Blackhawks season preview: Toews return boosts center depth

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The 2021-22 NHL season starts Oct. 12. With training camps opening this week, NHL.com is taking a look at the three keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lineup for each of the 32 teams. Today, the Chicago Blackhawks.

Coach: Jeremy Colliton (fourth season)

Last season: 24-25-7; sixth in Discover Central Division, did not qualify for Stanley Cup Playoffs

3 KEYS

1. Health of Toews

Jonathan Toews is expected to return this season after he did not play last season because of chronic immune response syndrome. If their 33-year-old captain is able to play as well as he did in 2019-20, when he scored 60 points (18 goals, 42 assists) in 70 regular-season games and nine points (five goals, four assists) in nine Stanley Cup Playoff games, the Blackhawks will be in good shape. His return improves their depth at center, where they have Kirby Dach, Tyler Johnson (acquired in a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning on July 27) and Dylan Strome.

2. Stronger at goalie

They got a big boost when they acquired Marc-Andre Fleury in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights on July 27. The 36-year-old won the Vezina Trophy voted as the best goalie in the NHL last season, when he was 26-10-0 with a 1.98 goals-against average, a .928 save percentage and six shutouts in 36 games. Kevin Lankinen was solid as a rookie last season, when he was 17-14-5 with a 3.01 GAA, a .909 save percentage and two shutouts in 37 games, and Malcolm Subban was 6-8-1 with a 3.20 GAA, a .900 save percentage and two shutouts in 16 games (14 starts). The Blackhawks needed a veteran goalie, and Fleury, who won the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, 2016 and 2017, gives them that.

Video: Marc-Andre Fleury comes in at number 37 on Top 50

3. Changes at defenseman

As much as Fleury will help, they had to improve in front of their goalie. They revamped their defenseman group by acquiring Seth Jones, Caleb Jones and Jake McCabe, and trading Duncan Keith, Adam Boqvist and Nikita Zadorov. Chicago hopes the additions help after allowing 33.7 shots on goal per game last season, tied for most in the NHL with the Buffalo Sabres.

Video: Chicago Blackhawks 2021-22 Season Preview

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Position battles

The biggest competition will likely come on the third and fourth forward lines. Will Johnson and Strome play center or right wing? Where do forwards Philipp Kurashev and Brandon Hagel, each a rookie last season, end up? Hagel scored 24 points (nine goals, 15 assists) in 52 games, and Kurashev scored 16 points (eight goals, eight assists) in 54 games. At defenseman, the competition is likely for the third pair. Caleb Jones, Riley Stillman and Wyatt Kalynuk will be among those looking for playing time. 

Most intriguing addition

Seth Jones was looking for a fresh start and needs to be better than last season, when he scored 28 points (five goals, 23 assists) and was minus-18 in 56 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets. There will be big expectations for Jones, who turns 27 on Oct. 3, after he signed an eight-year contract extension July 28.

Biggest potential surprise

Dach has scored 33 points (10 goals, 23 assists) in 64 games in his first two NHL seasons. Now it’s time to see if the 20-year-old forward can play a full season, and if so, what he can do during it. Dach said Sept. 9 that his right wrist has healed after he broke it Dec. 23 playing for Canada at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship. He’s expected to participate in his first full NHL training camp (he was injured the previous two) and could be their No. 1 center playing with left wing Alex DeBrincat and right wing Patrick Kane.

Video: FLA@CHI: Dach swings and bats puck in for a PPG

Ready to break through 

The Blackhawks liked what they saw from Kalynuk last season, when he scored nine points (four goals, five assists) in 21 games, and the 24-year-old defenseman could take on a larger role this season. Caleb Jones and Stillman will be challenging for playing time, but Kalynuk could have the inside track.

Fantasy sleeper

Strome had a breakout season with 51 points (17 goals, 34 assists) in 58 games in 2018-19 and could replicate that level of production if he plays wing on the second line with valuable forwards Dominik Kubalik and Toews. Strome, who scored 17 points (nine goals, eight assists) in 40 games last season, should get a boost from playing with Seth Jones, who is ranked among the fantasy top 10 at defenseman. However, Strome’s value could fall if he is the center on the third line with Johnson and Brandon Hagel.Rob Reese

Projected lineup

Alex DeBrincat — Kirby Dach — Patrick Kane

Phillip Kurashev — Jonathan Toews — Dominik Kubalik

Brandon Hagel — Dylan Strome — Tyler Johnson

Jujhar KhairaRyan CarpenterMacKenzie Entwistle

Jake McCabe — Seth Jones

Calvin de HaanConnor Murphy

Riley Stillman — Wyatt Kalynuk 

Marc-Andre Fleury

Kevin Lankinen

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