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Blackhawks 2021 season preview: Top six forwards

This year’s top two forward lines will look ... different.

Chicago Blackhawks Training Camp
Alex DeBrincat of the Chicago Blackhawks passes in front of Patrick Kane during a summer training camp practice
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With the first game of the 2021 NHL season tomorrow, it’s time to start examining the players who’ll be taking the ice for the Blackhawks this season. Up next, it’s the top six.

Before training camp even opened, the Blackhawks lost their top two centers, as Kirby Dach went down with a wrist injury during the World Juniors and could miss the whole season while Jonathan Toews remains out indefinitely.

That leaves the Blackhawks in a precarious situation: Dylan Strome, who was likely to transition to wing this season and Carl Soderberg, signed on Dec. 26, are now the team’s top two centers. And Soderberg’s arrival remains delayed because of immigrations issues:

With an unproven goaltender situation and a defense that needs to be better, the top six will be a crucial component to winning games. Here’s how the rest of the top two lines shape up (in alphabetical order):

Alex DeBrincat

Stats last season: 70 games played (GP), 18 goals (G), 27 assists (A), 45 points (P), 207 shots (S), 8.7 shooting percentage (S%), 15 PIM, 17:29 average time on ice (ATOI)

DeBrincat’s plummeting shooting percentage was the story of his last season, as he went from 41 goals in 2018-19 to just 18 in ‘19-20. His shooting percentage cratered, going from 18.6 to 8.7 percent. While it may never reach that height of 18.6 from ‘18-19, it should check in closer to his current career mark of 14.3. A full season with Patrick Kane may help cure what ails him.

One area where DeBrincat can help significantly: the power play. According to HockeyViz, his presence on the ice raises the power play’s expected goal production to 16 percent above the league average. It’s 26 percent below league average when he’s not on the ice.

Patrick Kane

Stats last season: 70 GP, 33 G, 51 A, 84 P, 275 S, 12 S%, 40 PIM, 21:20 ATOI

There remain few better offensive players in the league than Kane. His production rates of 1.33 goals (G/60) and 1.37 primary assists (A1/60) per 60 minutes are incredible. He drew more penalties than he took (18 to 16) and took the puck away more than he gave it up (43 to 41). He’ll again be Chicago’s primary offensive driver during 5-on-5 play and on the power play.

Dominik Kubalik

Stats last season: 68 GP, 30 G, 16 A, 46 P, 157 S, 19.11 S%, 16 PIM, 14:22 ATOI

Kubalik’s shooting percentage was the best on the team last season, which does come with its own issues based on the recent slump that DeBrincat endured in that area. But nobody in Chicago’s top six a higher expected goals rate (ixG/60) than Kubalik, either (1.07). Kubalik also produced the third-most shots per 60 (S/60) after Kane and DeBrincat last season.

Unlike the players named above him on this list, Kubalik’s possession stats were also largely positive. He had a 49.1 SF%, 50.56 xGF% and 49.72 HDCF% last season with a 51.98 oZS%. Those stats came while mostly skating with two teammates who aren’t around anymore (Toews and Brandon Saad). But Kubalik’s prowess at moving the puck can’t be undervalued.

Andrew Shaw

Stats last season: Stats last season: 26 GP, 3 G, 7 A, 10 P, 46 S, 6.52 S%, 33 PIM, 14:27 ATOI

Shaw missed most of last season with a concussion, a repetitive problem for the scrapper, which means his consistent presence in the lineup will likely remain a question mark. When on the ice, Shaw plays a two-way game and is unafraid to post up in the high-danger areas and generate chances. That will be especially important on the power play this season, as the Blackhawks’ usual two net-front presences (Dach and Toews) likely not playing this season.

Carl Soderberg

Stats last season: 70 GP, 17 G, 18 A, 35 P, 135 S, 12.59 S%, 18 PIM, 15:53 ATOI

Soderberg was brought on because the Hawks needed a center and he spent last season as a middle-six center with the Arizona Coyotes. He’ll have the same role with the Blackhawks, likely starting the season as the second-line center whenever he arrives.

Soderberg had the same ixG/60 as Toews last season (.82) and a positive turnover ratio — 28 takeaways to 24 giveaways. He fits right in with the Blackhawks in that his possession metrics weren’t great — a 47.94 SF% and 47.34 xGF% — but he also started in the offensive zone just 44.72 percent of the time. He’ll likely be the best defensive member of the top six to start the season and has proven capable of playing both power play and penalty kill minutes.

Dylan Strome

Stats last season: 58 GP, 12 G, 26 A, 38 P, 97 S, 12.37 S%, 16 PIM, 15:56 ATOI

This will be Strome’s first time as a first-line center and his first full year as a center in Chicago. He missed 12 games with injury last season and also spent time on the wing. He’s produced at a good level while in Chicago, scoring 89 points in 116 games, a .77 point-per-game pace.

The charts below show that Strome’s defensive numbers aren’t all that bad, either:

Although his possession stats aren’t great (47.79 SF%, 47.14 xGF% and 43.21 HDCF% last season), Strome can still be an impact player on both sides of the ice. Though he wasn’t the Blackhawks first option as the No. 1 center, worse ones remain.

Pius Suter

Stats last season: 50 GP, 30 G, 23 A, 53 P, 16 PIM (in Swiss National League)

The Swiss League MVP is coming off a season with numbers to the aforementioned Kubalik, who was MVP of the same league prior to Suter.

Suter does the right things to be a middle-six bubble forward and with Soderberg out, Suter could start the season as the second-line center. It’s questionable as to whether he’ll score as many goals as Kubalik did in his rookie season but Suter knows how to create offense and can play both wing and center. His flexibility will be an asset this season.

How will the top six look?

Any top six with Kane in it will be offensively talented, and if DeBrincat returns to form and Kubalik continues at a good pace there will be plenty of goal scoring. But the center position remains a question that probably won’t get answered because of the situations with Toews and Dach.

Right now, the lines look something like this:

DeBrincat — Strome — Kane

Kubalik — Soderberg/Suter — Shaw

If Toews gets healthy he could take either center role. If that top line of 12-17-88 is playing well, though, Toews could reunite with Kubalik on the second line.

The DeBrincat, Strome and Kane trio played 230:49 together at 5-on-5 play last season, producing 39.57 percent of the shots, 39.66 percent of the expected goals and 26.39 percent of the high-danger chances. Despite those paltry possession numbers, they still scored 68.75 percent of the goals, the result of their superior shooting talent and also some really good goaltending behind them. The first part of that should remain. The second part ... who knows?

Kubalik and Shaw played just 82:07 together last season, so any conclusions would not be worthwhile from that small sample. Still, Kubalik and Shaw are now veterans who both can play in either end and that should help either center, be it Suter or Soderberg.

Stats from NaturalStatTrick.com, Hockey-Reference.com and HockeyViz.com