Building off a breakthrough: Alex DeBrincat

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Chicago Blackhawks.

With all that went wrong for Chicago in 2017-18, it’s easy to forget how very, very right things went for Alex DeBrincat.

The pint-sized rookie scored an impressive 28 goals and 52 points despite averaging less than 15 minutes (14:48) of ice time per night. If the 2017-18 season wasn’t absolutely jam-packed with fantastic rookies, DeBrincat would have at least been a finalist for the Calder.

Such a strong season shines a brighter spotlight on the 20-year-old, something he seems keenly aware of, as NBC Sports Chicago’s James Neveau reported in late July.

“It’s definitely different,” DeBrincat said. “It was low-key coming in as a rookie, and there weren’t many expectations for me. Now the expectations are there, but those aren’t something I’m looking at. I’m looking to improve in any way I can and just be a better player overall.”

So, can DeBrincat top his fabulous first year with an encore in 2018-19? There are reasons to expect more and also some arguments for a sophomore slump.

[Looking back on 2017-18]

Let’s get the half-empty out of the way, first: DeBrincat’s shooting percentage indicated that the small scorer received his fair share of positive bounces. While it’s not in the William Karlsson stratosphere, DeBrincat scored his 28 goals by riding a 15.5 shooting percentage. Less puck luck could bump him down a few notches.

The good news is that, well, there’s quite a bit of good news.

Again, DeBrincat didn’t get a ton of opportunities from an ice time perspective. At minimum, the Blackhawks would be wise to send the highly skilled player out on the power play more often. DeBrincat’s 2:02 PPTOI per night stood as a good start, but if you want more punch on the man advantage, wouldn’t you send him out more often than Artem Anisimov, Nick Schmaltz, and even maybe Brandon Saad?

(You could make a reasonable argument that DeBrincat should be right up there with Jonathan Toews, honestly.)

There’s a strong chance that Joel Quenneville will get more and more comfortable with the American forward after seeing him excel last season.

Such thoughts might also provide DeBrincat with better (and more stable) running mates.

Via Natural Stat Trick, DeBrincat’s forward partners were all over the place at even-strength. While DeBrincat enjoyed a decent chunk of shifts with Toews, he also spent comparable time with Patrick Sharp and Schmaltz. Echoing the points about power play possibilities, he was mainly on the second unit last season. Why not get him somewhere in that five-man group?

Whether DeBrincat makes a leap forward, a small step back, or basically stands in place, it sure seems like the Blackhawks unearthed another gem in this guy.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.