Before the 2021 NHL season began, many hockey media members and fans didn’t give the Chicago Blackhawks much of a chance. While the team boasted top-end talent in Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, and Alex DeBrincat, analysts had their doubts when it came to forward depth, defensive pairings, and lack of goaltending experience. There was also the issue of longtime captain Jonathan Toews being away from the team and 2019 first-round pick Kirby Dach being sidelined for what many assumed was the season. On top of it all, many were displeased with the offseason moves by team president and general manager Stan Bowman.
After being eliminated by the Vegas Golden Knights in last season’s playoff bubble, Bowman chose to part ways with two-time Stanley Cup champion and fan-favorite Corey Crawford. To say this was an unpopular decision would be a gross understatement. However, Bowman has made no shortage of such decisions in his career with the team. Another move that drew ire from the fan base was trading Brandon Saad, who was the catalyst of the grossly unpopular Artemi Panerin trade a few seasons back.
To be blunt, things weren’t looking too hot for ole Stan Bowman. Many looked at the roster he assembled as a half-assed rebuild with aging deadline pieces and young, unproven players. Some even went as far as saying the team was tanking, which makes some of the Blackhawks’ early success this season that much more impressive. Nobody expected this team to be sitting at 45 points through 43 games. While it would be impossible to defend some of the head-scratching moves Bowman has made in the past, perhaps we can shed some light on how well his recent acquisitions have panned out.
For a team poised to compete for a Stanley Cup, signing veteran players like Carl Soderberg or Mattias Janmark makes perfect sense. However, when you are expected to enter a rebuild, they don’t seem like ideal candidates to take ice time.
Many believed the 35-year-old Soderberg to be a decent signing the team could stash until the deadline, but his work with the bottom six has been impressive. Soderberg was essential to the penalty kill unit as well. In his 34 games with the team, Soderberg tallied 15 points while winning over 51% of his faceoffs. He more than exceeded expectations at his age, which landed the Blackhawks a decent return on the trade market.
Mattias Janmark also exceeded expectations. The 28-year-old forward has shown to be an instant source of offense in spurts, with five games this season in which he recorded two points. Janmark tallied 19 points in 41 games, which has him on pace to put up career numbers this season. However, with the team looking toward the future, it was inevitable that Janmark would depart Chicago at the deadline. GM Stan Bowman got his money’s worth, sending Janmark to the Vegas Golden Knights for multiple draft picks.
For further analysis and commentary on all the Blackhawks trade deadline moves, tune in to the latest episode of the Four Feathers Podcast.
The International Connection
No matter your opinion of Bowman’s free-agent signings and trades in the past, it would be nearly impossible to ignore his ability to scout talent overseas. While the most obvious name to come to mind outside of Artemi Panarin would be Czech Republic product Dominik Kubalik, who is having another impressive season, two others have recently taken the stage: Switzerland natives Pius Suter and Philipp Kurashev.
Playing the past few seasons with the ZSC Lions of the National League, Pius Suter performed consistently at an elite level. Named the 2019-20 National League MVP, Suter scored 53 points in 50 games with 30 of them being goals. Seeing a golden opportunity to sign one of the best players overseas, Bowman landed Suter in July 2020. While many expected Suter to eventually make an impact, nobody expected him to rank fourth on the team in points. Suter has also recorded his first hat trick as a pro and scored 11 goals, three of which are game-winners. The sky is the limit for the 24-year-old center who has seen time in the top six this season.
While taking a different path than Suter, Philipp Kurashev has also been an impressive young piece with the team. At just 21 years old, Kurashev was selected 120th overall in the 2018 NHL Draft and has also been a consistent contributor with the team. He currently sits seventh on the team in points and has shown strong offensive prowess, recording seven goals and six assists. While his defense will almost certainly be a point of emphasis in his development, not many prospects are NHL-ready at such a young age. Kurashev has all the potential in the world to be another diamond in the rough.
Calm. Cool. Collected. Kevin.
What more can be said about how impressive Kevin Lankinen has been this season? Yet another product of overseas scouting, Lankinen entered the season as an afterthought to most fans. The real competition was expected between Collin Delia and Malcolm Subban, who both began the season on the active roster. However, it’s been the Finnish netminder who has taken the starting role and ran with it. As it stands today, Lankinen sports a 15-11-4 record with a .915 save percentage and 2.78 GAA. What makes this all the more impressive is the fact that he has faced the second-most shots on goal of any NHL goalie this season. Subban has been respectable in a backup role as well, something many didn’t expect.
To keep it simple, Kevin Lankinen has kept this Blackhawks team in more games than they probably deserve to be. If his success continues, you have to imagine Stan Bowman will do everything in his power to sign the 25-year-old to a long-term deal.
Rebuild On Track?
While there are certainly a ton of positives from this season, it’s hard to say for sure if the rebuild will be a complete success. We may have examined some of the redeeming qualities of Stan Bowman, but that doesn’t paint the complete picture. Time will tell whether or not this team is built for long-term success. The team hopes Jonathan Toews will return at some point down the road, so perhaps that will make things clearer.
A lot of the long-term success hinges on the development of the defensemen pairings. Duncan Keith can’t skate forever (maybe) and Connor Murphy needs breaks too. Players such as Adam Boqvist, Ian Mitchell, and Nikita Zadorov could be crucial pieces the next few seasons. Forward depth will also be a key to success, which will have no shortage of candidates moving forward. Brandon Hagel has been an extremely bright spot in the middle six and new acquisitions such as Riley Stillman, Brett Connolly, and Vinnie Hinostroza have the potential to be productive pieces moving forward.
All in all, It doesn’t seem to be all doom and gloom. Perhaps we should just enjoy the ride. The Chicago Blackhawks seem to be trending in the right direction and that’s pretty damn cool if you ask me.