Thursday, September 23 is a day Chicago Blackhawks fans should be excited about. It is the opening day of training camp, and the smell of hockey is back in the air. Although the Hawks don’t open the regular season until October 13, the excitement for the 2021-22 beings on Thursday.
As there are every year, storylines usually take shape before, during, and after training camp. In this season’s case, there are a lot more storylines than usual. Thanks to a massive amount of turnover throughout the roster, the Blackhawks look wildly different than they did during the pandemic-shortened 56-game campaign.
That said, let’s dive into some of the storylines fans should be watching as camp opens and the 2021-22 season begins to cast its shadow on the city of Chicago.
Return of the Captain
O captain, my captain! The return of Jonathan Toews may be the most anticipated storyline of training camp. The Athletic’s Mark Lazerus reported Toews “looks ripped” ahead of training camp this season. If that doesn’t tickle your Blackhawks fandom where it itches, then I don’t know what does.
Toews missed the 2021 season due to an illness that the team and Toews himself were uncertain about. Rather than trying to play through something that could have been serious, the captain opted to sit out the season and focus on his health. It was the right call, and the team of doctors helping Toews learned he had Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS).
CIRS is an illness that is manageable but requires a lot of attention in order to manage. Toews seems confident that he has figured out how to manage his CIRS and still be an elite hockey player. If that is the case, then Toews is such an interesting storyline entering the season.
Stan Bowman made some comments on Toews’ health ahead of camp, tempering everyone’s expectations. With the slight doubt Bowman has spoken into the world, Toews’ situation becomes even more intriguing.
If Toews looks like the Toews of old? Watch out, he’ll be just fine as he resumes a top-six forward role for the Hawks.
This topic is going to create some confusion at first, but when asking who is #2, we’re asking who is going to take Duncan Keith’s role. Now, you may be thinking, “Seth Jones, duh”, and in a lot of ways you’re correct. But, I’m looking at this from a different angle.
Duncan Keith was not only a workhorse for the Blackhawks in his 16 seasons in Chicago, he was also a leader. He wore the ‘A’ for nearly his entire career with the Hawks. Now, his alternate captaincy will need to be filled by someone else.
Just because a player wears a letter, doesn’t mean they’re the only leaders on the team. On the blue line, I’m looking at two players in particular. This season, who’s the new #2, Connor Murphy or Seth Jones?
Jones will certainly pay big minutes, as he averaged 25:13 in ice time last season, which was fifth-most in the NHL. That said, Murphy averaged 22:08 TOI and he very well may see an uptick in time this season due to Keith’s absence. Nonetheless, one of these players will become that workhorse. It may not be to the same average that Jones played last season, but the stat should still hover around 23 minutes per game.
With a more filled-out blue line, no defenseman should play an egregious amount of minutes for the Hawks in 2021-22. However, one of these two will take over that “top dog” role on defense, and I’m excited to see who it will be.
Who’s No. 2… to Flower
This question is certainly one that seems simpler than it lets off. Kevin Lankinen should be the No. 2 goalie this season and play more of a 1B role to newly-acquired Marc-Andre Fleury. However, training camp will present great opportunities for Collin Delia and Malcolm Subban to prove their worth to the team ahead of the season.
Last season, Lankinen led the team in games played in net with 37 games played and started. Subban started 14 games and played in 16, while Delia started five games and played in six. Lankinen also led the way statistically going 17-14-5 with a 3.01 GAA and .909 save percentage.
I fully expect Lankinen to secure the No. 2 job behind Flower, but this is a big camp for Subban and Delia to showcase their abilities to the franchise moving forward.
The Gaudette Experience
No, this isn’t your new favorite ride at Disney World. Rather, this refers to the “reinvented” Adam Gaudette as he enters his first full season with Chicago. Gaudette was acquired at the trade deadline last season for Matthew Highmore, and he reportedly put on 15 pounds of muscle this offseason. Gaudette was an incredible college player, earning the Hobey Baker Award in 2018.
Gaudette is a player that Blackhawks’ president of hockey operations Stan Bowman is very familiar with. While checking in on former top prospect Dylan Sikura when he was in college at Northeastern, Gaudette was skating with Sikura en route to his Hobey Baker win. Bowman knows the skill level Gaudette possesses and a bit of a body transformation should benefit the forward this season.
The former Vancouver Canuck is a low-risk, high-reward type player this season. All Blackhawks fans should be intrigued to see what Gaudette can do. Perhaps he works himself into the long-term plan for Chicago.
From Deutschland with Love
One of the most compelling storylines entering training camp this season is 2020 first-round pick Lukas Reichel. The Germany native had a great season after the draft with Eisbaren Berlin and impressed at the Tom Kurvers Prospect Showcase where the Blackhawks’ prospects battled with the Minnesota Wild’s youngsters.
According to Scott Powers, among others, Reichel was sensational. He displayed speed, an ability to forecheck and backcheck, good hands, and playmaking ability that makes the Blackhawks excited about his abilities. For fans, he’s a player we very well might see at some point this season. Even Stan Bowman noted Reichel could be in Chicago at some point during the 2021-22 campaign.
Depending on how good of a training camp Reichel has, he could challenge for a roster spot and force a series of tough decisions for Stan Bowman and head coach Jeremy Colliton. Keep an eye on Reichel as he comes from Deutschland with love.
A Crowded Blue Line
Last season, the Blackhawks were not deep on defense. Nikita Zadorov was overused, Keith and Murphy carried the blue line, and all the youngsters were learning on the fly. Now, Bowman and company are looking at a group consisting of Seth Jones, Connor Murphy, Jake McCabe, Calvin de Haan, Caleb Jones, Riley Stillman, and others entering 2021-22. However, we haven’t even mentioned Ian Mitchell or Wyatt Kalynuk yet either.
The blue line in Chicago is crowded. S. Jones, Murphy, de Haan, and McCabe are locks in the lineup. However, four players will be competing for two spots on a nightly basis, making this camp important for guys like Stillman, C. Jones, Kalynuk, and Mitchell. When examining all the options, experience may be the difference between playing top-pairing minutes in Rockford vs. bottom-pairing minutes in Chicago.
A bit of foreshadowing, there will be another piece coming from On Tap Sports Net focusing on the blue line, but this is certainly something I’ll be watching throughout camp.
Kane’s “Nagging Issue”
According to reports, Patrick Kane has been dealing with a “nagging issue” since last season. However, you could have fooled just about everyone. In 56 games during the 2021 season, Kane tallied 15 goals and 51 assists. His 66 points put him in a three-way tie for fifth in the NHL and his 51 assists were third-best behind Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
However, anytime a player is dealing with an injury of any type, it warrants concern. In Kane’s case, he seems confident that it won’t be an issue, but if Patrick Kane doesn’t look like a top-10 player in the NHL, questions may arise about his health.
Battle of the Bottom Six
It is no secret that in hockey, you can only dress 12 forwards per game. The Blackhawks have a plethora of players who already have spots on the team. Toews, Kane, Alex DeBrincat, Dominik Kubalik, Kirby Dach, Tyler Johnson, and Brandon Hagel have all locked into spots on the roster. That leaves five spots on a nightly basis for a group of roughly 11 players.
It might be a good problem to have, but players like Philipp Kurashev, Dylan Strome, Ryan Carpenter, Gaudette, and recently acquired Jujhar Khaira need spots. In addition, we haven’t even mentioned Henrik Borgstrom or Brett Connolly yet. How will the Blackhawks fit all of these players into the lineup on a nightly basis?
There is a chance that a few guys will rotate in and out throughout the season. That’s fine. However, there are a lot of names for effectively five spots in the lineup this season. Good luck to Stan Bowman and Jeremy Colliton as they navigate their abundance of riches at the forward positions.
Blackhawks training camp will be exciting for fans, players, and coaches alike. There are plenty of questions to be answered before the Blackhawks open the season in Colorado on October 13. Over the next few weeks, there is a chance some of our storylines above will be answered by moves the team makes between now and opening night.
Which storylines are you most intently following? Also, which of the above do you think is the most intriguing? Interact and share with us in the comments, on Twitter (@FourFeathersPod, @LuceOnTap), and on our podcasts throughout the season.