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2021-22 Chicago Blackhawks Preview: A dynasty die-hard

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With additions such as Marc-Andre Fleury and Seth Jones, it’s clear that Chicago is gambling on their off-season decisions to make a big impact on the ice in 2021-22.

Nicolas Beaudin #74 and Dominik Kubalik #8 of the Chicago Blackhawks skate onto the ice before a game against the Dallas Stars at the United Center on May 10, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It’s difficult to get excited for a team whose management and upper staff are currently involved in ongoing lawsuits regarding sexual abuse allegations and negligence, especially when many of those same people (like Stan Bowman) are still leading the team today. I won’t be discussing the lawsuits in any more detail than that, but it’s important to acknowledge the reality of this team. That being said, let’s discuss where the Chicago Blackhawks might be headed this coming season.

Where they left off

Chicago is one of those teams that despite their less-than-fabulous recent regular season records, you can’t count them out until the last minute. They’re like a cockroach; their undeniable determination until the bitter end makes for a formidable team, even with the temporary loss of their captain, Jonathan Toews.

The Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup three times in the past decade, but it appears that their cup-winning days have passed with their recent sparing appearances in the playoffs. In the 2018-19 season, the ‘Hawks missed the playoffs with a record of 36-34-12. The next year, the Blackhawks’ record was 32-30-8, and while they vanquished the Edmonton Oilers in the qualifying round, they ultimately lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in the first round. Last year was a mirror of 2018-19, with missed playoffs and a middling 24-25-7 record.

2021 Entry Draft

The 2021 Entry Draft was successful in the sense that in three to five years fans will be able to look back on this draft with fond memories, but don’t expect any of these draft picks to cut their teeth on NHL ice anytime soon. While all exciting, promising players who showcase speed and physicality, all of them need more time developing before they’ll be ready for the big leagues.

Chicago’s first pick of the draft was Nolan Allen, at 32 overall. Allen is a great skater who’s in the perfect position to develop into a well-rounded NHL defenseman. He spent last season with the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Prince Albert Raiders, playing 16 games for a total of 1 goal, 1 assist, 21 penalty minutes and a -3.

Colton Dach, Kirby Dach’s brother was Chicago’s second-round pick, making Caleb and Seth Jones (we’ll get to them in a minute) not the only pair of brothers in the organization. Much like Allen, Dach is a great shooter with perfect foundational skills to begin crafting an NHL-calibre athlete. For the WHL Saskatoon Blades, Dach played 20 games for a total of 11 goals, 9 assists, and 16 PIMs.

The entire list of Chicago picks are as follows:

Round 1 (32nd overall): Nolan Allen
Round 2 (62nd): Colton Dach
Round 3 (91st): Taige Harding
Round 4 (105th): Ethan Del Mastro
Round 4 (108th): Victor Stjernborg
Round 6 (172nd): Ilya Safonov
Round 7 (204th): Connor Kelley
Round 7 (216th): Jalen Luypen

Roster

The end of the 2020-21 season was rife with trades and the off-season movements were a veritable circus.

Duncan Keith was traded to the Edmonton Oilers in what was a suspected cap dump and changing of the guard for the team. The 38-year-old defenseman, along with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, is the last of the cup-winning era players on the team. Keith has been in trade rumors for a while, so it wasn’t as much of a surprise as it was an emotional blow to fans. In return for Keith, the Blackhawks received Caleb Jones and a 2022 third-round pick.

Caleb Jones is the young replacement piece for a weak defense in Chicago. Last year, he played 33 games for the Oilers, for a total of 4 assists, 6 PIMs and a -7. Now, I don’t want to get too cynical here, but Chicago’s quest for a pair of brothers (ahem, two with the Dach siblings) seems a little suspicious, in the sense that it clearly creates goodwill and fan interest in the face of dwindling (for good reason) public support. That’s not to say that Caleb Jones isn’t a good pick up — he is, especially since Seth Jones was connected to Chicago far earlier than he was able to sign —but it’s more a reminder that hockey is a business, and rosters, for better or worse, are a team’s greatest marketing tool.

Speaking of Seth Jones, his presence in Chicago isn’t a surprise. Defense has long been an issue with the team, so we knew that the team had their eye on Jones, who made it no secret that he wanted to test free agency rather than sign an extension with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Instead of letting Jones walk as a UFA with no return on their investment, the Blue Jackets traded Jones, a 2021 first and a 2022 sixth to Chicago, in return for Adam Boqvist, a 2021 first, and a 2021 second.

Other new additions include two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tyler Johnson and former Oiler Jujhar Khaira.

Johnson adds depth down the middle and will slot in on the second or third lines easily. He’s great in 5-on-5 settings and excels at face-offs, both scenarios Chicago could use his expertise in. For Tampa Bay, Johnson played 55 games for a total of 8 goals, 14 assists, 16 PIMs and a -1.

Jujhar Khaira is a power forward who has been under-utilized in Edmonton, so I’m really excited to see what he brings to the lineup in Chicago. With the Oilers in 2020-21, Khaira played 40 games for a total of 3 goals, 8 assists, 42 PIMs and a -1. Khaira offers depth and physicality to the roster, and despite his penalty minutes being higher than I’m sure coaches would like, he has a lot of potential for Chicago’s forward lines.

The elephant in the room is obviously the addition of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury is a Vezina winner, a three-time Stanley Cup Champion, the third-winningest goaltender of all time, and beloved by fans everywhere. It was a shock for fans (and Fleury, who found out about the trade via Twitter), but there are a few suspected sides to this story.

First is that the Vegas Golden Knights have shown that they’re cup-or-bust, and while Fleury’s regular season performance was great, the general rule is that for goaltenders, their most recent game is the one people remember, and he struggled in the series against the Montreal Canadiens. By trading Fleury, who has been the face of the franchise since the beginning, Vegas is demonstrating that they’ll do anything it takes to win the cup soon; even trading their marquee players.

The flip side of that conversation is that the Chicago Blackhawks want to be cup competitive, and by securing one of the top goaltenders in the league, they can hypothetically portray themselves to be, which I think is really interesting in the sense that while we never count Chicago out, based on their past three years and untested roster, I wouldn’t count them in either. So what other reasons could there be for the Blackhawks to snag Fleury?

For one, pushing a ‘cup competitive’ narrative gets fans excited, and on their side. Nothing brushes sexual abuse allegations and ensuing lawsuits under the rug than a potential Stanley Cup run. For another, Marc-Andre Fleury is a face of goodwill. In general, hockey fans, regardless of what team they cheer for, agree that Fleury is a nice guy. He’s exactly the kind of player a team wants to leverage to a dissatisfied and suspicious consumer basis; he’s nice, non-problematic and quiet. I know it sounds a little pessimistic, but I can’t help but wonder how much of the Fleury trade was hockey politics and the Chicago Blackhawks needing good PR, and how much of it was Fleury as a goaltender. Remember how many top goaltenders were UFAs this year? The market was saturated for the Chicago Blackhawks to choose from, yet they pursued Fleury and his $7 million contract.

What can we expect in 2021-22?

The biggest question mark is captain Jonathan Toews. As of right now, there’s no return date on Toews, who took a medical leave of absence in December of 2020. The word is that his progress and management of his chronic immune response syndrome are promising and that both he and the team are hopeful for his return at some point.

Either the Blackhawks are able to make good on their promise and compete for the cup (most likely via a wild card spot), or they fall short for another year. Fleury could be the team’s savior in net, or Vegas made a mistake in trading him. Seth Jones could be a game-changer on the blue line, or Chicago’s defensive woes continue. Whatever the player or the storyline, it’s clear that Chicago is gambling on their off-season decisions to make a big impact on the ice in 2021-22.

However, the most important stories from Chicago are the ones off the ice — power dynamics in the NHL, how far a team will go to hide sexual assault allegations, and the ongoing lawsuits regarding team and management.

The San Jose Sharks will face the Chicago Blackhawks three times during the regular season, beginning November 28 at United Center in Chicago at 4 p.m. PT. The two will then play twice in April, first on the 12th in Chicago at 5:30 p.m. PT, and again on the 23rd in San Jose at 5 p.m. PT.