As the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs approach, NHL teams will start getting mathematically eliminated from contention. PHT’s “What Went Wrong” series aims to analyze why each team missed the playoffs. The “What Went Wrong” series continues with the 2020-21 Chicago Blackhawks.
Heading into the 2020-21 regular season, expectations were low for the Blackhawks. Even before Jonathan Toews was out indefinitely with issues that sidelined him for at least 2020-21.
On one hand, it likely still burns people in the Blackhawks organization to see expectations in the cellar. The 2015 Stanley Cup Final did happen a long time ago by hockey standards (and, yeah, a lot happened in the world since then, too). But for some, it might still be jarring that the Blackhawks’ 2020-21 season was more about the future than the present.
Ultimately, the Blackhawks finished 24-25-7 (55 points in 56 games). That’s almost a “.500” record, at least in the … forgiving parlance of NHL standings. And, truly, the Blackhawks made a semi-credible playoff push before running out of gas.
So, what went wrong, right, and in between for the Blackhawks in 2020-21? Let’s mull that question over.
What went wrong before the Blackhawks; 2020-21 season
Again, losing Jonathan Toews was a shock.
With all due respect, even a rebuilding team might not want Pius Suter centering a line with Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat.
Speaking of key members of the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup era, the team ultimately decided to part ways with Corey Crawford. That mild drama was probably unnecessary, as Crawford would end up retiring anyway.*
Most of the Blackhawks’ offseason moves hinted at lowered expectations heading into 2020-21. Granted, would it have been wiser to aim for picks or prospects in the Brandon Saad trade? Sure, but at least the Blackhawks weren’t mortgaging their future for a flimsy present.
And then they even outlined their rebuild in a letter to fans.
* – Is there any chance Crawford would’ve kept plugging away if he could have stayed with the Blackhawks? The most likely answer seems to be “no.” After all, his late Blackhawks career was a mix of quietly fantastic play and troubling health issues.
What went wrong during the Blackhawks’ 2020-21 season
If you looked only at the standings, you’d say that Chicago exceeded expectations. That maybe they weren’t as bad as people expected.
When you break down the way the Blackhawks actually played in 2020-21, though? That’s where your outlook might not be as sunny.
From Corsi and Fenwick to simple shots, the Blackhawks were out-chanced massively in 2020-21. It wasn’t just about quantity, either. The Blackhawks ranked dead-last in expected goals percentage (43.96-percent) and high-danger chances (42.6-percent). All things considered, they were probably lucky that their goal differential was “only” -25.
To a large extent, Kevin Lankinen kept the Blackhawks afloat … until he couldn’t.
What went right
In January, Lankinen was outstanding, going 3-1-2 with a marvelous .937 save percentage. He was strong in February and March (a .917 save percentage behind that defense remains impressive). Gravity/the Blackhawks defense couldn’t be ignore forever, but his ascent was a nice surprise.
As Charlie Roumeliotis noted for NBC Sports Chicago, the Blackhawks did what a rebuilding team should do: play your young’uns.
1. The Blackhawks had nine rookies make their NHL debuts this season and nine players score their first career goals. In total, the Blackhawks had 311 games played from their rookies, which is the most of any team.
While Patrick Kane might get a bit of a free pass from some for his defensive play …
… Kane still scored 66 points in 56 games, one of the best paces of his career. Considering that Alex DeBrincat is only 23, it was probably more important for him to have a huge bounce-back (and then some) year.
While the Blackhawks weren’t bold sellers at the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline, they ranked among the teams willing to broker trades for contenders in order to stock up on picks.
As you can see from the 2021 NHL Draft Lottery odds, the Blackhawks have the 12th-best chance (2.7-percent) to land the first pick in the 2021 NHL Draft. Chicago also has an extra second-rounder, so they could end up making some draft weekend moves. Naturally, the most important steps revolve around continuing to rebuild.
For better or worse, coach Jeremy Colliton received an extension, so he’ll be a part of that rebuild, too.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.