Blackhawks 2022-23 season preview: Bottom-six Forwards

Exploring the depth players rounding out the Blackhawks’ roster.

With the first game of the 2022-23 NHL season coming Wednesday night, we turn our attention to the forwards who’ll occupy the bottom two lines to start this season.

When NHL teams are at their best, the third and fourth lines are often occupied by the players who become cult heroes. Plenty of those examples exist with the Chicago Blackhawks teams of old: Dave Bolland, Bryan Bickell, Andrew Shaw, etc.

This Blackhawks team is not at its best, so the bottom-six is occupied by players who are going to see ice time because of the nature of this team’s present situation and would likely struggle to compete for an NHL spot on several other teams in the league.

Not a great sales pitch, is it? Well, here’s a breakdown of the bottom-six anyway:

Colin Blackwell

Stats last season: 58 games, 20 points (10 G, 10 A), 14 PIM, 77 shots, 12.9 SH%, 10:47 ATOI

Blackwell is new to Chicago, signing with the team on July 13 after spending last season split between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Seattle Kraken. He was initially with Seattle before going to Toronto in the Mark Giordano trade and appeared in all seven playoff games, notching a goal and assist. But his average ice time of 7:12 suggests the Maple Leafs didn’t have too much use for him.

A veteran of 138 games across four NHL seasons, Blackwell’s numbers peaked with 22 points (12 G, 10 A) in 47 games for the 2021 New York Rangers. He ended up in Seattle as part of the expansion draft, the second time in his career that Blackwell had been drafted: the San Jose Sharks picked him in the seventh round (194th overall) of the 2011 NHL Draft.

Blackwell has been a decent bottom-six forward in his career and the contract he signed with the Blackhawks is for two years at $1.2 million AAV. Because of that multi-year status, Blackwell may not be on the list of trade assets at this year’s deadline. But he’s also 29 years old already, so Blackwell’s stint in Chicago will probably be more of the short-term variety.

Jason Dickinson

Stats last season: 62 games, 11 points (5 G, 6 A), 19 PIM, 66 shots, 7.6 SH%, 13:03 ATOI

Dickinson is one of the placeholder forwards brought in via the trade that sent Riley Stillman to the Canucks. Originally drafted by the Dallas Stars in the first round (29th overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft, he’s since played 283 NHL games during his seven seasons career and used primarily on the third or fourth line over the last few seasons. His career high in points (22) and games played (67) was with Dallas in 2019-20. Last season with the Canucks, he played in 62 games with 11 points (5 G, 6 A) and averaged just 13:03 TOI.

Dickinson is generally fine as long as he’s facing low quality of competition. He’s only had one season of positive shot metrics but in a very limited capacity. That was with the 2021 Stars, when he had his team had a 56.23 percent share of shot attempts and a 57.62 percent share of expected goals when Dickinson was on the ice. Last season with the Canucks, when they couldn’t shelter him as much, those numbers dropped to 47.53 and 42.72, respectively.

Dickinson will reportedly miss at least the first two games due to visa issues.

MacKenzie Entwistle

Stats last season: 55 games, 12 points (5 G, 7 A), 23 PIM, 34 shots, 14.7 SH%, 10:14 ATOI

Unlike many of the players on this list, Entwistle is relatively young. He turned 23 on July 14 and enters this season at the start of a two-year, $1.6 million contract ($800,000 AAV) that he signed back on Aug. 18, 2021.

Last season, while playing with a rotating cast of characters in Chicago’s bottom six, Entwistle didn’t post numbers that would impress, whether those figures are the traditional stats like goals and assists or the more nuanced numbers like the ones in the JFresh player card below:

It takes a fairly deep dive into the numbers to find some positives beyond the ones above, which showed that Entwistle excelled in puck recoveries, successfully entering the offensive zone, and successfully exiting the defensive zone after retrieving a loose puck. Fellow bottom-sixers from last season like Ryan Carpenter and Henrik Borgstrom also saw their possession numbers go up when playing alongside Entwistle, so perhaps there are parts to Entwistle’s game which could help Chicago own the puck while he’s on the ice.

It’s a new coach and a new system overall, so Entwistle could be a player kept around for the long haul — if the current regime decides he’s worth it.

Jujhar Khaira

Stats last season: 27 games, 3 points (3 G, 0 A), 13 PIM, 32 shots, 9.4 SH%, 13:36 ATOI

Seeing Khaira back on the ice during the preseason was a pleasant development after the scary head injury he sustained following a high dirty hit from New York Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba in a Dec. 7 game. Khaira missed about a month, returned for nine games and then missed the rest of the NHL season.

When healthy, Khaira can be an effective fourth-liner who also excels on the penalty kill — the kind of defensive-minded forward who contending teams may covet at the 2023 trade deadline. Khaira turned 28 in August and is in the final season of a two-year contract he signed on July 28, 2021. Provided that he remains in the lineup all season, Khaira could be a piece moved for a pick and/or prospect come March.

Philipp Kurashev

Stats last season: 67 games, 21 points (6 G, 15 A), 24 PIM, 151 shots, 7 SH%, 12:51 ATOI

Oh, Phil.

This NHL season opens on Kurashev’s 23rd birthday and it’s easily the most important season of his career. There are fans of Kurashev’s play occupying spots on this staff and in NHL circles outside of Chicago, but no one can deny the lack of overall progress in Kurashev last season. After scoring 16 points (8 G, 8 A) in 54 games during his rookie season, Kurashev had just 21 (6 G, 15 A) last season. For a player who was supposed to trend upward, that mostly lateral step was just another line item on the infinitely long lost of unfortunate things that happened with the 2021-22 Blackhawks. Progress isn’t always linear, though.

Kurashev seems to have all of the tools of a quality NHL player who ends up somewhere in the middle six. He can certainly skate and combining that with his hockey IQ has made him a forechecking force at times. The hands are there, too.

Remember this?

But that was from the 2021 season against an awful Red Wings team. There weren’t many highlights to discuss from last season for Kurashev, except for maybe this really weird game-winner in overtime against the Montreal Canadiens.

The good news is that we don’t have to wait around anymore and argue about whether or not Kurashev has the potential to be a long-term option here. It’s time to prove it on the ice — even if this season is going to be a lost cause. It wouldn’t be the worst idea to give Kurashev some top-six minutes to see if that brings out some of his offensive ability, because there’s absolutely nothing for this team to lose but definitely something to be gained.

Sam Lafferty

Stats last season: 46 games, 11 points (5 G, 6 A), 85 PIM, 169 shots, 6.5 SH%, 13:06 ATOI

Lafferty will always stand out on the ice because of his impressive speed. Soon after the Blackhawks acquired him in a Jan. 5, 2022 trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins, his No. 24 sweater was seen flying all over the ice — garnering instant notice from the fan base. The issue that’s kept Lafferty from carving out more of an NHL role in his career is that his hands have never been able to catch up to his feet. If they had, Lafferty could’ve been the second coming of Brandon Saad. But Lafferty was also traded for Alex Nylander, who’s been testing the limits of NHL nepotism for his entire career. With Lafferty now 27 years old, it’s hard to envision those offensive instincts suddenly materializing.

Still, Lafferty’s speed makes him fun to watch and he can be a nightmare on the forecheck for opposing blue-liners. He’s under contract through the 2023-24 season, so he probably won’t be leaving town anytime soon.

Buddy Robinson

Stats last season: 32 games, 6 points (1 G, 5 A), 19 PIM, 38 shots, 2.6 SH%, 9:14 ATOI

Reese Johnson

Stats last season: 37 games, 6 points (1 G, 5 A), 16 PIM, 24 shots, 4.2 SH%, 10:37 ATOI

Grouping these two together at the bottom because there’s not too much say about them other than LBR’s famous: “Probably a nice guy.” Robinson may just be a placeholder until Dickinson’s visa issues are cleared and Reese Johnson would be in the AHL if he was on just about any other team in the league — and we’re not the only ones with low expectations from this duo.

But they’re both in the NHL for now, which must be pretty cool for them.

What’re the lines gonna look like?

A reminder of the lines from Tuesday’s practice:

Given the speed of all three players on it, that third line could be a forechecking nightmare. So there’s something to keep an eye for as long as that group stays together.