For many Blackhawks fans, the acquisition of Seth Jones and Marc-Andre Fleury was a sign: the Hawks are back. But in reality, this sign was more of a red herring.
Prior to the 2021-2022 season, several NHL.com staff members had the Hawks finishing in one of the two Western Conference wild card spots. The team had just acquired a first pairing defenseman and the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. Jonathan Toews was returning from injury. There were high expectations for the 2021-2022 Chicago Blackhawks.
After an unexpected performance from the team’s rookies last season, the Blackhawks finished with a near .500 win percentage. Brandon Hagel, Pius Suter, and Kevin Lankinen, all having breakout years; the future in Chicago looked bright.
In retrospect, the future was not very bright. Finishing 7th in the Central Division, the original six team became a bottom six team in the league in 2022. The Hawks barely surpassed their win total from last season and doubled their losses. The season began with a nine-game winless streak, only two losses shy of the Arizona Coyotes’ modern-era record of 11 straight winless games (set in 2017-18 and in 2021-22).
The Blackhawks did not win a game in a highly-forgettable October. Allowing a whopping 37 goals in only nine games, the Hawks initiated the new additions to the team in Jones and Fleury to Chicago’s ominous playing style. Through October, Jones racked up a minus 12 in plus/minus, while Fleury posted a poultry .832 save percentage. Not exactly a playoff contending team, right?
The rest of the season was filled with a few highs, like the pair of four-game winning streaks in November and January, and lots of lows, like the pair of six-plus game losing streaks. Connor Murphy sat out the last month and a half of the season with a concussion, GM Kyle Davidson traded Hagel and Fleury, and not much went the Blackhawks’ way. Which is why I’ve chosen to grade the Blackhawks’ 2021-2022 season. However, I’m not going to let the Hawks’ season be summarized by one letter grade, so I’ll break it down by category.
What a lackluster year for the Blackhawks offense. Carried by Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat, and towards the end of the season, Dylan Strome, the rest of the Chicago’s offense struggled. Only five players eclipsed the 10-goal mark (not including Brandon Hagel) compared to teams like Florida, Colorado, and Carolina, where they have more than 10 players exceeding that milestone. This poor distribution of scoring shows why the Blackhawks sank to the bottom of the league in goals scored.
One thing I can give some recognition to was the Blackhawks’ power play. Skating 5-on-4, the Hawks float just below the league average power play percentage, which is approximately 21%. Most of the team’s power play success came from the first unit, as the second unit would often have a hard time setting up in the offensive zone. At the beginning of the season, both units struggled on the man advantage, even having a six-game PPG drought in November. Towards the end of the season, the first unit finally began to shape up, featuring DeBrincat, Strome, Kane, Raddysh, and Jones, finally began to shape up.
The team’s even strength shot attempt percentage (AKA Corsi) was 46%, meaning their opponents attempted more shots on net than the Hawks attempted. On top of this, their expected goals (per 60 minutes at even strength) was only 1.95 goals. A major factor for the Blackhawks lack of scoring is their shooting preference and generated offense. The team ranked last in high and medium danger shots (at even strength), meaning they didn’t shoot enough, or they didn’t create enough opportunities to shoot from these dangerous positions. Either way, it’s an indicator of poor offense. To top it all off, Chicago averaged an anemic 2.6 goals per game. If you’re going to score less than three goals a game, you’re going to need quality defense to succeed.
We knew after last season that the defense struggled, but we didn’t expect it to get much worse. When you add a defenseman who’s supposedly valued at $9.5 million/season, or roughly 12 percent of the salary cap, you expect the defense to improve… at least slightly. This was not the case.
To start, at even strength, the team finished top five in defensive zone giveaways and top 10 in shots against. The Hawks went from a 3.3 goals against average in 2021, to a 3.6 goals against average in 2021-2022. Although to some, this increase in goals surrendered might not be that much of a surprise. The Blackhawks lost Adam Boqvist and David Kampf entering the 2021-2022 season, while also facing improved competition from all 31 teams in the league, compared to just seven in the shortened season.
Another issue with the defense was its penalty kill. The penalty kill succeeded just 76% of the time, compared to the league average of 80%. This is mainly because of the excessive amount of defensive zone giveaways. The Hawks also allowed a lot of high danger shots against, which likely stemmed from poor positioning or turnovers.
Nonetheless, not all of these mishaps fall on the defensive corps. Less offense means more defense. So whether it’s the inability to break the puck out, or turnovers in the offensive zone, the Hawks' abysmal offense contributed heavily to the defense’s suffering.
Not to mention the 66th and 67th games of the season, where the Hawks squandered two consecutive leads of three or more goals.
I’m being generous here, as Kevin Lankinen statistically was the second worst goaltender in the NHL this season. Presenting a pathetic -26.3 goals saved above expected, a -4.4 wins above replacement, and a sub .900 save percentage, to say Lankinen struggled this season is an understatement. Coming off a respectable (and I say respectable because Lankinen had no help) .909 save percentage, 17-wins in last year’s abbreviated season, there was some expectation for the Finn to be a reliable backup to reigning Vezina winner, Fleury.
Right off the bat, fans could tell Lankinen was struggling. Good news for him, though. As the backup, he wasn’t forced into uncomfortable starting positions with low confidence. Unfortunately for Lankinen, the Blackhawks’ overall failure led to Flower being traded to Minnesota, forcing Lankinen into the starting role.
With Lankinen their No. 1 guy, the Blackhawks called up Rockford goaltender, Collin Delia. This tandem was briefly seen last season, so it wasn’t completely unfamiliar to fans. Delia had a couple solid games for the Hawks, earning his first win of the season against the Los Angeles Kings in a stellar 43-save performance. One more young goaltender given a shot was Arvid Soderblom, a 22 year-old goalie from Sweden. In Soderblom’s first start, he was peppered with 41 shots against, a not-so-warm welcome to the Chicago crease.
The reason why I gave the goaltending a “C-” is due to the circumstances the netminders were playing under. There was little defense, which meant they faced many more high-danger shots than goalies typically face.
The one goalie who performed decently this season was Fleury, who recorded a .908 save percentage, and nearly 20 wins for the red, white, and black. Those numbers are impressive, considering he played for one of the worst teams in the NHL. Fleury backed four shutouts, with three requiring 30+ saves.
Sadly, the Hawks are now without Fleury, meaning there’s currently no relief between the pipes. I believe that there is some future in Lankinen, as we saw in the 2021 season. I also have a little bit of faith in the young Soderblom.
If you looked at the Blackhawks through a realistic lens prior to October, you never saw this team making the playoffs. If you’re a fan who misses the glory days and is looking for a glimpse of hope to spark your faith, you might’ve been disappointed this season. Just because the Blackhawks have officially begun their rebuild, does this mean fans should stop tuning into games? No. Next season will give fans a chance to watch young players finally get their time to shine in the big show. Players like Alex Vlasic, Alec Regula, Lukas Reichel, and Reese Johnson are starting to display signs of NHL readiness, as shown by their increased ice time. But it’s not just the rookies showing up. Players like Taylor Raddysh, Dylan Strome, Alex DeBrincat, Sam Lafferty, Philipp Kurashev, and Caleb Jones, give Hawks fans plenty to look forward to in the future.