The NHL landscape looks a little different for the 2021 season.
Divisional realignments are keeping Canadian teams north of the border until the summer, while the remaining teams below the 49th parallel have been reshuffled for the sake of divisional equality.
Some of the teams in this new Central Division are familiar with the Blackhawks. Some are not. But everyone could use a little reminder on the state of this franchise as we enter a new season. Here’s our contribution to the weeklong series of feature from the SB Nation sites as we’re all getting to know the new Central Division.
Getting to Know the New Central: Detroit Red Wings
Getting to Know the New Central: Nashville Predators
Getting to Know the New Central: Florida Panthers
Getting to Know the New Central: Carolina Hurricanes
1) How would you describe your team’s style of play?
It likely won’t be boring.
The easiest way to summarize this is with an expected-goals chart from Charting Hockey based on 5-on-5 play during the prior regular season. Note that the Blackhawks are on the border between “fun” and “bad.”
Last season, the Blackhawks produced a decent amount of chances, shots and goals but also allowed significant amounts of all three. This is not a team that’ll force opponents into a boring, dump-and-chase brand of hockey. There will be scoring opportunities on both ends.
2) What players should opposing fans know the name of - and why?
There aren’t too many names leftover from the Blackhawks’ era of dominance. Patrick Kane still is and will likely be skating an absurd amount of ice time because coach Jeremy Colliton tends to double and triple-shift him when games begin slipping away. Duncan Keith may not be a Norris-caliber defender anymore but he’s still skating worthwhile minutes at 37. Brent Seabrook is still here and so is his massive contract but that topic’s been examined from every possible angle and is worth little more than a sigh and a shrug at this point.
As far as newer faces go, Connor Murphy doesn’t get much credit because of the team’s collective woes on defense but is a steady, reliable blue-liner. Dylan Strome is probably the No. 1 center by default this season, while Alex DeBrincat should bounce back from a rough third season in the NHL that followed a 41-goal sophomore season. Dominik Kubalik was a revelation in his first NHL season after coming over from Switzerland, and the team has high hopes that Pius Suter can do the same after an MVP ‘19-20 season in Switzerland.
Some of the younger players the Blackhawks are counting own for quick development include defensemen Adam Boqvist and Ian Mitchell. Boqvist had a rough postseason in 2020 but still boasts the skill set that drew Draft Day comparisons to Erik Karlsson. Mitchell is expected to bring a more polished game after finishing a college career at Denver where he was one of college hockey’s top defenseman.
This is where Kirby Dach would’ve been mentioned after an excellent nine games once the NHL returned last summer but, well ... just scroll down to the next section.
3) Why could your team win the division?
Heh, good one.
The Blackhawks were already a longshot to win the division. And that was before bad news traveled by three to Chicago in late December: Alex Nylander was ruled out for several months following knee surgery, Kirby Dach needed surgery to repair a wrist fracture sustained during the World Juniors and is likely gone for the season and Jonathan Toews was ruled out indefinitely due to an undisclosed illness.
Nylander’s potential contributions are debatable but Toews and Dach were likely Chicago’s top two centers entering the season. Without those two in front, the Blackhawks forwards — which could have been the team’s lone strongpoint — now has almost as many questions as the rest of the roster.
The defense has plenty of question marks and the goaltender position has even more. The number of reasons why the Blackhawks won’t win the division are substantial, which makes charting a path to the top of the Central Division feel like an impossible one.
4) Why could your team be the caboose of the division?
During 5-on-5 play in the ‘19-20 regular season, the Blackhawks gave up the most shots on goal per 60 minutes (34.82), the most scoring chances per 60 minutes (30.22) and the most high danger chances per 60 minutes (12.91). They had the highest expected goals against per 60 minutes rate at 2.64. The only reason the Blackhawks weren’t run out of the building every night is because they had arguably the best goaltender duo in the NHL in Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford.
Lehner was traded at the deadline and Crawford left in free agency. Replacing them this season are a trio of unproven goalies in Collin Delia, Kevin Lankinen and Malcolm Subban.
With the defense corps largely the same and the goaltending position changing from a strength to an uncertainty, Chicago could be hard-pressed to keep up with teams on the scoreboard all season.
5) On a scale of baby kitten to Tiger King, what’s the potential of the heated matchup of your team with your new division mates?
Playing the same opponents eight times in four months means the entire division will probably be ready for a Royal Rumble come May.
From a Blackhawks perspective, though, the first thought is Detroit, ever since Chicago banished the Red Wings to the Eastern Conference in the best way possible. That rivalry remains more potent in the fan base than on the ice, though, with Chicago and Detroit sharing beefs in every major American pro sports league (Bulls-Pistons, Sox-Tigers, Bears-Lions).
There could be some lingering anger between the Blackhawks and Hurricanes following Seabstian Aho’s boarding of Kane last season, which had Toews and Teuvo Teravainen exchanging pleasantries at one point. The Panthers have the Blackhawks’ old coach but that likely won’t mean much for on-ice rivalries.
Outside of that, it’s hard to find any significant beefs among the other teams in the division. Columbus had more issues with the officials than Chicago after last season’s games, there haven’t been any major confrontations between Nashville or Dallas recently and any scores to be settled with Tampa Bay from the 2015 Stanley Cup Final are likely long gone.
This will probably change by Game 56, though.