The Blackhawks first practice of 2021 training camp is Thursday morning. Here are a few storylines to keep an eye on as things get started:
New faces everywhere
Marc-Andre Fleury is the new No. 1 goalie. Seth Jones is the new face of the defense. Jake McCabe will be a new fixture in all key defensive moments. Tyler Johnson is a new level of depth at the center position. After a flurry of offseason moves, Chicago’s lineup is going to look vastly different than it did on the final day of last season.
Jonathan Toews’ name is the obvious one here after the captain missed the entire 2021 season. Toews has been skating in Chicago for a few months now and there have been no indications or reports of any setbacks, yet neither the team nor Toews himself has confirmed if he’ll be a participant when practices start.
Kirby Dach did play last season but was limited to just 18 games thanks to a fractured wrist suffered just before Christmas in 2020. He’s been adamant about being fully recovered, though:
A revamped defense
At the Blackhawks’ training camp before the pandemic-shortened 2021 season, a team-stated goal of focusing on its younger talent was the dominant theme on the blue line, where a slew of youngsters were vying for their first significant NHL looks, with Nicolas Beaudin and Ian Mitchell among them. But there is nowhere near as much ice time available for prospects this season following the acquisitions of Jones, McCabe, Stillman and others in the last six months. There’s probably only one available spot remaining on Chicago’s defensive depth chart with the rest of the bunch likely heading up I-90 to open the season with the IceHogs.
A similar story unfolds in net. With Fleury as the obvious No. 1, what was three-way battle for the starting job is now a three-way battle for the backup spot between Collin Delia, Kevin Lankinen and Malcolm Subban. Lankinen is the clear front-runner here after rising above the other two last season but strong training camps from either Delia or Subban could make this decision more difficult for coach Jeremy Colliton.
A sudden surge in expectations
Speaking of Colliton, there may not be anyone on the practice ice who is facing more pressure than the Blackhawks young coach. In his three seasons at the helm, Chicago has made the playoffs only one time and needed an expanded playoff field as the result of a pandemic to qualify. Last season’s playoff absence could be forgiven because the Blackhawks were focusing more on developing younger players, although how much development actually happened remains up for debate.
Any excuses are gone now, however. Hockey teams don’t acquire a 36-year-old goalie coming off a Vezina Trophy season and expect to miss the postseason. The Central Division will provide a tough road to the Stanley Cup Playoffs but the Blackhawks must reach that summit or Colliton’s job security could disappear.