Externally, expectations are extremely low for the Blackhawks’ 2021 season.
Internally, the Hawks believe they’re deeper, more talented and more resilient than outsiders realize.
“Proving doubters wrong,” or words to that effect, was heard frequently in training-camp interviews. Now the pressure rests on the Hawks to back up their internal optimism with regular-season performances.
“A lot of people are doubting us this year, but in the locker room, we know we have a lot of good players,” winger Alex DeBrincat said on the first day of camp, setting the tone. “If we battle every night, we’re going to have a chance to win. For us, that’s our mentality: just work hard, not really listen to anyone on the outside and believe in ourselves.”
“You see rankings and stuff about our team, where people think our team is going to be projected, and we don’t believe that stuff,” goaltender Malcolm Subban said.
Hockey players love to claim they’re oblivious to the media coverage — positive and negative — their team receives.
But inevitably, some of that coverage seeps through onto the Hawks’ cell phones and laptops. And this January, the projections the Hawks have seen in the aforementioned “rankings and stuff” haven’t been pretty.
The Athletic put the Hawks 26th out of the NHL’s 31 teams in its preseason rankings. So did ESPN. Bleacher Report’s rankings slotted the Hawks 29th. So did NBC Sports’ list.
And Sportsnet was most bearish of all, ranking the Hawks 30th — below the Senators even.
The Hawks haven’t explicitly discussed their bottom-of-the-barrel placement in those power rankings, center Dylan Strome said, but the overall aura of skepticism outside the walls of Fifth Third Arena and the United Center has nonetheless been felt by all.
“I don’t think we really need to talk about it,” Strome said. “It’s something that everyone reads and everyone’s been saying, so you can look at mock seasons and the rankings. It’s something we have to embrace. A lot of people are doubting us, and it’s going to be a fun process to see where we’re at. Maybe some teams will take us lighter than we deserve, and hopefully we can show them we’re still a good hockey team.”
The Hawks were introduced to a team on the opposite end of the rankings Wednesday, when the Lightning raised their 2020 Stanley Cup championship banner before dropping the puck in the season opener.
The Lightning open the season with 8-to-1 odds to repeat as Cup champs, with only the Avalanche better at 13-to-2. The Hawks? 66-to-1.
“These guys are only human,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “You’re aware of how we’re perceived, whether that’s through media or fans or across the league. We’ve got something to prove, and it’s a challenge for us as a coaching staff.”
Colliton hopes the Hawks’ new players will more closely fit — and returning players will be more comfortable with — his preferred offensive and defensive systems, helping the team overcome their injuries and outperform even last season’s 32-30-8 mark, which ranked 12th out of 15 teams in the West before the shutdown.
The Hawks also will need to drastically improve their work ethic and away-from-the-puck accountability, two areas that Colliton and general manager Stan Bowman admitted were lacking at times last season.
And those two keys to success, to their credit, are indeed entirely within their control.
“You look around at some of the teams in the league, and maybe they have a little more skill on paper,” defenseman Duncan Keith said. “But if we can outwork teams and be good defensively and play as a team, that’s going to give ourselves a chance to win.”