Chicago Blackhawks 2021-22 Season Preview: Storylines, who to watch

After a pandemic-shortened season that was one to forget, hopes feel a bit higher on 1901 W. Madison this time around.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve ventured all over the NHL.

We started by looking at the other three divisions: Atlantic, Metro and Pacific.

We then took deeper dives on each of the Blackhawks’ divisional opponents in the Central: Dallas, Nashville, Arizona, Winnipeg, Minnesota, St. Louis and Colorado.

Our focus then zeroed in the Blackhawks, as we talked about the goaltenders, the defense, the bottom-six forwards and, lastly, the top-six forwards.

The Blackhawks look different this season. The league looks different this season. Game broadcasts will certainly look different this season, with the whole league moving under the ESPN umbrella for the first time in a few decades.

Here are a few storylines to follow, a player to watch and a couple of predictions for the ‘21-22 version of the Chicago Blackhawks:

Storylines to Follow

Can Seth Jones rediscover his old form?

Not only did the Blackhawks give up an exciting young prospects and multiple picks to acquire Jones, they also signed him to a massive contract that will keep him around for the rest of this decade. Early in Jones’ career he was one of the game’s brightest young stars, earning an all-star nomination and finishing fourth in the Norris Trophy voting during the ‘17-18 season.

It’s been largely downhill ever since that zenith for Jones, though, bottoming out with a miserable 2021 season with career-worst marks in his percent share of the shot attempts (48.22), shots on goal (47.83), expected goals (45.52) and high-danger chances (43.18). And all that while Jones’ offensive zone start percentage was at 55.98 — not great, Bob.

Many of Jones’ numbers from last season can be written off as somewhat of an anomaly, considering how dreadful everything in and around the 2021 Blue Jackets was during that season. But there remain question marks about just how good Jones can be and whether or not he’s worthy of the mammoth deal the Blackhawks handed him before he’d even played a game in Chicago. Fewer spotlights across the league will be bigger than the one on Jones this season.

How will the new faces fit?

Jones was just one of several new players who joined the Blackhawks in the offseason, with the majority of the moves happening during a seismic week for the organization. Tyler Johnson was acquired in a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning and will slot in between Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane on the line that should be Chicago’s top scoring threat. Marc-Andre Fleury came over from the Vegas Golden Knights and is the new No. 1 goalie. Jake McCabe was signed in free agency and should provide solid, steady defensive minutes on the blue line. Additional new faces include forwards Jujhar Khaira and Henrik Borgstrom and defensemen Erik Gustafsson and Caleb Jones — Seth’s younger brother.

Meshing all that new talent in with the returning players will be one of the tougher tasks this season for coach Jeremy Colliton

Speaking of Colliton ...

Can Colliton lead this team to a postseason berth?

The only postseason games in Colliton’s young coaching career were the result of an expanded playoff field triggered by the pandemic. Yes, the Blackhawks took advantage of that opportunity by winning a qualifying round series to reach the actual Stanley Cup Playoffs. But the fact remains that, without the expanded field, there would still be no postseason games on his career coaching record.

Given the slew of acquisitions above, the Blackhawks stated organizational goal of focusing on its younger players during the 2021 season does not appear to be the mandate in effect any longer. In fact, it appears the Blackhawks are very much in a win-now mode, something that Colliton hasn’t really done in his career. Not only have the Blackhawks failed to earn a playoff berth under Colliton’s watch, they’ve also failed to perform in countless games that were pivotal moments during prior chases for that elusive playoff berth.

Another season without a postseason berth feels like it could be Colliton’s last as the team’s bench boss.

Player to Watch

Kirby Dach

Chicago was the benefactor of a fortunate bounce before the 2019 NHL Draft, winning the draft lottery to jump up to the No. 3 spot overall which was used to select Dach. Just a few months later, Dach was with the NHL team after impressing in his initial training camp, appearing in 64 games that season with 8 goals and 15 assists. Dach was even better in the limited sample of the 2020 postseason with six points in nine games while averaging 19:24 of ice time — the top mark among Blackhawks centers in that postseason.

Since then, though, it’s been a rough road for Dach. It started with a broken wrist just before Christmas in 2020, followed by an underwhelming 18-game season with 2 goals and 8 assists before being shut down for the remainder of the schedule thanks to lingering issues with that wrist.

Dach has now played in 82 regular-season games in his NHL career with 10 goals and 23 assists and an average ice time of 15:13. He appears to be fully healthy, based on all accounts from training camp. While Dach is only 20 years old, expectations are always going to be sky-high for a player who was selected with the No. 3 pick overall. A breakout season from the 6-foot-4, 197-pound Dach would do wonders for both the short and long-term fortunes of the franchise.

Season Predictions

Jonathan Toews looks like his old self

The entire collective mood around the 2021 version of the Blackhawks soured when it was announced that Toews was going to be out for the foreseeable future before the team had even entered training camp at the start of the season. Conversely, his return to the lineup at the start of training camp and during the preseason has schedule has been a much-needed dose of optimism for a team that needed something to feel good about after several seasons of trending in the wrong direction.

Whether or not Toews’ return leads to better fortunes for the entire team, No. 19 certainly looked like an athlete that was feeling refreshed a full season away from the rigors of the game, a possible silver lining from the Toews’ saga of the last year.

The last time Toews played a full 82-game schedule was back in the ‘18-19 season, when he tallied 81 points (35 G, 46 A) in 82 games. In the ‘19-20 season which was limited to 70 games by the pandemic, Toews notched 60 points (18 G, 42 A). Even if Toews doesn’t play a full 82 this season while perhaps receiving a night or two of rest, a 60-point season should not be out of his reach.

They might be good, they might be bad — but they’ll definitely be interesting

It’s still quite difficult to nail down what the ‘21-22 Blackhawks are going to be this season. In our staff predictions, three of the four picked Chicago to be a wild card team but it also feels equally possible that they’ll miss out on the postseason yet again. With so many moving parts and so many new faces being counted on for significant contributions, it’s damn near impossible to sit here on the morning of the season opener and forecast this team’s fortunes. But one major change from last season is the collective mood around the team, which seems far more upbeat than at the start of the 2021 season, when injuries to Toews and Dach snuffed out any hope before training even opened.

It could be an up year, it could be a down a year. But curiosity should be enough to sustain for the first few months of the season as this blurred picture of an organizational direction moves into focus.