DENVER — Dominik Kubalik’s 2019-20 season turned out so perfectly, he figured he might as well aim to repeat it in 2021.
“I said, ‘If I score 30 [goals] again, it would be great,’ ” he said, laughing at his naivete. “Then after 15 [goals], I’m like, ‘Oh, OK. I don’t think I’m going to make it.’ ”
Even though it didn’t quite work out that way — Kubalik’s 15th goal came with just nine out of 56 games left to play in the pandemic-shortened season — he still proved his unbelievable rookie success was far from a fluke. He scored eight fewer points in 2021 but did so in 12 fewer games, so he actually exactly duplicated his per-game scoring rate of 0.68 points per game.
Through his first two seasons in the NHL — both of which were abridged — he has tallied 47 goals as well as 37 assists. Only three Blackhawks players since 1991 have hit the back of the net that often in their first 124 career games: Kubalik, Artemi Panarin (also with 47) and Jonathan Toews (49). He’s in pretty lofty company.
The challenge will be maintaining his hunger entering season No. 3, considering how generally smoothly the first two have gone. But he’s not concerned that’ll be an issue. In fact, he scored the Hawks’ first goal of the season Wednesday.
“There’s always something,” Kubalik said. “The first season, obviously you want to show that you can play in the NHL. The second one, you want to prove yourself — [prove] it wasn’t just like one lucky season. And the third one, it’s going to be my first hopefully normal season with 82 games.
“It’s going to be something new again. I’m just trying to be ready for it and trying to step back right away where I left off last year.”
If there has been a rough patch of Kubalik’s Hawks’ tenure to date, it was the first month of last season. He didn’t score a single even-strength goal in his first 16 games.
But Kubalik learned from that drought. He improved his playmaking and passing, ultimately finishing with five more assists in 2021 than all of 2019-20. He increased his shooting frequency and accuracy, as his even-strength shot-attempt rate increased from 15.2 to 15.6 per 60 minutes and his on-goal percentage increased from 58.5% to 64.0%.
And he realized that entering a season with specific statistical targets isn’t a good mental strategy for him — he found himself “thinking about it too much.”
“I had a little bit in my mind what I wanted to do, [but the] beginning of the season wasn’t very good for me,” he said. “So since then, I’ve just stopped thinking about it. Whatever comes, comes. . . . I’m trying to handle the things that I can actually handle, and that’s to be ready, be skating [and] play hard.”
Kubalik’s reunion with Toews — who helped power Kubalik’s 10-goals-in-eight-games explosion in January 2020 — should provide another boost.
They and Philipp Kurashev formed a well-rounded line throughout training camp.
But it remains to be seen if Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton will fully unleash Kubalik, minutes-wise, this fall.
Colliton played him only a modest 15:31 per game in the spring (and 14:22 per game in 2019-20) while asking him to improve his defensive efforts.
“He has continued to improve every year,” Colliton said. “He should have confidence in his abilities, what he can do at our level. [We just want more] consistency shift-to-shift. We know he can score . . . It’s [about] the other shifts. Can he continue to have a good effect on the team and the game when he’s on the ice?”
That search for consistency may be what fuels Kubalik in 2021-22.
“I don’t [want to] play just two pretty good games, then have two games off,” he said. “I want to [know] the high standard every night is going to be there. That’s going to be my goal.”