Zawaski: 5 Keys To Blackhawks' Season

The Hawks need repeat performances from their stars and improvement defensively.

Jay Zawaski
October 04, 2019 - 11:05 am

(670 The Score) After failing to make the playoffs in two straight seasons, the Blackhawks did their best to improve their roster over the summer.

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Veteran defensemen Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan were acquired via trade. Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner was added to back up and serve as an insurance policy for Corey Crawford in goal. The Blackhawks traded for rugged forwards Andrew Shaw and Zack Smith and signed versatile forward Ryan Carpenter.

They also added a pair of forwards who could help out offensively. Alex Nylander, who was the eighth overall pick in the 2016 draft, was acquired from the Sabres in exchange for defenseman Henri Jokiharju, who at this time last season was considered the Blackhawks' top prospect by a large margin. Dominik Kubalik has been in the Blackhawks' plans for 2019-'20 since he was acquired from the Kings in a trade last season, and he has done nothing but impress throughout the preseason. 

Even with all the additions, the Blackhawks' path to the playoffs will prove difficult. The Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars loaded up this offseason. The Nashville Predators are still solid and despite losing several key defensive players, the Winnipeg Jets are absolutely stacked up front. The Hawks will need plenty to go right if they’re going to make the playoffs this year. 

Let's break down the keys to the season.

Repeat performances from Toews, Kane

You might have missed it, but Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane each had career years in 2018-'19. Toews had 35 goals and 81 points while appearing in all 82 games. Kane exploded for 44 goals and 110 points. Despite those incredible performances, the Hawks fell short.

The roster is significantly improved, but a substantial drop-off from either of the two stars could offset the impact of the other additions. While it’s unlikely the 31-year-old Toews will duplicate his numbers, it’s encouraging to know he’s still capable of being a dominant offensive player when healthy. The additions of Shaw and Smith, both right-handed faceoff takers, could take some penalty kill pressure and time away from Toews, which could benefit his offensive game. If Toews can stay in the 70-plus-point range, I believe the Hawks will be fine.

Continued growth from DeBrincat, Strome 

Alex DeBrincat, who signed a three-year contract extension with the Blackhawks on Thursday, is coming off a 41-goal sophomore season. He’s 21. To say he could score 50 goals isn’t a stretch. While impressive last season, DeBrincat went through a few extended goal-less game streaks. With the Blackhawks' added offensive depth, he will likely find himself skating with better players more consistently. It’s expected he will start the season on a line with Kane and his lifemate Dylan Strome.

Strome was acquired from the Coyotes in exchange for Nick Schmaltz last November and found success and chemistry immediately, recording 51 points in his 58 games with the Blackhawks. If he continues that scoring pace, he’d score 72 points in an 82-game season. That means the Blackhawks would have at least four forwards capable of recording 70-plus points. It’s hard to imagine a team with that much scoring up front missing the playoffs.

Improved defense

The Blackhawks defense can’t be worse than it was last season, can it? They were putrid. The Hawks had the worst penalty kill in the league, managing to stop only 72 percent of the power plays they faced. They allowed 3.55 goals per game. For reference, the Lightning led the league with 3.89 goals per game. There’s no way the Hawks defense is as bad as it was last season. 

The additions of Maatta and de Haan pretty much guarantee that. While Maatta is coming off a down season with Pittsburgh, he has won two Stanley Cups and is only 25. His best years are likely ahead of him. The biggest knock on Maatta is his lack of skating ability, but he has made it work with smarts and savvy throughout his career. He was paired with Brent Seabrook, another not-so-swift skater, in the preseason. I’d expect that pair to remain together for the foreseeable future. 

de Haan is a traditional stay-at-home defenseman. He’ll bring stability to the lineup and leadership to the locker room. He can play in all situations but likely won’t see any power-play time in Chicago. de Haan won’t be ready for the opener against the Flyers in Prague on Friday, as he’s recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and a sore groin. He should be ready when the Hawks welcome in the Sharks for their home opener next Thursday.

Dennis Gilbert will get the start in de Haan’s place. Gilbert, 22, only appeared in one game for the Hawks last season but won the praises of Duncan Keith after his performance in the preseason. Gilbert brings a physical, stay-at-home style that the Blackhawks lacked last season and is a welcome, if unexpected, depth piece for the team.

Connor Murphy, who has been the Hawks' steadiest defender over the last couple of seasons, will also miss the game Friday but will be back soon. Once the units are healthy, the pairings should look like this: 

Keith-Erik Gustafsson
de Haan-Murphy

Boqvist, Dach must contribute 

No one can convince me that Adam Boqvist isn’t among the organization’s six best defensemen, and no one can convince me that rookie Kirby Dach isn’t among the organization's 12 best forward. While still a bit defensively challenged, Boqvist had several electrifying moments during prospects camp and in the preseason. He will begin the season in AHL Rockford, which isn’t the worst idea in the world. He can hone his defensive game and play big minutes so he’s completely ready when the time comes -- but the time needs to come sooner than later.

Kirby Dach -- who was the victim of a dirty boarding hit in the ever important Traverse City Prospects Tournament -- has missed the entire preseason with a concussion. He remains on the roster and while general manager Stan Bowman has played coy about if and when he’ll play, the expectation is that he'll at least get a look before the Blackhawks make a decision on his future. Canadian Hockey League rules state any player drafted out of their league must play in the NHL or return to the CHL, so the Hawks don’t have the luxury of sending Dach to Rockford like they do with Boqvist. Dach can appear in up to nine games without burning the first year of his professional contract with the Hawks. I’d expect the Hawks to take a good, long look at Dach for those nine games. 

Boqvist and Dach are the Blackhawks' best hopes of taking the team to the next level. If they’re going to be a playoff threat instead of a playoff also-ran, they’ll need at least one of these two to be a major part of the season.

Emergence of a depth winger

There are two candidates for this scenario: Nylander and Kubalik. The son of former Blackhawks center Michael Nylander and the brother of current Maple Leafs star William Nylander, Nylander has the higher-end skill, but work ethic concerns have dogged him since he was drafted.

The story remained the same for Nylander this preseason. He had moments of brilliance offensively and moments of complete disinterest in the other two zones. There's no doubting his talent. If he can put together a consistent effort every night, a 40/50-point season isn’t out of the question -- especially if he remains on a line with Toews, which is where he'll start in the Blackhawks' opener.

Kubalik may have a lower ceiling than Nylander, but he has already shown more. He has an incredible shot, a willingness to battle for positioning in front of the net and in the corners and has been deployed in the "Artemi Panarin power-play one-timer" role on the team’s second power-play unit. He could stack up power-play goals and points and be a sleeper for those that dabble in fantasy hockey. 

If all of these items come to fruition, the Hawks could be a really dangerous team come April.

Jay Zawaski is the executive producer of the Bernstein & McKnight Show on 670 middays from 9 a.m. to noon, a columnist for 670 The Score and the co-host of the Madhouse Chicago Hockey Podcast, which is available on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify or your preferred podcast app. He's also the host of Locked on Blackhawks and the I'm Fat Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @JayZawaski670.​​​