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Chicago Blackhawks: Reasons for optimism and cause for concern

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Jonathan Toews #19, Chicago Blackhawks (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Toews #19, Chicago Blackhawks (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /
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Going into Wednesday night’s game against Seattle, the Blackhawks were riding a three-game winning streak. Really! The team has been so bad that almost feels wrong to say, but it’s true. Chicago appears to be on an upswing and ready to salvage the disastrous start to its season. There’s certainly some tentative optimism, and reasons to be happy with the team’s recent play. However, there are also causes for concern that not all is what it appears to be.

Immediately after parting ways with head coach Jeremy Colliton, and assistants Sheldon Brookbank and Tomas Mittell, the Chicago Blackhawks began winning games. That’s quite a turnaround from being blown out night after night. Whatever is going on right now, there is the real possibility that the team is turning a corner.

A three-game streak is something to be happy about for Blackhawks fans, and let’s face it, there’s been a shortage of positive news surrounding the team for a while now. Those points in the standings will matter more if Chicago can start creeping their way up in the division. Unfortunately, those wins are a bit less impressive than they appear.

Chicago’s record for the season is a dismal 4-9-2, and the team is currently in 28th place in the league, and seventh in the division. Only Arizona sits behind Chicago in the Central. As of now, the team isn’t making the playoffs. Oh, and those four wins came against:

The 31st place Ottawa Senators

The 12th place Nashville Predators, in overtime

24th place Pittsburgh Penguins (who didn’t have either Crosby or Malkin), in a shootout

32nd place Arizona Coyotes

Only one of these was an impressive victory, the 5-1 win over the Senators. Otherwise,  two of the Blackhawks’ wins came against teams that are worse than Chicago. Even if goaltending has improved, this doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season. There are bright spots though.

There were a lot of questions swirling around why this seemingly talented group of players was inexplicably losing game after game, and by large margins. Had Colliton lost the room? Was former general manager Stan Bowman’s roster to blame? Were the players underperforming? It’s likely there hasn’t been one single factor that is really at the core of what’s been playing out on the ice.

Regardless, it would appear that interim coach Derek King has managed to right the ship and get the team back on track. At the outset of the 2021-22 season, the players just looked like they couldn’t get it together as a group, and then suddenly interim-general manager Kyle Davidson swooped in, fired the coach, and things improved. That’s certainly how the impression from the nosebleed section is, but it’s worth examining this a bit more.

Numerous journalists, such as Ben Pope at the Chicago Sun-Times have noted that the only real difference over the last few games has been goaltending. According to Pope,

"Between Oct. 12 and Nov. 6 — while going 1-9-2 under Colliton — the Hawks’ even-strength save percentage was .865, the worst in the NHL.Over the last week, while going 3-0-0 under King, the Hawks’ even-strength save percentage was .963, incredibly the best in the NHL."

Everything else is more or less the same. Considering Fleury is the defending Vezina winner, the mediocre save percentage just looked wrong. It felt like maybe Colliton’s defensive system was hanging Fleury out to dry, so King probably corrected that, right? Not so much. King even said he wasn’t going to change things at all, at least initially, in an article by Carter Baum for the NHL.

"The transition will undoubtedly be a process. The systems, King said, won’t change for his first game in charge, but will likely evolve as he’s able to spend more practice time on the ice with his new group and taking feedback from the players on what has been working and what hasn’t."

He’s been only been at the helm for several games so what does that mean with regards to sustainable play? If nothing has changed except better performance in goal, is the current success just a blip? Are the players simply orienting themselves better with a new voice behind the bench? That could be the case, but it feels like these perspectives oversimplify everything a bit too much.

First, the players appear to be more motivated than they have been at any point in the season so far. That’s what the eye test tells me while watching the games. The upward trend of performance in the net boosts that even more.

If the team is winning games, no matter who they’re against, it boosts morale. Losing game after game in sports is demoralizing, especially when no one appears to have any explanations as to why it might be happening. The last three games were a vital breath of fresh air for the beleaguered Blackhawks players.

Second, while it has been noted that defenceman Seth Jones has been racking up assists, he’s on a six-game point streak. (One goal and five assists). He has thirteen points for the year which puts him second on the team. Who sits in the top spot?

Patrick Kane, of course. He’s riding high with 15(!) points for the year. Kane is on track right now to be a point-per-game player this season, and that’s a pretty impressive feat considering he’s 33-years-old. He’s not slowing down too much this season.

Oh, and in third place for scoring is Alex DeBrincat with ten points, eight of which are goals-a category he leads the team in. The top three-point producers are leading the team by example. This isn’t enough to carry Chicago into the postseason, but it’s definitely something to build from.

It’s also worth mentioning that Jonathan Toews has eight points for the season. Alas, no goals yet, but he’s contributing just the same. Toews missed an entire season but is slowly looking like the solid two-way player he’s been throughout his career. He won’t lead in points or ice-time, but his contributions have made him one of the most important players on the team for over a decade. If he can maintain his trajectory, he’ll still be one of Chicago’s top players for 2021-22.

Related Story. Recapping the Jeremy Colliton era with the Chicago Blackhawks. light

It’s not all doom and gloom, and there are bright spots. Players seem to be feeling more confident, goaltending has improved, and there’s meaningful production from the team’s top players. Having the best players on the team step up and lead the way is essential to on-ice success, and this is happening right now.

If the rest of the players, such as Kirby Dach,  can follow suit and show even modest improvements of their own, then Chicago could very well turn this whole season around. Yes, there’s room for improvement, but that improvement could be occurring before our eyes.

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