On eve of opener, remade Blackhawks epitomize uncertainty of NHL season
It’s hard to tell whether the Hawks will be good, bad or somewhere in between this season, but the same can be said for every team in the league.
The Blackhawks’ opening three-game road trip perfectly demonstrates the great uncertainty that lies ahead this season.
On one hand, the trip looks like a gantlet. The Avalanche are arguably the Western Conference favorites. The Devils were arguably the most improved team in the league this offseason. The Penguins are a perennial contender with 15 consecutive postseason appearances.
On the other hand, all three have weaknesses. Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon will miss the opener against the Hawks after testing positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday. Devils star Dougie Hamilton hasn’t played a game yet for his new team. Penguins stars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby are out injured, Malkin long-term.
Across the board, the league looks wide open, ripe for a changing of the guard or at least a disruption of the hierarchy.
More elite players switched teams this summer than in years. Most teams haven’t faced each other in 19 months. The pandemic continues to wreak havoc, robbing the brand-new Kraken of five key players for their debut Tuesday against the Golden Knights.
And the Hawks sit at the center of the uncertainty, looking equally poised for a return to the NHL’s upper echelon or a crash that could cost most of the team’s management and coaching staff their jobs.
Jonathan Toews could play like Toews again or struggle with the rigors of 82 games. Marc-Andre Fleury could look like a Vezina Trophy winner again or resume succumbing to the effects of age the way he did in 2019-20 (his mediocre .905 save percentage that year has been conveniently forgotten). Seth Jones could lead the defense’s revitalization or continue his statistical downward trend.
Patrick Kane could play like the Hart Trophy contender he appeared to be during the first half of last season or like the injury-plagued 32-year-old he appeared to be during the second half. Alex DeBrincat could be either his tremendous 2021 self or his snakebitten 2019-20 self.
The Hawks’ new focus on grit and physicality among their depth players could add a much needed element of resistance or stifle their biggest team strength, transition offense. Colliton’s loyalty to his system finally could click with the right personnel or backfire one final, fatal time.
If most of those things turn out well, the Hawks easily could finish second in the wide-open Central Division. But if things fall apart, they could just as easily finish seventh.
At least the process of finding out — with dates against all 31 other franchises, fans in every arena and new TV providers elevating coverage quality — should be interesting.
“Yeah, there’s pressure [on us], but that’s fun — you want it,” Colliton said Monday. “If you don’t have it, it’s kinda like, ‘What are you doing?’ It’s why we’re in this business and position. We love the game, love to compete. It’s just exciting.”
The Hawks will have consistency in their leadership group, which became clear Tuesday.
Toews returns as captain, as expected. Outside of Duncan Keith’s departure, the alternate captains will remain the same as they were last season. Kane will wear an “A” for all games, DeBrincat for home games and Connor Murphy for road games.
“[DeBrincat and Murphy are] part of what we’ve been trying to build,” Colliton said. “They take a lot of responsibility with leadership in what they say, but more in what they do.
“[But as] we said to the team Monday, the leadership group is bigger than just these four guys. We’re in good hands here with our experience and leadership that we have.”
Just how good those hands are — and how high they can lift this remade Hawks team — will start to be determined Wednesday in Denver.