Will offseason moves push Blackhawks back into playoffs? Central Division is tough

  • The Blackhawks are automatically better with captain Jonathan Toews returning after a year off because of illness.

    The Blackhawks are automatically better with captain Jonathan Toews returning after a year off because of illness. Associated Press

  • Marc-Andre Fleury is an upgrade in net as the Blackhawks open the season Wednesday at Colorado.

    Marc-Andre Fleury is an upgrade in net as the Blackhawks open the season Wednesday at Colorado. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 10/12/2021 5:30 PM

After an epic run of playoff hockey from 2009 to 2017, the Blackhawks have faded into relative obscurity.

Sure, they toyed with postseason berths in 2018, 2019 and 2021, and even qualified for the once-in-a-lifetime 24-team extravaganza in 2020. But the Hawks haven't been able to consistently compete with the league's top teams since they fired Joel Quenneville almost three years ago.

 

That should change this season. Emphasis on should.

General Manager Stan Bowman, perhaps feeling the heat from above, made four significant moves by trading for future Hall of Fame goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, 27-year-old defenseman Seth Jones and two-time Stanley Cup-winning center Tyler Johnson, then signing D-man Jake McCabe to a four-year deal.

He's also getting Jonathan Toews back. Patrick Kane remains one of the league's most dynamic players. Alex DeBrincat rebounded after an off year. Dominik Kubalik looks better than ever and could flirt with 35 goals. Kirby Dach is healthy and ready to take a significant step forward.

Brandon Hagel and Philipp Kurashev bring much-needed energy and tenacity. Connor Murphy is a solid top-four defenseman.

But will it be enough for the Hawks to earn a playoff berth? Because make no mistake -- the pressure is on Bowman, coach Jeremy Colliton and the rest of this franchise to do exactly that.

Seven out of 16 panelists on NHL.com predicted the Hawks would reach the postseason, with just one believing Colliton's squad will finish in the top three in the Central Division. The other six have the Hawks as a wild-card team.

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"It still kind of feels like people aren't really expecting us to be a good team -- maybe better, but not necessarily a playoff team," Kane said. "That's our goal, to prove people wrong, get in the playoffs and hopefully hit our stride."

It won't be easy because:

• Colorado is loaded offensively, with Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Andre Burakovsky combining for 89 goals in the 56-game 2020-21 campaign. The defense is next-level, too. The real question for the Avs is in net because 31-year-old Darcy Kuemper is no sure thing. Still, the Avs should cruise to a No. 1 or 2 seed in the West.

• The return of Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov should allow the Dallas Stars to rebound after a disappointing campaign. Remember, this team -- which reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2020 -- lost 14 OT/shootout contests yet missed the postseason by only 4 points.

• Winnipeg will light up the scoreboard, and upgraded its defense by adding Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon. With Connor Hellebuyck in net, this is a dangerous club.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

• St. Louis has Vladimir Tarasenko, Ryan O'Reilly, Brayden Schenn and added Brandon Saad and Pavel Buchnevich (39 goals per 82 games the last two seasons). There are issues with defensive depth and at goalie after an off year by Jordan Binnington. The Blues could disappoint.

• Minnesota boasts rookie of the year Kirill Kaprizov (27 goals in 56 games) and remains solid defensively. The Wild did lose Zach Parise, Nick Bonino and D-man Ryan Suter, and will also be without highly touted forward Matt Boldy up to six weeks. The Wild surprised last season, but can they do it again?

• Nashville and Arizona are expected to finish in the final two spots, although the Preds -- with their annoying neutral-zone trap -- could surprise.

"It seems every team in the division is very good structurally," said forward Tyler Johnson. "It's going to be tough for us. It's not going to be an easy cakewalk or anything like that.

"It's going to require every guy in the locker room to play their best, and we have a good group to do that. Everyone is pulling on the rope in the same direction, and that's really important."

If everything goes perfectly, the Hawks could finish fourth and perhaps third if key injuries strike the top teams. But if Toews suffers a setback, Kane's undisclosed injury haunts him, Seth Jones struggles and Fleury can't save what might be a mediocre defense, then a 75- to 80-point season isn't out of the question.

Not that anyone was thinking that ahead of tonight's season opener at Colorado.

"We're bigger, we're faster, we're able to play a more winning style," Colliton said. "We'll be tested here right out of the gates and that's fun.

"We're gonna have to get better as the year goes on. The team and performance we have on Day 1, if that's as good as it gets then we won't be good enough. But that's the case with most of the teams in the league. There's very few that can sleepwalk their way through the season and then turn it on for the playoffs.

"Really like the team we have. I like the energy, I like the attention to detail we've had throughout camp, I like the work ethic.

"And that should give us a chance."

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