhawks Centers Keep Working Through Struggles, Changes
For the majority of the NHL season, the Blackhawks have been among the best teams in the league in the faceoff circle. I’ve written a fair amount about it because that was an area where the Blackhawks struggled the past couple seasons. And, with Dylan Strome and Kirby Dach both moving on over the summer, there were questions about how the Blackhawks would look down the middle.
On Opening Night, the Blackhawks had Jonathan Toews, Max Domi, Sam Lafferty and Jujhar Khaira as their four primary centers. On Oct. 7 the club acquired Jason Dickinson, who joined the team in San Jose on Oct. 15. And suddenly, the Blackhawks had an intriguing group of centers.
Questions about Domi being able to work as a top-line center were answered quickly; he’s had the best season of his career in the faceoff circle. Toews was back to being the best faceoff man in the league. And the versatility that the Blackhawks had with Lafferty, Dickinson, Khaira, Reese Johnson and others in their bottom six gave the coaches options they used frequently to put their skaters in a position to succeed.
But this season has been filled with change for the Blackhawks, and the center position has experienced more than anywhere else on the ice.
When the Blackhawks line up against the Ottawa Senators tonight, their listed four centers will be: Philipp Kurashev, Cole Guttman, Dickinson and Khaira.
Indeed, I joked with Dickinson after the morning skate on Monday that he’s now the “veteran center” on the roster; Khaira will appear in his 34th game and is just coming back from a lengthy period on IR with a back issue. Kurashev just assumed the top-line pivot spot when Domi was traded to Dallas last week and Guttman will appear in his 11th career NHL game tonight.
The depth and versatility the Blackhawks have enjoyed throughout the season has evaporated. Toews hasn’t played since the All-Star Game at the beginning of February, Reese Johnson is still working his way back from concussion protocol and MacKenzie Entwistle‘s wrist injury has limited his ability to take draws.
And the Blackhawks have traded away Domi and Lafferty.
Since Toews left the lineup at the beginning of February, the Blackhawks rank 20th in the NHL and are at just 49 percent in the faceoff circle.
After the morning skate on Monday, both Khaira and head coach Luke Richardson both spoke about the need for good communication with their evolving group of forwards. Khaira and Dickinson both laughed that it’s felt like they’ve been working with new teammates on their lines seemingly every other game for a few weeks, so getting past the trade deadline could — hopefully — give them some time to develop chemistry with their new linemates.
A couple things that were said after practice stood out, however, and speak to the culture they’re working to build in the organization with the new front office’s approach.
Richardson said Toews has been around the team while working out and trying to get back on the ice. The Blackhawks’ captain has been sharing some tips with the centers and trying to do what he can to help despite not being with them on the ice. Every center on the roster has, at some point this season, talked about how much they’ve benefitted from working with and against Toews in practice.
The other thing that got my attention was Dickinson noting that the clear, consistent communication from the organization’s coaching staffs in both Rockford and Chicago have helped there to be less time learning on the ice when players have been promoted. And we’ve seen our fair share of players making the trip between the IceHogs and Blackhawks this season.
That consistency in approach was something the front office and Richardson stressed during the preseason, and now that we’re nearing the 70-game mark in the regular season it continues to be something they’re emphasizing across the board.
The results aren’t as pretty as they were early in the year. That’s going to be a tough reality the rest of the way as young players are asked to play new roles and fresh faces are integrated into the lineup. But the Blackhawks keep working on the little things in an effort to get better as individuals and as a unit.