Jonathan Toews was fuming. Asking any professional athlete to commit to a rebuild is a tall task, let alone a player once nicknamed "Captain Serious" who played an integral part in three Stanley Cup victories.
Few would mistake the 2019-20 Blackhawks for the caliber of teams that dominated the early-to-mid 2010s, but after exceeding low expectations and advancing to the first round of the playoffs against the Vegas Golden Knights, there was reason to believe the core of Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford would get one more run together, aided by the development of forwards Alex DeBrincat and Dominik Kubalik.
Chicago made several moves prior to the 2021 season that would suggest that if it were not outright tanking, its focus was aggressively geared toward the future. Crawford was given an underwhelming offer after spending his entire career with the Blackhawks, Brandon Saad was traded to the Avalanche in exchange for Nikita Zadorov with Chicago retaining $1 million of Saad's salary, while Drake Caggiula and Slater Koekkoek were also shown the door.
“Bottom line is, I want to win,” Toews said to The Athletic's Mark Lazerus on Oct. 11. “The expectation for the other leaders on this team and myself is to come ready to training camp every year to be a playoff team. We prepare ourselves to win a Cup for our fans. I’ve never been told that we were going through a rebuild. That has never been communicated to me, for that matter. A lot of this comes as a shock because it’s a completely different direction than we expected.”
Toews, who was also voicing the concerns of Kane, Keith (who had previously rejected the idea of playing for a rebuilding Blackhawks team in February 2020) and Seabrook, has been heard loud and clear from his teammates while he recovers from an undisclosed medical issue. Contrary to any notion forecast by general manager Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks have blown a tentative rebuilding plan to smithereens, arriving ahead of schedule.
Nine days after Toews' irritation with the team's apparent direction went public, the Blackhawks issued a statement to their fans, essentially stating they were committing to the development of their young players above all, and candidly saying there would be growing pains along the way. Chicago may have internally misjudged the readiness of its young players, as it appears it already stockpiled a wealth of professional contributors, while none of the moves it made with the future in mind have backfired in 2021.
Crawford being low-balled was perhaps the biggest point of contention, but it didn't affect the Blackhawks adversely. After signing a two-year deal worth $7.8 million with the New Jersey Devils, Crawford retired in January, never playing a game with his new club. Saad has recorded six goals and 10 points in 18 games, which isn't bad by any means, but it's not the type of production that will haunt the Blackhawks, while Koekkoek has failed to contribute positively in 17 games with the Edmonton Oilers.
So, how have the Blackhawks manage to exceed expectations nearly halfway through an abridged 56-game season?
We have to start with Patrick Kane. None of the following is meant to be an endorsement of the person himself, given his history. Writing about the Blackhawks without mentioning Kane is an impossibility, so here are the stats: prior to Tuesday's games, Kane ranks third in points (34), third in shots (82), first in even-strength points (24) and tied for fourth in the NHL with nine even-strength goals. Kane is driving a line with Pius Suter and Alex DeBrincat which has posted a 52.85 CF% through 181 minutes and 33 seconds at even strength (via Natural Stat Trick), and though Kane continues to be a negligible contributor defensively, his offensive output far outweighs his defensive apathy.
This is Kane's best season to date since he won the Hart in 2016, causing some to suggest he should be the front-runner this year. But it's been a cast of unknowns that has further propelled the Blackhawks out of the tank zone.
Kevin Lankinen has emerged as one of the breakout stars of the 2021 NHL season. Entering the season in a three-way time share with Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia, Lankinen snatched the starting job away from his teammates and has been brilliant to date, posting a 9-3-3 record with a .924 save percentage and a 8.53 goals saved above average (GSAA), trailing only Andrei Vasilevskiy and Marc-Andre Fleury. The 25-year-old has simply been one of the NHL's best rookies and there's only one real indicator to suggest that we — and more to the point, Blackhawks management — should've seen this coming.
Lankinen absolutely balled out at the 2019 world championships, posting a 7-1 record with a .942 save percentage and 1.50 GAA after allowing just 12 goals over eight games as Finland won gold. Although Lankinen never performed near the level he reached at the 2019 worlds during his time in the AHL, and goaltending is often subject to year-to-year fluctuation, his 2021 season to date has accelerated Chicago's plans and is the main reason why it's out of lottery contention. It'll be a tight race but at this rate few would be surprised if he walks away with the Calder Trophy this summer.
Although he's easily been the most impactful, Lankinen isn't the only rookie who has risen to the occasion. Suter joined the Blackhawks in January, previously starring in the Swiss league, where he posted seven goals and 12 points in 23 games while showcasing a strong release. It is slightly concerning that Suter's shot-creation and possession numbers aren't strong without Kane on his line, but he's shown that he can produce in the NHL and playing meaningful minutes (16:09) on the first line is an excellent immersion into the league. When Toews and Kirby Dach invariably return from injury — perhaps next season — Suter will also be able to produce against less imposing defensive pairings.
Adam Boqvist has also showed signs of maturation. Boqvist, selected eight overall by the Blackhawks in 2018, was expected to be the player to bridge the end of the Keith-Seabrook era defensively. Boqvist has recorded a 50.6 CF% with a 51.5 expected goals percentage and is beginning to show off the offensive acumen that made him a point-per-game player in his lone season with the OHL's London Knights. As one of the youngest defensemen in the league, Boqvist is growing more comfortable in his role defensively too, showing increased willingness to engage opposing forwards without being driven out of position. He's shown steady improvement despite battling through COVID-19 and there's ample reason to believe he'll grow into a star, albeit not at the rate of his draft class contemporary, Quinn Hughes.
There are reasons to be skeptical about the Blackhawks' internal growth as a team. Prior to Tuesday's games, the Blackhawks ranked 29th in CF% (47.03) and 30th in FF% (46.28), suggesting that some second-half regression may be in store as they aren't creating quality shots and the team is too reliant on Lankinen and their top forward line. There is little to suggest, however, that Chicago will regress to the point that it resembles a rebuilding team by year's end.
Toews made it clear he wouldn't stand idly during a rebuild, echoing the sentiments of the remnants of the 2010, 2013 and 2015 Cup-winning teams. Perhaps the Blackhawks upper management didn't realize what they had all along. With their young players already showing key signs of internal development, a Hart candidate, and a Calder/Vezina candidate emerging, Chicago's fans don't need to exercise patience. The present and the future of the team is already beginning to merge seamlessly.
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