Alex DeBrincat is back to being the star the Blackhawks expected

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators. Blackhawks-Predators stream coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

When people think about the Blackhawks surprisingly being in the running for a playoff spot, they tend to rain praise on a long-running star (Patrick Kane) and an out-of-the-blue gem (Kevin Lankinen). But in a team sport where you simply need several people to step up if you want to succeed, the Blackhawks also needed a bounce-back season from Alex DeBrincat.

And Alex DeBrincat did just that.

With 16 goals and 33 points in 30 games heading into the weekend, DeBrincat is on the best pace of his career. (The 2018-19 season stands out as DeBrincat’s best so far, with career-highs in goals [41] and points [76].)

Ups and downs for DeBrincat before what’s been a career-best season

Essentially, it’s been fascinating to watch Alex DeBrincat’s career ever since the Blackhawks drafted him after he slipped to the second round (39th overall in 2016). People wondered very early on if DeBrincat was a big steal, someone who was being excessively discounted because of size concerns.

It sure looks like that was the case.

With 28 goals and 52 points, DeBrincat put together a great rookie season in 2017-18. Then, instead of a sophomore slump, DeBrincat scored 41 goals and 76 points in 2018-19. Expectations started to really rise, and then DeBrincat hit a big wall.

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Through his first two Blackhawks seasons, DeBrincat connected with shooting percentages of 15.5 and 18.6 percent. Even a skilled player like DeBrincat won’t always be that efficient, but seeing that drop to 8.7 percent hurt. As much as DeBrincat tried to take it the right way, it had to rattle him a bit.

So, coming into this strange, pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season, DeBrincat seemed to be at a fork in the road. Would his strong start fizzle out, and he’d be merely another solid forward? Could he bounce back and return to more-or-less-star-status? At 23, there’s even the possibility for bigger things.

Where DeBrincat really ranks is a debate for chat rooms, social media feeds, and bars (at least when the latter becomes safe for spittle-heavy sports debates). But there’s no doubt that DeBrincat’s back to being one of the Blackhawks’ brightest spots once again.

Doing more than just scoring

Back in February, head coach Jeremy Colliton praised DeBrincat for improving his all-around scoring. Not just his ability to put the puck in the net. (Which, again, clearly returned for 2020-21.)

“He’s got another level that he’s reached here,” Colliton said, via NBC Sports Chicago. “We all see the offensive production and that’s what gets the headlines … but I think his two-way game was really good last year, he just didn’t get paid off for it.

“I would say even his skating, his pressure on the puck and his defensive play and work ethic to get pucks back, he’s stripping guys on the backcheck and creating extra transition opportunities and zone time. I would say that it was good last year, it’s even another step here. And probably a lot of it is just confidence, feeling good out there, he’s skating so well. Really nice to see, really important guy for our team.”

Indeed, DeBrincat really is a crucial piece for the Blackhawks. After all, as much praise as Patrick Kane receives, he’s 32, and carries a $10.5M cap hit through 2022-23.

DeBrincat’s in the absolute prime of his career, and is on a team-friendly deal ($6.4M AAV, also ends after 2022-23). Even if this year’s Blackhawks teams reverts to the more rebuild-oriented path many expected, it’s huge for them to see DeBrincat rebound.

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.

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