Without Jujhar Khaira, Blackhawks need depth forwards to start chipping in

Before his injury, Khaira had been one of the few Hawks forwards showing at least a little offensive spark. The rest of the bottom-six crew need to increase their production.

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Jujhar Khaira had two goals this season before his injury Tuesday.

AP Photos

Jujhar Khaira is expected to make a full recovery.

That fact alone provides enormous relief to the Blackhawks and the entire hockey world, which had been collectively hoping for the best after Khaira’s ghastly head injury Tuesday against the Rangers.

Khaira was released Wednesday from Northwestern Hospital and put on injured reserve and in the concussion protocol. Hawks team physician Dr. Michael Terry said in a statement that “despite the significant injury, his prognosis is excellent.” 

It’s too early to project the length of his recovery timeline, Terry added. However, it seems reasonable to expect the 27-year-old wing will be out weeks, if not months or longer. And that will dent the Hawks’ depth. 

Partially as a result of his injury, the Hawks shuffled a number of players before their road trip to Montreal and Toronto. Forwards Mike Hardman and Philipp Kurashev were recalled from the AHL, defensemen Ian Mitchell and Wyatt Kalynuk were sent down and forward MacKenzie Entwistle was activated from long-term injured reserve and also sent down.

Although Khaira’s signing over the summer prompted barely a tremor among the Hawks’ earthquakes around that time, he established himself as a decent role player through his first 17 games this season, averaging 14:18 of ice time.

His stat line of two goals and zero assists doesn’t look particularly impressive, but he had shown slightly more offensive spark than most of the Hawks’ other bottom-six-type forwards. 

That’s partly because Khaira had demonstrated some ability to get to the net, some smart instincts near the puck and some ability to play with more dynamic linemates. Interim coach Derek King had used him alongside the likes of Jonathan Toews and Dominik Kubalik at various points over the last month.

But that’s also partly because the other depth forwards have universally set the bar extremely low when it comes to actual production. 

Kurashev, just half a calendar year removed from his 2021 breakout season, has zero goals and five assists in 19 games. Hardman has zero goals and two assists in 17 games. Entwistle had two goals and one assist in 12 games before his injury.

Henrik Borgstrom has one goal and one assist in 16 games. Ryan Carpenter has zero goals and two assists in 22 games. Reese Johnson has one goal and two assists in 16 games.

Even Dylan Strome, who would likely argue he doesn’t fit the bottom-six classification, has just two goals and three assists in 16 games.

For all of the focus on Toews’ seasonlong goal drought (while he has nine assists) and Kirby Dach’s now-snapped goal drought, the silence from all of those aforementioned guys explains the Hawks’ offensive woes just as much. The much-discussed depth the Hawks assembled entering training camp has really not made a difference on the scoreboard.

In terms of goals per minute by forwards, the Hawks ranked 31st in the NHL this season, ahead of only the tanking Coyotes. And their three leading goal-scorers — Alex DeBrincat (14 goals), Brandon Hagel (eight) and Patrick Kane (seven) — alone account for a whopping 61.7% of that total.

That’s a striking and alarming quantification of the Hawks’ top-heaviness. Only the Oilers entered Wednesday with their top three scorers accounting for a larger percentage of their team total. 

Conversely, 22 teams are at or below 50% in that regard. The most balanced team is the Panthers, whose top three scorers only account for 33.7% of their team total; not coincidentally, they also rank first overall in goals per minute by forwards.

So even with the Hawks recently playing remarkably stout defense, receiving stellar goaltending and developing much-needed team unity, they’re still being severely restricted by their lack of scoring.

If any of the less-obvious candidates could start chipping in, it would make a big difference. But Khaira’s absence will only make that tougher to achieve.

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