With the first game of the 2021 NHL season just three days, it’s time to start examining the players who’ll be taking the ice for the Blackhawks this season. In the final installment here, it’s time to look at the bottom six forwards.
One of Chicago’s bottom two lines is set and the other is probably going to be a rotating cast of characters all season. So, let’s get into it:
Matthew Highmore — David Kampf — Ryan Carpenter
Chicago’s fourth line is back again, based on the lines used in practice and in Sunday night’s scrimmage. This trio played together just 53:07 of 5-on-5 play in the regular season but that number jumped to 63:06 in nine postseason games. It’s not the best sample size, but two numbers stand out: this line had just 25.45 percent of its starts in the offensive zone yet were an even 3-3 in goals for/against. They were buried in shot attempts (67-40), shots (31-22), scoring chances (28-19) and high-danger chances (16-6) but keeping an even scoresheet despite the overwhelming number of defensive situations means that these three must’ve been doing something right. If that 3-3 score was merely propped up by the excellent work of Corey Crawford in net during the postseason, we’ll find out quickly.
The other three spots in Chicago’s bottom six seem wide open. Here’s the list of players who could fill those openings, presented in alphabetical order:
Stats last season (with Dallas): 62 games played, 6 goals, 15 assists, 21 points, 7.0 shot percentage, 14:37 average time on ice, 43.5% faceoff percentage
Janmark’s offensive ceiling doesn’t appear to be all that high, as his career-best mark was 34 points in 81 games of the ‘17-18 season, which came after a knee injury wiped out his entire ‘16-17 season. He was part of a defensively minded system in Dallas and appeared to thrive in that system. He had the No. 4 Corsi-for percentage mark among forwards on the team (51.18), and was No. 5 in expected goals-for percentage (54.57).
One area where Janmark will be vital this season is on the penalty kill. He was a fixture on Dallas’ second unit, and the departure of Saad along with the absence of Toews leaves a gaping hole on the Blackhawks PK unit that Janmark will likely occupy.
Stats last season (with Rockford in the AHL): 36 games played, 7 goals, 12 assists, 19 points, 11.1 shot percentage
The Blackhawks fourth-round pick (120th overall) in the 2018 NHL Draft has steadily moved up the prospect list and might be on the verge of his NHL debut this season. He was noticeably absent from the list of players sent down to the AHL on Monday. A gifted offensive player who’s only 21 years old, Kurashev will be one of the most intriguing players to watch in 2021.
Stats last season (with Vegas): 16 games played, 0 goals, 2 assists, 2 points, 12:34 average ice time
Look, we’ve seen this movie before. Pirri has plenty he can bring to a team on the offensive side of the game. He has a 22-goal season on his career highlight reel, though that was several years ago. The questions with him have always been on the defensive side of the ice.
He’s also turning 30 in April and the Blackhawks have said that they’re focusing on younger players. Pirri has been in this organization before and could not find consistent playing time. That he’s in contention for one now is a pretty strong indication of how different Chicago’s roster looks in 2021 as compared to, say, 2013.
Every second Pirri skates this season takes ice time away from a young player who could benefit from such on-ice experience.
Stats last season (with Carolina/Florida): 67 games played, 12 goals, 13 assists, 25 points, 13.9 shot percentage, 12:47 average time on ice, 50.3 faceoff percentage
The younger of Chicago’s two “Marks” signed in free agency, the 25-year-old Wallmark joins the Blackhawks after splitting last season with a pair of Central Division rivals. Wallmark’s game does not appear to be wildly different than Janmark’s. Defensively sound, not the highest offensive ceiling and a key component of the penalty kill. One area where Wallmark does stand out is at the faceoff dot with an advantage of nearly 10 percent over Janmark, which probably explains why Wallmark has been lining up at center more often during training camp.
How will the bottom six look?
The fourth line appears concrete, the third line is a fluid situation. Right now, the lines look something like this:
Janmark (or Kurashev) — Wallmark — Pirri
Highmore — Kampf — Carpenter
At Monday’s practice, Shaw was actually skating on Wallmark’s right wing while Pirri was down on the third line opposite Dominik Kubalik, centered by Pius Suter. How the lines will look remain a coin flip until the Blackhawks take the ice on Wednesday evening. And even then, given the relatively short training camp, it’ll likely be different by the time Friday’s game rolls around.