The Blackhawks’ unexpected first-half surge in 2021 proved to be — unsurprisingly — unsustainable.
When the final horn blew on their season Monday, it happened quietly. The Hawks had been out of the playoff race for two weeks, playing out the string. They finished 24-25-7 for a .491 points percentage — their second-worst since 2007, even worse than the two previous seasons.
But getting here wasn’t the bland, pointless exercise that seemed inevitable at the beginning of January. It wasn’t even similar to the last two seasons, which were somewhat competitive but ultimately aimless.
No, the 2021 Hawks, in spite of their eventual demise, provided a compelling, entertaining and fruitful season.
Projected by every major national publication to finish among the worst five teams, they quickly found new company among the NHL’s middle class. Overcoming a disastrous opening road trip, they beat up on the Red Wings, Blue Jackets and Stars — the latter two having been expected to dominate the Hawks. After a 2-0 victory over the Jackets on Feb. 25, the Hawks had a winning record (11-6-4) for the first time since October 2018.
Two weeks later, a 4-2 win over the Stars gave the Hawks a .500 record at the season’s halfway point for the first time since 2016-17. Jeremy Colliton entered the conversation for the Jack Adams Award for top coach, Kevin Lankinen entered the Calder Trophy conversation for top goalie, winger Patrick Kane entered the Hart Trophy conversation for MVP, and the Hawks briefly became the talk of the NHL.
The Hawks maintained legitimate playoff hopes for a while in a Central Division with three dominant teams and four postseason spots. They spent a total of 65 days in or tied for one of those spots.
A 4-3 shootout victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning on March 5 boosted their odds of making the playoffs to a season-high 67.2%, per MoneyPuck.com. Only two other teams who will miss the playoffs saw their odds go above 67% in March or later — the Flyers (March 11) and Flames (March 17).
A slow decline followed, but the Hawks’ odds remained above 20% until April 4 and above 10% until April 20 — deep into the season. That gave fans a reason to watch, an emotional investment in the wins and losses, a reason to believe this strange season really mattered.
In the end, it also gave them a reason for anger and frustration when the Hawks crumbled in April and May and the Predators raced past. But even that was compelling. When the Wings, Sabres, Senators and Ducks lost games this season, it was numbing at best, irrelevant at worst. When the Hawks — originally considered peers of those teams — lost games, it mattered.
This season won’t be historically notable for any game results or decent playoff odds but rather for being the season when the Hawks turned the page on their dynasty generation and began embracing a next one.
The retirements of goalie Corey Crawford, defenseman Brent Seabrook and wing Andrew Shaw were cause for nostalgic reflection on the Stanley Cup era but also cemented its end.
Center Jonathan Toews’ step away from the team diversified the locker room leadership, giving bigger voices to guys such as wing Alex DeBrincat and defenseman Connor Murphy — roles they’ll keep even if Toews returns next season.
And the youth revolution, which the front office finally embraced last fall after three years of useless veteran additions, took hold with incredible speed. The Hawks led the NHL in games played by rookies, getting 12 of them in for at least one game.
Forwards Pius Suter and Brandon Hagel finished fourth and fifth, respectively, on the Hawks in points — the first time two rookies finished in the top five since Kane and Toews in 2008. Hagel, in particular, evolved from an overlooked prospect to a face of the new generation. Forward Philipp Kurashev also took a huge leap in his development.
Lankinen, previously as unknown as Hagel, became an every-day starter within weeks of his debut and injected much-needed stability into the goaltending unit. He now looks like a guy the Hawks can build around moving forward.
Predictably, the defense was still the Hawks’ biggest weakness, and former No. 1 prospect Ian Mitchell struggled the most among the rookies. The combination of Mitchell, Adam Boqvist, Wyatt Kalynuk, Nicolas Beaudin and recently Riley Stillman nonetheless offers hope the defense will improve in time.
Colliton and general manager Stan Bowman realistically figured this year would be about laying the groundwork for the future. Instead, the future took over.
“ ‘Satisfied’ is the wrong word, but [I’m] encouraged,” Colliton said Monday. “We have a lot of positives. Ultimately, we’re not in the playoffs. . . . But as an organization, the goal was to give young players opportunity and see what they did with it. We’ve done that.”
The success in future seasons that this season made possible will of course be appreciated more when those seasons happen. And there’s no question the Hawks’ on-ice performance, particularly in the second half, could have been a lot better.
Thus, many Hawks fans might not remember 2021 fondly. But at least they will remember it.