Blackhawks’ ugly opening loss sketches blueprint for how 2021-22 plan could flopBen Popeon October 14, 2021 at 6:45 pm

The Blackhawks and Seth Jones flopped in their season-opening 4-2 loss to the Avalanche. | AP Photo/David Zalubowski

The Hawks’ new depth won’t help much if their top players don’t perform as expected. But not every opponent will be as tough as the Avalanche.

NEWARK, N.J. — Every offseason brings optimism to most NHL teams. And every opening week dents that optimism in abrupt, startling ways.

So it’s hardly unprecedented that the Blackhawks, despite their ultra-active summer of upgrades, fell flat in their first of 82 games in 2021-22. But the way they did so — looking completely baffled by the sport of hockey for the first period of a lopsided 4-2 loss to the Avalanche — was nonetheless cause for concern.

General manager Stan Bowman and coach Jeremy Colliton touted, before puck drop Wednesday, the Hawks’ bolstered depth as a key ingredient in their anticipated breakthrough.

“Part of that is we’ve brought in some new players, but a lot of these [returning] guys have started to take that next step,” Bowman said. “Last year was a big year for a lot of guys to get their feet wet and to get used to what it would be like in the NHL, but we always want to try to build on that and come back and be further along.

“We’re going to encounter injuries, whether it’s Jonathan [Toews] or whoever, so we’ll be tested… But we’re going to be in a position to hopefully get through that better than in years past.”

In the most basic sense, they’re right: the Hawks do have more NHL-level or close-to-NHL-level players under contract than they have in years. Dylan Strome and Adam Gaudette probably don’t deserve to be healthy scratches. AHL-bound prospects Lukas Reichel, Mike Hardman, Reese Johnson, Nicolas Beaudin and Jakub Galvas could all give good arguments why they should be on the roster, too.

Yet against an extremely well-rounded Avalanche powerhouse (even without superstar Nathan MacKinnon), the Hawks showed they still can’t remotely match that quality of depth. The game was never truly competitive: The Avs at one point led 23-3 in five-on-five scoring chances and finished up 45-24 in total scoring chances.

Although a loss in Colorado hardly spells doom — many other teams will suffer a similar fate this season, and the Devils on Friday will present a much fairer test — it revealed a key flaw in the Hawks’ reconstructed lineup.

Namely, many of the players expected to be top contributors on this team have only been great (or healthy) one of the past two seasons.

In 2019-20, Marc-Andre Fleury was merely average, Alex DeBrincat was snakebitten, Calvin de Haan was injured and Kevin Lankinen and Brandon Hagel were in the AHL. In 2021, Jonathan Toews didn’t play, Jake McCabe and Kirby Dach barely played, Tyler Johnson played fourth-line minutes and Seth Jones struggled mightily. Only Patrick Kane, Dominik Kubalik and Connor Murphy are building off consecutive good years.

The Hawks had imagined, and planned as if, they’d get the other-season — the good-season — versions of those players.

But if they don’t, inexperienced role players will end up over-slotted and over-matched as Colliton desperately seeks to spark his team — as happened Wednesday, when the game finished with Henrik Borgstrom centering Kane and DeBrincat, MacKenzie Entwistle next to Dach and Riley Stillman anchoring Jones.

“We just didn’t have enough guys going,” Colliton said.

When that happens, the depth disappears quickly.

The viability of Colliton’s defensive system is another issue. As intelligent a hockey mind as he is, as similar (contrary to popular belief) the system is to that of numerous other teams and as encouraged as the defensemen sounded about their unit’s progress in training camp, the fact remains that the Hawks have constantly bled scoring chances throughout Colliton’s tenure to date and looked no better defensively Wednesday.

All of the aforementioned concerns can be dismissed, for now, due to the tiny sample size. After all, way-too-early overreactions are as common in the NHL as offseason optimism and opening-week reality checks.

But Wednesday’s disaster did sketch a worryingly believable blueprint for how this Hawks season could crumble in the coming months.

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