Blackhawks season preview: Center issues must be solved

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The 2020-21 NHL season is scheduled to begin Jan. 13. 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 lines for each of the 31 teams. Today, the Chicago Blackhawks, who will play in the Central Division.

Coach: Jeremy Colliton (third season)

Last season: 32-30-8 (.514 points percentage); 12th place in Western Conference, lost to Vegas Golden Knights in Western Conference First Round

3 KEYS

1. Center worries

It’s gone from bad to worse with captain Jonathan Toews announcing Tuesday he is out indefinitely with an undisclosed medical issue. The 32-year-old, who said in a statement he was feeling “drained and lethargic” in the offseason, scored 60 points (18 goals, 42 assists) in 70 games last season. Kirby Dach is out 4-5 months after having surgery to repair a right wrist fracture he sustained in Canada’s 1-0 pretournament win against Russia on Dec. 23 at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship. The 19-year-old had a solid rookie season, scoring 23 points (eight goals, 15 assists) in 64 regular-season games and six points (one goal, five assists) in nine Stanley Cup Playoff games. Restricted free agent Dylan Strome is unsigned. The Blackhawks, who have Ryan Carpenter and David Kampf at center, signed Mattias Janmark and Lucas Wallmark on Oct. 12, each to a one-year contract, and Carl Soderberg to a one-year contract on Dec. 28. But it’s tough replacing Toews, Dach and possibly Strome.

2. Figuring out the goaltending

Training camp will see a competition between Malcolm Subban, Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen. Subban was the only one of the three who played in the NHL last season, and his only appearance for Chicago lasted 70 seconds against the Anaheim Ducks on March 3. Subban was 9-7-3 with a 3.17 goals-against average and .890 save percentage in 21 games (19 starts) for the Vegas Golden Knights and Blackhawks, who acquired him in a trade from Vegas on Feb. 24. Delia last played in the NHL in 2018-19, going 6-4-3 with a 3.61 GAA and .908 save percentage in 16 games (14 starts) for Chicago. Lankinen has never played in the NHL. He and Delia shared the net with Rockford of the American Hockey League last season.

Video: Malcolm Subban signs 2-year deal with Chicago

3. Strengthening the defense

Chicago is eyeing improvement in its own zone after allowing 35.1 shots per game last season, the most in the NHL. Defenseman Nikita Zadorov, acquired in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche on Oct. 10, will provide a physical and sizable (6-foot-6, 235 pounds) presence. Defenseman Ian Mitchell, a second-round pick (No. 57) in the 2017 NHL Draft, agreed to terms on a three-year entry-level contract April 13 and also could make an impact this season.

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Making the cut

There are openings at center on the top three lines, with Toews and Dach out and Strome unsigned. There are also vacancies at wing with forward Alex Nylander out 4-6 months after having surgery on his left knee Dec. 21, and on the fourth line and third defense pair. The voids at center will be filled by Janmark, Wallmark and Soderberg. Brandon Pirri and prospect Philipp Kurashev are also options. Matthew Highmore, who scored four points (three goals, one assist) in nine postseason games, and MacKenzie Entwistle are depth possibilities on the wing. On defense, much depends on how much playing time veteran Brent Seabrook gets entering his 16th NHL season. Mitchell is among the candidates to play on the third pair, along with Nicolas Beaudin and Lucas Carlsson, each of whom made his NHL debut last season.

Video: VGK@CHI, Gm4: Highmore scores from sharp angle

Most intriguing addition

Wallmark should get an opportunity to build off what he did last season, when he scored 25 points (12 goals, 13 assists) in 67 games with the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers. The 25-year-old plays a solid defensive game, which should help him earn playing time.

Biggest potential surprise

Pius Suter, expected to make his NHL debut this season, has earned strong reviews from Blackhawks general manger Stan Bowman. The 24-year-old forward signed a one-year contract July 16 after he led the National League, the top professional league in Switzerland, with 53 points (30 goals, 23 assists) in 50 games for ZSC last season. Chicago is looking to Suter for energy and grit more than offensive production, but he brings scoring ability nevertheless.

Ready to break through

The Blackhawks thought Mitchell was ready for the NHL last season, but the defenseman wanted to return for his junior season at Denver, where he was captain. The 21-year-old scored 32 points (10 goals, 22 assists) in 36 games. Chicago will have a lot of competition at the position, but the hope is he’ll show he’s ready for the opportunity to play.

Fantasy sleeper

Defenseman Adam Boqvist scored 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in 41 games last season. He could see additional time on the top power-play unit this season, bringing exposure to elite right wing Patrick Kane, who remains a top 10 selection in fantasy despite centers Toews and Dach being out. Boqvist is an intriguing deep sleeper selection in the last round of a standard 12-team league at a thin position.-— Rob Reese

Projected lineup 

Alex DeBrincatMattias JanmarkDominik Kubalik

Pius Suter — Carl Soderberg — Patrick Kane

Matthew HighmoreLucas WallmarkMacKenzie Entwistle

Zack SmithDavid KampfRyan Carpenter

Duncan KeithAdam Boqvist

Calvin de HaanConnor Murphy

Nikita ZadorovIan Mitchell

Malcolm Subban

Collin Delia

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