Defying expectations: Blackhawks surprising start


Kevin Lankinen

By Ethan Gawronski, Staff Writer

The Chicago Blackhawks are currently in the first season of being in a rebuild, after general manager Stan Bowman announced in the fall that the team would begin this process. However, the team had been a below average team for the better part of three seasons before this decision.

After they were projected to be fighting with the Detroit Red Wings for last place in the central division, the Blackhawks have been defying expectations in the early goings of this season. The Hawks were 10-6-4 as of Feb. 24, putting them at 24 points, and in third place in the division; the Florida Panthers lead the division with 26 points.

The highlight of their season so far has surprisingly been their goaltending. Going into training camp, fans were very upset that the team did not sign or trade for a new goaltender to replace longtime netminder Corey Crawford, who departed via free agency after spending seventeen years with the Blackhawks franchise, winning two Stanley Cups in the process. Their trio-tandem of Malcom Subban, Colin Delia, and Kevin Lankinen has been out-performing their expectations of being one of the worst tandems in the sport. However, Colin Delia has not seen the ice since the team’s third game, and has been their third string ever since.

After a rough first three games where they allowed fifteen goals, and only scored four, they turned to rookie Kevin Lankinen. Lankinen had gone 6-2-3 with a save percentage of .925, the fourteenth highest save percentage in the league. To put Lankinen’s red hot start into perspective, he has held opposing teams to two or less goals in seven of his eleven starts this season; he has been giving the Blackhawks an opportunity to win in just about every game he has played. And Malcolm Subban has emerged as the team’s backup goalie, with a 2-1-1 record, and a save percentage of .917, putting him in the league’s top twenty-five.

Not enough credit has been given to goaltending coach Jimmy Waite, who has been working for the team since the 2014-15 season, according to Waite has been, arguably, the most underrated member of the Blackhawks staff for some time now. Since joining the team, the Blackhawks netminders have a .913 save percentage, putting them at fourth best in the league. The team has also seen thirteen different goalies play at least one NHL game since Waite joined, back in the ‘14-15 season.

All credit cannot be given to just the goalies, as hockey is a team game, and the team around their netminders has been better than advertised as well. This is despite losing captain Jonathan Toews long term with an undisclosed illness, Kirby Dach with a broken wrist, and Alexander Nylander with a torn meniscus.

The best news for Blackhawks fans is that the chemistry between Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane is back in action. If the Hawks want to win, they will need these two doing what they do best, scoring goals. DeBrincat, coming off his career worst season, was leading the team with eight goals, two of which have been overtime winners. He had sixteen points, which trails Patrick Kane for the team lead. Patrick Kane, closing in on his one-thousandth NHL game, had twenty-two points, putting him fourth overall in league scoring.

Aside from their star forwards, their depth has been as effective as can be so far. Last season’s rookie of the year finalist, Dominik Kubalik, was third on the team with fourteen points. Free agent acquisition Mattias Janmark, not known for his offense, had ten points, six of which are goals. That ties his goal totals from the past two seasons, and he is on pace to tie his career best point total, in only fifty-seven games. Second line center Dylan Strome had eight points, a little slow for his standards, but six of those points have come on the powerplay. Veteran center Carl Soderberg hasn’t scored much, but provides experience in a young lineup. Connor Murphy has been the team’s best shutdown defenseman this year, and has averaged approximately 22:51 minutes a night. Thirty-seven year old Duncan Keith has led the team in ice time with 24:14 minutes a game. Newly acquired Nikita Zadorov, a giant amongst men at 6’6” 235lbs, has made his presence known by throwing bruising body checks on the opposition, which is his forte.

General Manager Stan Bowman heavily emphasized that this season would begin to integrate more youth into their lineup, and he’s done just that. Standout rookie Pius Suter, a free agent signed from the Swiss league, leads all NHL rookies with ten points through his first sixteen points, and has found a home on the team’s first line between Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat. Former fourth round pick Philipp Kurashev is fourth in rookie scoring with eight points in sixteen games. Nicolas Beaudin has been a nice surprise, as he was projected to be in the minors this year, and is now tied for the most points amongst Blackhawks defensemen with five through only nine games, and has found himself on the first powerplay unit.

Giving praise to only the players would not be fair to head coach Jeremy Colliton. He has begun to find a rhythm with this team that was not very present his first two seasons. His coaching record shows that he has a history of presenting a system that his players buy into, with time of course. During his time in Sweden, he coached the Mora IK hockey team, and had them as a sixth to seventh seed over three consecutive years. In his fourth and final season, his team finished in first place with a 31-13-4 record in 2016-17. This draws similarities to how he’s run the Blackhawks; despite taking a couple years, the team is starting to buy into his systems and it’s showing.

The Hawks penalty kill is eleventh best in the league at 81.1 percent, after having the league’s worst penalty kill a couple years ago when Colliton took over. Not only that, but their powerplay has been electric, their 33.3 percent on the powerplay is fourth best in the league. Also, one aspect of their game that deserves much more credit is how well they have been forechecking and getting the puck off the opponent. This has been highlighted by players such as Brandon Hagel, David Kampf, Ryan Carpenter, and Matthew Highmore. All of which has injected energy and physicality into the lineup that has been a joy to watch; Brandon Hagel has quickly become a fan favorite because of this.

With the way the Hawks have played early in this season, they have shown just how competitive they can be, and that they aren’t the pushover team people had written them off as. The Hawks are not a perfect team, but this young team is proving a point that they can be competitive in the league.