clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Projecting Blackhawks’ 2021-22 depth chart: How will a crowded field sort out?

A rough guess of the Hawks’ forward lines and defensive pairs still leaves out a number of arguably NHL-caliber players.

Kirby Dach, Dominik Kubalik and Jonathan Toews will all likely fill top-six forward roles on the Blackhawks this season.
AP Photos

The Blackhawks’ busy offseason soon will give way to an equally busy training camp.

Flashy acquisitions Seth Jones and Marc-Andre Fleury and (potentially) returning captain Jonathan Toews will attract the biggest shares of attention when camp begins in mid-to-late September. Toews’ status — whether he’s playing or not — especially will affect how good the Hawks will be and how the rest of the depth chart will sort out.

But the Hawks also have added depth and flexibility to their roster, so some of the less publicized battles for the final spots will be competitive and meaningful. As many as 18 forwards and 10 defensemen have viable chances to make the 12-forward, six-defenseman lineup on opening night.

How will that lineup look when the Hawks open the regular season Oct. 13 against the Avalanche? Here’s a rough projection.

Forwards

First line: DeBrincat — Dach — Kane

The Hawks desperately hope and need Kirby Dach, now healthy, stronger and more experienced, to break out in his third season. If he can surge into the 60- to 70-point range, he’ll be a fully capable first-line center for Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat.

Kane’s health also will be important to watch in camp, considering how an undisclosed nagging issue slowed him down late last season. But he and DeBrincat are the most proven stars the Hawks have right now.

Second line: Hagel — Toews — Kubalik

Toews has played in only nine NHL games in 17 months. Even if the 33-year-old center is ready for camp — something still largely unknown, although the Hawks seem to be penciling him in — there’s no guarantee he’ll become the consistently elite, familiar Toews again immediately.

If he still can handle a top-six role, however, it would make perfect sense to reunite him with Dominik Kubalik, whose career he helped accelerate in 2019-20. Brandon Hagel, with his speed and dogged puck retrieval, could fill the role Brandon Saad formerly did next to Toews and Kubalik.

Third line: Kurashev — Johnson — Strome

General manager Stan Bowman this month named Tyler Johnson alongside Dach and Toews as the Hawks’ top three centers, so the former Lightning veteran presumably will slot in here. His finishing skills would complement Philipp Kurashev’s playmaking abilities nicely.

Dylan Strome — who doesn’t play well on the wing but only reasonably fits there on the 2021-22 Hawks — remains a trade possibility, but the odds of that decrease with each day. If Toews isn’t ready in September or October, Strome might get another opportunity as the second-line center. If Toews is ready, Strome remains a wild card.

Fourth line: Khaira — Carpenter — Gaudette

This is probably Ryan Carpenter’s final season with the Hawks, but he has been a fourth-line and penalty-kill constant in each of the last two. Jujhar Khaira was signed specifically to add fourth-line grit.

If Adam Gaudette’s transformative offseason carries into the season, he might push as high on the depth chart as the second line. But he also could use his new weight to grind alongside Carpenter and Khaira.

Others in the mix

Top prospects Lukas Reichel and Henrik Borgstrom will be popular attractions during camp, but their rawness and the Hawks’ quantity of forwards make it probable they’ll groom with Rockford of the AHL in the fall.

Recently re-signed Alex Nylander, if he doesn’t make the team outright, will get chances when others inevitably suffer injuries. So will young depth players Mike Hardman and MacKenzie Entwistle, whom the Hawks believe in enough that they recently awarded them one-way, two-year extensions starting in 2022.

Overpaid Brett Connolly, although he’s only 29 and only a year removed from a 33-point season, seems like the odd man out.

Defensemen

First pair: De Haan — Jones

Bowman unequivocally thinks Jones, 26, is the elite No. 1 defenseman the Hawks long have craved — as does Jones himself. His results the last few seasons with the Blue Jackets indicate otherwise, but he immediately will assume this role nonetheless.

How the left side of the defense plays out will be an interesting camp storyline. Veteran Calvin de Haan, praying for a completely healthy season at last, and incoming Jake McCabe will start the battle to play alongside Jones neck-and-neck.

Second pair: McCabe — Murphy

If McCabe loses that battle, he at least will receive the consolation of playing alongside longtime friend Connor Murphy. McCabe and Murphy could form a truly impressive shutdown pairing.

Murphy will be vying for a bigger contract next summer, too, as the Hawks’ most notable pending unrestricted free agent in 2022. He deserves a raise over his current $3.85 million cap hit, although the megadeal the Hawks gave Jones will make that tougher to negotiate.

Third pair: Stillman — Kalynuk

Assuming the Hawks want right-handed youngster Ian Mitchell — after a tumultuous and largely unsuccessful rookie season — to spend some time restoring his confidence at Rockford, a left-handed defenseman likely will have to play on his off side on the third pair. Wyatt Kalynuk, a bright spot late last season, is a decent bet to be that guy.

Riley Stillman’s three-year contract implies the Hawks see him holding down an NHL job for good, and his physicality made trading Nikita Zadorov easier for them to swallow.

Others in the mix

Caleb Jones — if he doesn’t make the team outright — probably will be the seventh defenseman, ready to step in when injuries happen. Mitchell, Nicolas Beaudin and Alec Regula probably will play big minutes at Rockford.

Goaltenders

Fleury will be the Hawks’ undisputed No. 1 goalie entering the season; that’s a privilege the reigning Vezina Trophy winner has earned. Kevin Lankinen more than proved his NHL worthiness last season, but he clearly isn’t ready to handle a heavy NHL workload.

The tandem should be more like a ‘‘1A-1B’’ situation than a traditional starter-backup divide, however, with Lankinen starting at least every third game, if not more often.

Malcolm Subban well might be traded rather than lost for nothing on waivers. Much-discussed NHL/AHL tweener Collin Delia and prospect Arvid Soderblom likely will be the goalies at Rockford.