With the first game of the Chicago Blackhawks 2021-22 NHL season just a day away, it’s time to start examining the players who’ll be taking the ice for the Blackhawks this season. Next up, it’s the top-six forwards.
The Blackhawks took a backward step offensively last season, going from a middling offensive team in terms of generating pressure to one of the worst in the league. The Blackhawks’ expected goals per 60 as a team at 5-on-5 dropped from 2.34 in 2019-20 (14th best in the league) to 2.01 (28th). That third of a goal lost per 60 minutes may have been the result of No. 1 center Jonathan Toews missing the whole season and Kirby Dach missing most of it — or it may have been an overall lack of depth scoring.
It certainly didn’t seem to come from two of the top six forwards, as Alex DeBrincat returned to form and Patrick Kane again topped a point-per-game pace, 1.18 being his fourth-best mark over the course of his career and posting his best primary assists per 60 rate in his career (1.16).
The good news for the Blackhawks is that Toews is back in ‘21-22, and that should help elevate the play of his linemates, who look to be Dominik Kubalik and Philipp Kurashev to start the season, although Dylan Strome has recently been taking some practices with the Kubalik-Toews duo.
The Blackhawks made other moves in the 2021 offseason, which included Pius Suter leaving in free agency. Suter served as the center between Kane and DeBrincat for much of the season and there’s no more Mattias Janmark this season to play top-six minutes for ... reasons?
Here are the forwards who look to be members of the Blackhawks’ top six this season.
Stats last season: 52 games, 56 points (32 goals, 24 assists), 12 PIM, 155 SOG, 20.6 S%, 20:32 ATOI
DeBrincat took another step towards superstardom in 2021 after a rough 2019-20 season. He saw his shooting percentage more than double, going from 8.7 in ‘19-20 to 20.6 in ‘21. While his shooting percentage may not be that high again this season (his career average is now 15.6, where he will likely return this season), his passing has become better since the 2020 postseason.
Which forwards exited the defensive zone with possession of the puck most often? pic.twitter.com/KEBaOZLcSL— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) September 8, 2021
DeBrincat’s 0.46 assists per game mark is the best of his career and his 0.8 primary assists per 60 mark is the second-best of his career after last season. DeBrincat is becoming a more complete player — including stepping up his D-zone play —and wearing a letter for the last two seasons means he’s likely stepping into a leadership role, which is especially important as Toews and Kane near the end of their careers.
Stats last season: 55 games, 22 points (8 goals, 14 assists), 16 PIM, 77 SOG, 10.4 S%, 13:40 ATOI
This is not the same Tyler Johnson that the Blackhawks faced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, when he was a crucial part of the Triplets line. Johnson has taken a few steps back over the last few seasons, seeing decreasing point production since he scored 50 points in 2017-18.
Johnson will likely step into the center role between DeBrincat and Kane, allowing Toews to play with Kubalik and Kurashev while Kirby Dach starts the season with the bottom-six. That’s likely not a very hard role and Johnson will probably see his point production rise as DeBrincat turns basic passes into goals and Kane uses Johnson as a backboard. But Johnson brings additional defensive play to a line that needs it and his offense could be better this year.
Stats last season: 56 games, 66 points (15 goals, 51 assists), 14 PIM, 191 SOG, 7.9 S%, 22:14 ATOI
As previously mentioned, Kane had one of his best playmaking seasons in 2021, as his primary assists per 60 rate was at its highest point in his career (1.6) and his assists per game was also at its highest point (0.91). That’s great, because Kane’s goal scoring was at its lowest since his rookie season (0.27 per game, 0.7 per 60, the lowest of Kane’s career).
Part of that was Kane’s lowest shooting percentage (7.9), something which should recover this season and make up for DeBrincat’s likely falling shooting percentage. Kane’s career shooting percentage is 11.9. The Blackhawks haven’t seen much of a decline from Kane offensively even though a few years past 30 now, and he’ll remain a fixture in Chicago’s top-six all season.
Stats last season: 56 games, 38 points (17 goals, 21 assists), 18 PIM, 156 SOG, 10.9 S%, 15:31 ATOI
Kubalik became a better playmaker in 2021 while working with new linemates like Kurashev, as he lost both of his most common linemates from 2019-20 in Toews and Brandon Saad. His points-per-game rate of 0.68 remained the same year over year, but his goal scoring fell (0.3 down from 0.44 per game) and his assist count went up (1.5 per 60 was up from 1.0 the season before).
Kubalik will likely be stapled to Toews this season if the captain is able to make it through the season healthy. Kubalik’s goal scoring should return as he gets more consistent linemates and his playmaking, should it continue, will likely help elevate the play of Toews and Kurashev in turn. Kubalik was also a critical piece on the power play last season and should remain so this year as the second unit essentially revolves around him.
Stats last season: 54 games, 16 points (8 goals, 8 assists), 12 PIM, 65 SOG, 12.3 S%, 13:05 ATOI
Kurashev picked up 16 points in his rookie season, making an impact in a season when he was expected to be a bubble player. There were multiple plays throughout the year when he exhibited his potential, which stems from his speed and his hands, each ability adept enough to keep up with his equally fast skates. The problem for Kurashev in his freshman effort was consistency, as he was unable to maintain the level of play that made him such a compelling player.
Now, he’ll have a hell of an opportunity to do so, as he looks to start the season with Toews and Kubalik, basically taking on the Saad role. That’s one Kurashev may be fit for, as he’s able to drive the puck, find open lanes and transition with the puck effectively. He’ll get more time this season than he did last likely this year and has an opportunity to earn long-term, top-six time.
Stats last season: 40 games, 17 points (9 goals, 8 assists), 14 PIM, 71 SOG, 12.7 S%, 15:31 ATOI
Strome seems on the outside looking in of the Blackhawks organization long-term, but he’s begun taking practice with the line of Kubalik and Toews and could substitute in quite easily for any of the top three centers should the need arise. He seems better than his 17 points last season, as he had higher point-per-game rates in each of his two seasons with the Blackhawks before 2021.
While he will potentially be traded at the deadline — or maybe before it — Strome’s value needs to escalate for the Blackhawks to get anything of worth for the still young center. He’ll likely see some time playing within the top-six and stands a chance at proving his worth offensively again.
Stats last season: N/A
Toews missed all of last season and was a question mark heading into training camp, but has not had any reported setbacks yet. Hopefully that holds true, as a full season of contributions from Toews could make a huge impact on the Blackhawks’ roster and an offensive system that could really use his return.
Toews was very good offensively in his last season both on the power play and at even strength, but the defense that was once a hallmark of his game has dried up in recent years. 2021-22 could be a return to form for Toews, or with new linemates Toews could focus even more on the offensive side of his game. Either way, the Blackhawks are very likely better off with him than they were without.
What will the top six look like
The top six is most likely to be some combination of:
Kubalik — Toews — Kurashev
DeBrincat — Johnson — Kane
With Strome subbing in for either Kurashev or Johnson. This isn’t the best group of top six forwards the Blackhawks have had recently. The Panarin/Hossa year(s) aren’t that far away, but it is certainly better than last season and that could be a difference maker heading into this season.