Chicago Blackhawks 2020-21 NHL season preview

Chicago Blackhawks 2020-21 NHL season preview
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The 2020-21 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to preview all 31 teams. Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at how the offseason affected each team, the most interesting people in the organization, and the best- and worst-case scenarios. Today, we preview the Chicago Blackhawks.

Chicago Blackhawks 2019-20 Rewind

Record: 32-30-8 (72 points in 70 games played); seventh in the Central Division; 12th in the Western Conference. Lost to the Golden Knights in the First Round.

Leading scorer: Patrick Kane (33 goals, 84 points)

If last season would have ended normally, it would have been close to a total disaster for Chicago. Instead, the 24-team Qualifying Round playoff format gave the Blackhawks a chance to salvage their season, and they did. Sort of. By upsetting the Oilers to make it to the formal 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs (the NHL did not make it easier to describe these things), the Blackhawks could point to certain positives.

Of course, the Golden Knights absolutely outclassed the Blackhawks, with Chicago probably being lucky to grind out a single win. For all the silver linings that came from beating Edmonton, Vegas highlighted the sharp contrast between what the Blackhawks are, and what they need to be to return to the glory days.

To the credit of management, they largely absorbed the right lessons. Rather than exaggerating moral victories, the Blackhawks sent out a message about rebuilding, at least for now.

With recent injury news regarding forwards Jonathan Toews, Kirby Dach, and Alex Nylander, the Blackhawks are fortunate that they didn’t go all-in. The pain figures to continue, at least in the short term.

Additions

Nikita Zadorov (trade), Carl Soderberg (free agency), Lucas Wallmark (free agency), Mattias Janmark (free agency), Anton Lindholm (trade), Brandon Pirri (trade).

Subtractions

Corey Crawford (free agency), Brandon Saad (trade), Olli Maatta (trade), Drake Caggiula (free agency), Dylan Sikura (trade).

Blackhawks 2020-21 season preview Dylan Strome
(Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

3 Most Interesting Chicago Blackhawks

Dylan Strome

With Kirby Dach possibly out all season, and Jonathan Toews out indefinitely, the Blackhawks’ center position looks slim. You can see every one of the position’s ribs.

Really, that forward group doesn’t look so hot overall.

Being that the Blackhawks’ best bet boiled down to outscoring their problems/hoping their goalies save the day, this could get ugly.

Yet, such situations can also give players an opportunity to improve their perception around the league. Dylan Strome already figured to be interesting to watch, being that he’s currently an RFA in need of a new contract. But now, as possibly the 1C for some time? That should be interesting. Even if there’s the potential for some trainwreck-style rubbernecking.

Collin Delia/Malcolm Subban

Oof, Blackhawks starting goalie doesn’t look like an easy job in 2020-21.

OK, it wasn’t easy last season, either. Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford merely excelled at bailing the Blackhawks out of jams about as well as anyone could have expected.

So far in their careers, it’s a bit audacious to even expect league-average work from Delia and/or Subban. Delia’s largely unproven, while Subban’s struggled to really solidify himself even as a strong NHL backup. On paper, behind a terrible Blackhawks defense that got worse by shipping out Olli Maatta? Yeah, it could get really ugly.

But who knows? Goalies are an unpredictable lot. While Subban’s been disappointing, he does have first round pedigree. We’ve seen plenty of late bloomers at the position. (Travel back in time to, say, 2013, and tell someone that Jacob Markstrom would later sign a six-year, $36M contract. You might need to dry your face from the spit-take.)

Whether they’re floundering or astounding, the Blackhawks goalies should be fascinating to watch.

Stan Bowman

OK, so it’s very good that the Blackhawks are facing reality. Let’s face it, though; they could have expedited this process if they weren’t looking at everything through rose-colored glasses for far too long.

So … better late than never, but can Bowman make up for lost time? A big part of that answer might come down to Bowman’s sales skills. Would a rebuild prompt players like Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith to waive no-trade clauses? If so, would Bowman pull the trigger, and extract strong value? In which cases would that even make sense?

To the Blackhawks’ credit, they’ve unearthed some quality draft talent here and there. Sure, sometimes they’ve had to turn around and trade those hidden gems … but still. Gaining more draft picks — both quality ones in the first round, but also quantity in additional “dart throws” — could make a big difference. We’ll see how good a GM Bowman really is, being that he’s the front office member left standing after Joel Quenneville, John McDonough, and other prominent people haven’t made it through these leaner years.

Best-Case Scenario

You mean, assuming that COVID doesn’t jumble up a season so the Blackhawks can eat their cake (make it to the “Qualifying Round,,” enjoy mild success?) and have it too (still get a quality first-rounder)? This team needs to tank, and it also would benefit from stockpiling draft picks. Selling high on veterans at the trade deadline, seeing some positive steps from young players, and landing a blue-chipper or three in the 2021 NHL Draft stands as the best-case scenario for the Blackhawks in 2020-21 and into the offseason.

Worst-Case Scenario

Count the Blackhawks among those teams who could suffer if they are “too good” in 2020-21. Realistically, this roster won’t truly contend. They might be able to grind out enough wins to hover around the playoff bubble, though. If the Blackhawks hang in there, they might not sell at the trade deadline. They might mess up their draft lottery odds. If that happens, they’d largely be stuck in place, only with key players getting even older. Now that is a worst-case scenario.

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James O’Brien is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Rangers sign Filip Chytil to 4-year extension

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Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
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NEW YORK — The New York Rangers have signed forward Filip Chytil to a four-year contract extension worth $17.75 million, locking up another member of their core long term.

The team announced the deal Wednesday night. Chytil will count just under $4.44 million annually against the salary cap through the 2026-27 season.

Chytil, 23, is in the midst of a career year. He has set career highs with 22 goals, 20 assists and 42 points in 66 games for the playoff-bound Rangers.

The Czech native is the team’s sixth-leading scorer and ranks fourth on the roster in goals. The 2017 first-round pick has 144 points in 342 NHL regular-season and playoff games. He was set to be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer.

New York already had top center Mika Zibanejad signed through 2030, No. 1 defenseman Adam Fox through 2029, veteran Chris Kreider through 2027, winger Artemi Panarin through 2026 and reigning Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Igor Shesterkin through 2025.

General manager Chris Drury’s next order of business is an extension for 2020 top pick Alexis Lafrenière, who is only signed through the remainder of this season and can be a restricted free agent.

Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews returns to ice, hints at retirement

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CHICAGO — Longtime Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews returned to the ice but hinted his stellar NHL career could be winding down after 15 years.

Toews, 34, skated with teammates prior to Chicago’s game with the Dallas Stars. It was his first time practicing with them since a game in Edmonton on Jan. 28.

He made a statement through the team on Feb. 19 saying he would be stepping away because of the effects of Chronic Immune Response Syndrome and “long COVID.”

In meeting with reporters, Toews stopped short of saying he hoped to play in any of last-place Chicago’s nine remaining games. His eight-year, $84 million contract is set to expire at the end of the season.

Toews said he’s feeling stronger, but isn’t sure if he’ll be able to play again for the Blackhawks or another team.

“Both if I’m being fully honest,” Toews said. “I feel like I’ve said it already, that I’ve gotten to the point where my health is more important.

“When you’re young and you’re playing for a Stanley Cup and everyone’s playing through something, that means something and it’s worthwhile. But I’m at that point where it feels like more damage is being done than is a good thing.”

Toews, the Blackhawks’ first-round draft pick (third overall) in 2006, joined the team in 2007 and was a pillar of Stanley Cup championship clubs in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

At the peak of his career, he was one of the NHL’s top two-way centers, winning the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in 2013.

In 1,060 regular-season games, Toews has 371 goals and 509 assists. In 139 playoff games, he’s posted 45 goals and 74 assists, and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2010.

Toews missed the entire 2020-21 season with Chronic Immune Response System, which caused debilitating inflammation and fatigue.

He appeared in 71 games in 2021-22, then started this season with renewed energy before slowing and eventually shutting himself down.

Entering this season, it looked as if Chicago might deal him, as it did fellow star Patrick Kane, before the March trade deadline. But Kane went to the New York Rangers and Toews to injured reserve.

Toews believed he was progressing before a relapse in January left him so sore and tired that he could barely “put on my skates or roll out of bed to come to the rink.”

Toews said his progress over the past month has been “pretty encouraging” and he’s delighted to be back among his teammates. He has no timetable beyond that.

“We’re just going to go day by day here,” Chicago coach Luke Richardson said. He deserves anything he wants to try to achieve here.”

Richardson hoped Toews “can take that next step later in the week and hopefully (he) gives us the green light to go in a game.”

But Toews emphasized his long-term health and ability to lead a “normal life” is most important. He wants to go out on a positive note and not hit the ice for a game playing through excessive pain and dysfunction.

“It’s definitely on my mind that this could be my last few weeks here as a Blackhawk in Chicago,” Toews said. “It’s definitely very important for me to go out there and enjoy the game and just kind of soak it in and just really appreciate everything I’ve been able to be part of here in Chicago.”

Budding Wild star Matt Boldy more willing to shoot, and it shows

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Matt Boldy was unable to resist a smile in the aftermath of his second hat trick in five games for the Minnesota Wild, a young right wing and reluctant star trying to make sense of a remarkable hot streak.

Does the puck feel as if it’s automatically going in the net these days each time he shoots?

“Yeah, it does,” Boldy said in the locker room after leading the first-place Wild to a 5-1 win over Seattle. “My linemates are playing great. Hopefully you guys are giving them a lot of credit. You look at some of those goals – just putting it on a tee for me.”

This non-attention-seeker has found himself squarely in the NHL spotlight. Boldy has 11 goals in nine games since Wild superstar Kirill Kaprizov was sidelined with a lower-body injury to raise his goal total to 28, in part because he’s been more willing to shoot. With vision and stickhandling as strengths and the humility of being a second-year player, it’s easy to be in a pass-first mindset.

“Everybody kind of took turns talking to him. But it’s not that he didn’t want to. A lot of times a situation like that where a guy’s got that skillset, it’s a real unselfish quality, right?” coach Dean Evason said. “But I think he gets now that he helps the team a lot when he scores goals.”

The Wild were confident enough in Boldy’s scoring ability to commit a seven-year, $49 million contract extension to him earlier this winter, after all.

“I think I’ve always had that mentality, but sometimes you just get into spots and it comes off your stick good,” Boldy said. “When things are going well, the puck goes in the net.”’

The Wild are 6-1-2 without Kaprizov. Boldy is a big reason why.

“You go through the slumps, you learn what you need to do to score. I think he’s found a good way to be in the right spot and shoot the puck when he had a good opportunity,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said.

The Wild have only won one division title in 22 years, the five-team Northwest Division in 2007-08. They’re leading the eight-team Central Division with eight games to go, with both Colorado and Dallas too close for comfort. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2015.

With Kaprizov due back before the postseason and Boldy on this heater, a Wild team that ranks just 23rd in the league in goals per game (2.93) ought to have a better chance to advance. Eriksson Ek and Marcus Johansson have been ideal linemates for the Boston College product and Massachusetts native.

Since the Wild entered the league in the 2000-01 season, only five NHL players have had more hat tricks at age 21 or younger than Boldy with three: Patrik Laine (eight), Marian Gaborik (five), Steven Stamkos (five), Alex DeBrincat (four) and Connor McDavid (four). Boldy turns 22 next week, so there’s still time for one or two more.

“He’s big. He controls the puck a lot. He’s got a good shot, good release. He’s smart. He switches it up. He’s got good moves on breakaways. He’s a total player,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Fun to watch him grow this year.”

Pezzetta scores shootout winner; Canadiens beat Sabres 4-3

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Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports
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BUFFALO, N.Y. ⁠— Brendan Gallagher and the Montreal Canadiens rallied back to avoid playoff elimination with less than three weeks left in their season. The Buffalo Sabres, meanwhile, are running out of chances to stay in the Eastern Conference wild-card hunt.

Gallagher forced overtime by scoring his 200th career goal, and Michael Pezzetta scored the decisive shootout goal in a 4-3 win over the Sabres on Monday night.

“It’s one of those things I think we earned that chance. We weren’t fantastic but we did enough on the road tonight to get a win,” Gallagher said. “Smiles all around.”

The Canadiens could laugh, especially after Pezzetta celebrated his goal by putting his stick between his legs and riding it like a wooden horse — much like former NHL tough guy Dave “Tiger” Williams did during his 14-year NHL career spanning the 1970s and 80s.

“I’m not sure we’ll see that again. One of a kind,” said Gallagher. “I’d be worried about falling over.”

Pezzetta scored by driving in from the right circle to beat Eric Comrie inside the far post. Buffalo’s Jack Quinn scored in the fourth shootout round, but was matched by Montreal’s Jesse Ylonen, whose shot from in tight managed to trickle in through Comrie.

Jordan Harris and Alex Belzile also scored for Montreal, and Jake Allen stopped 30 shots through overtime, while allowing one goal on six shootout attempts.

Montreal would have been eliminated from playoff contention for a second straight season – and two years removed from reaching the Stanley Cup Final – with any type of loss.

The Sabres squandered a 3-2 third-period lead to drop to 3-6-3 in their past 12. Buffalo also blew a chance to move to within four points of idle Pittsburgh, which holds the eighth and final playoff spot.

“Just a little hesitation,” forward JJ Peterka said of the Sabres third-period lapse. “We didn’t play with much energy and we didn’t play that aggressive as we played the two periods before. I think that was the difference.”

Buffalo’s Lukas Rousek scored a goal and added an assist while filling in for leading scorer Tage Thompson, who did not play due to an upper body injury. Peterka and defenseman Riley Stillman also scored, and Comrie stopped 38 shots through overtime, and allowed two goals on six shootout attempts.

Montreal blew two one-goal leads to fall behind 3-2 on Stillman’s goal at the 8:31 mark of the second period.

Gallagher scored on the fly by using Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin as a screen to snap in a shot inside the far left post. With the goal, Gallagher tied Bobby Rousseau for 24th on the Canadiens career scoring list.

“I liked the way we corrected ourselves, it’s a sign of maturity, in the way we stayed on task,” Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said, in recalling how the Canadiens recently unraveled in an 8-4 loss two weeks ago to Colorado, which plays a similar up-tempo style as Buffalo.

PRIDE NIGHT

The Sabres hosted their third Pride Night, with Russian D Ilya Lyubushkin electing not to participate in warmups by citing an anti-gay Kremlin law and fears of retribution at home in Moscow, where he has family and visits in the offseason. The remainder of the team wore dark blue jerseys with the Sabres logo on the front encircled by a rainbow-colored outline.

During the first intermission, the Sabres broadcast a video in which GM Kevyn Adams said: “This is about recognizing someone’s humanity and true identity. We know there are people out there struggling with who they are, and we want them to know that they have an ally in the Buffalo Sabres.”

UP NEXT

Canadiens: At the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.

Sabres: Host the New York Rangers on Friday night.