Chicago Blackhawks: 2021-22 NHL season preview

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The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Chicago Blackhawks.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 24-25-7 (55 points); sixth place in Central Division
• Postseason: Missed playoffs
• Offensive leader: Patrick Kane (56 games, 15 goals, 51 assists, 66 points)

• Free Agent Additions: Seth Jones (trade from Blue Jackets), Marc-Andre Fleury (trade from Golden Knights), Tyler Johnson (trade from Lightning), Caleb Jones (trade from Oilers), Jake McCabe, Jujhar Khaira.
• Free Agent Subtractions: Adam Boqvist (trade to Blue Jackets), Pius Suter (Red Wings), Duncan Keith (trade to Oilers), Brent Seabrook‘s contract (trade to Lightning), Nikita Zadorov (trade to Flames), John Quenneville (Kraken expansion draft).

Biggest Question Facing the Blackhawks

• What if the Blackhawks are wrong about Seth Jones?

Frankly, it’s reasonable to wonder if Stan Bowman should have even remained as Blackhawks GM this offseason. Considering shaky job performance, and most importantly some profoundly ugly allegations, perhaps someone else should have been making these calls.

But, right or wrong, Bowman kept his job as Blackhawks GM. And he didn’t exactly play it safe.

In what ended up being an offseason where NHL teams kind of lost their minds about the value of defensemen, the Blackhawks set a defiant tone by gambling on Seth Jones.

The quality of picks and prospects was staggering, alone. Then add that eight-year extension (with a $9.5M cap hit), and the Blackhawks are betting the farm on Seth Jones. While the Blackhawks made several other significant/medium-sized moves, they’ll really pay if the chickens come home to roost with this bet on Seth Jones.

What’s the salary cap situation?

There’s some dark irony to the path the Blackhawks could have taken this offseason. While the salary cap has been a huge concern for basically Bowman’s entire run, the team presented a relatively clean slate.

Blame Bowman being desperate to keep his job, or merely deciding to make a radical makeover, but now things are quite a bit messier.

  • Again, they didn’t just add Seth Jones for his contract year. They’re now committed to him for nine seasons. Following the 2021-22 season ($5.4M), Jones will carry that $9.5M cap hit through 2029-30.
  • For better or worse, Bowman made other significant investments in defense. Between signing Jake McCabe and extending Connor Murphy, most of Chicago’s term goes to the blueline.
  • They spent the wiggle room from trading Duncan Keith’s contract — and then some.
  • Apply that to moving Brent Seabrook’s deal off the books. We could look back at the Tyler Johnson trade as the Blackhawks doing the Lightning muliple favors with one swap.

Time will tell if the Blackhawks’ defense got a lot better, or merely took baby steps.

Either way, it’s fascinating how open-ended their roster is, otherwise.

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agency Tracker]

Both Marc-Andre Fleury and Kevin Lankinen enter contract years, so the future is cloudy for goaltending. Tyler Johnson and Brandon Hagel lead the forwards group term-wise, and that’s just with three-year deals apiece.

So big decisions loom. Jonathan Toews‘ and Patrick Kane’s matching $10.5M cap hits expire after the 2022-23 season. Alex DeBrincat also is only on the books for two more seasons, and should expect a big bump from his bargain $6.4M cap hit.

Looking at Cap Friendly, the Blackhawks are squeezing to the salary cap ceiling in 2021-22. They’re projected to have almost $23M in cap space next offseason, and then $57.5M after the 2023-24 campaign.

With that in mind, they could make big changes even if the Seth Jones experiment is a failure. That said, the Blackhawks aren’t exactly a cheap gamble in 2021-22, either.

Breakout Candidate

Kirby Dach

If it weren’t for a wrist injury, maybe last season would’ve served as Kirby Dach’s breakthrough year.

Despite being limited to 18 games played, Dach received a healthy 18:34 TOI per game. On average alone, that’s a healthy bit more than prominent forwards such as Dylan Strome and Pius Suter. Not bad for a big forward who’s just 20 years old.

After the Blackhawks somewhat surprisingly allowed Suter to leave for nothing in free agency, the door’s open that much more for Dach to excel.

By scoring 23 points in 64 games as a rookie in 2019-20, and 10 points in 18 games last season, Dach has already proven he can produce at the NHL level.

Line combinations can change, and often. Still, it’s promising that Dach is penciled in on the top line with DeBrincat and Kane, at least by Ben Pope of the Chicago Sun-Times. Understatement: such assignments tend to boost your numbers.

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Blackhawks

Seth Jones makes no mistake about his status as an elite defenseman. Aging or not, Marc-Andre Fleury backs up his first Vezina win with another stellar campaign. Players like Dach erupt, while Jonathan Toews returns without missing a beat. Jeremy Colliton proves he can put together a strong system if you give him the needed personnel. With that, the Blackhawks don’t just make the playoffs; they even flirt with former glories.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Blackhawks

All of those red flags about Seth Jones weren’t just red herrings. Their defense remains a disaster, and a 36-year-old Fleury simply can’t clean up those mistakes. Out in Columbus, Adam Boqvist makes a big leap, and rapidly gains on Jones as the best player in that trade. Then again, maybe the picks the Blackhawks gave up in the Jones trade would end up yielding the best player involved? More ugly information surfaces from the lawsuit, shining an unflattering light on the decision to keep Bowman around as GM. The Blackhawks end up being a disaster both on and off the ice.

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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.