Are the Blackhawks actually good? Reasons to believe, and reasons to doubt

The Hawks’ 11-6-4 record so far this season makes them one of the NHL’s biggest surprises, but can they keep it up through May 10?

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The Blackhawks are off to a surprising 11-6-4 start to the 2021 season.

AP Photos

The Blackhawks quickly have emerged as one of the NHL’s biggest early-season surprises.

They’re 11-6-4, firmly holding a Central Division playoff spot, and 9-2-1 in their last 12 games. Originally projected to be one of the league’s worst teams, the Hawks are 12th in points percentage.

Plus, goaltender Kevin Lankinen is leading the Calder Trophy race, coach Jeremy Colliton is near the top of the Jack Adams Award race and Patrick Kane is pushing into the Hart Trophy race.

But the 2021 season is only about one-third finished. Can the Hawks maintain this remarkable success through May 10? 

Here are four reasons to believe — and four reasons to doubt.

Reasons to believe

Goaltending. The Hawks’ .916 team save percentage ranks fifth in the NHL. And there are few statistics that teams would prefer a top-five ranking in more than that one.

Lankinen has translated years of impressive results at lower levels seamlessly to the NHL, cementing himself as a possible cornerstone goalie for the Hawks to build around long-term. Backup Malcolm Subban also has revived his career, finally delivering results equal to his talent. Neither seems likely to drop off in the season’s second half.

Patrick Kane. The Hawks’ best offensive player for a decade has elevated his play, taking Alex DeBrincat (20 points in 17 games) and the Hawks’ power play (second in the NHL at 32.8%) along for the starry ride. 

Kane’s 31 points are the second-most he has tallied through 21 games in his career. He’s the league’s leading scorer outside of the Canadian division. Kane also has improved defensively and off the ice.

Youth improvement. The Hawks have been successful despite playing seven or eight rookies every game. 

Pius Suter and Philipp Kurashev are in the top six in rookie scoring, and Brandon Hagel’s tenacity has been equally impactful. Defensemen Ian Mitchell, Adam Boqvist and Nicolas Beaudin have played sizable roles in front of fellow rookie Lankinen — although Beaudin was sent to the AHL on Friday.

Jeremy Colliton. The Hawks’ long-underestimated coach deserves credit for the confidence, smart decision-making and tight chemistry he has ingrained in this team. 

His player-development expertise and communication-focused leadership have yielded great results.

Reasons to doubt

Possession rate. The Hawks rank 29th in the league in shot-attempt and scoring-chance ratio. Last season, they were just 21st and 23rd, respectively.

Great goaltending, good finishing and solid special teams can help overcome losing the even-strength possession battle, but only to an extent. The Hawks eventually will get burned by all of that extra time spent in their own zone.

Schedule. After back-to-back games against the lowly Red Wings this weekend, the Hawks’ next 11 games are exclusively against the Lightning (five times), Panthers (four times) and Stars (two times). The Lightning beat the Stars in the Stanley Cup Final last year, and the Panthers have been the other big surprise of the season. 

The Hawks’ record almost certainly will take a hit during that brutal stretch.

Youth inexperience. As exciting as the Hawks’ young players are, their future potential is balanced out by their present inexperience. 

As the games become more intense, more physical and more important, that will be a weakness. In fact, the Hawks already have lamented their lack of “killer instinct” in the first 21 games. Expect more reminders of that to come.

Randomness. Colliton spoke about hockey’s greatest truism Thursday: “This game can be random.” 

Two teams can play a 6-5 thriller then a 2-0 snoozer two days apart. The league’s best team can, and sometimes does, lose to its worst team. Dominant performances can turn into losses because of heroic goaltending or fluky bounces. 

Hockey’s unpredictability can turn a team’s fortune at any time — especially a team that seems to be defying the odds thus far.

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