Alex Vlasic, Arvid Söderblom, Chicago Blackhawks, Connor Bedard, Kevin Korchinski

5 Takeaways From Blackhawks Season-Opening Road Trip

We made it folks, and so did the Chicago Blackhawks! They’re officially through their first road-trip of the season, a five-game gauntlet that spanned 11 days, and included three Original Six teams and four opponent home openers. Their record ended up being 2-3-0. But hey, those two wins were commendable considering the circumstances. Let’s do a quick recap.

Wow, what a way to come out of the gate with a 4-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins! The same Penguins, mind you, that they knocked out of the playoffs by defeating them late last season, when the Blackhawks basically had nothing to play for. But the fairy tale couldn’t last forever. As a matter of fact, it was over the very next night with a 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins. Another close loss (3-2) to the Montreal Canadiens could have demoralized this young group, but they fought back with a commanding 4-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. They finished this grueling road trip against the powerhouse Colorado Avalanche, with a 4-0 shutout loss. Well, they can just throw that one in the garbage can. These young Blackhawks were just out of gas after a long road trip, and overwhelmed by a stronger and faster team.

Related – Blackhawks News & Rumors: Seabrook, Hall, Perry & More

Here are some takeaways from these first five contests of the Blackhawks’ 2023-24 season.

Bedard’s Impact

He’s 18 years old, but he’s also arguably the best player on the team. Obviously Connor Bedard has no experience in the NHL, and that especially showed against the Avalanche. But if you take the first couple of games, it’s pretty crazy the impact Bedard has already had. Centering the top line with Taylor Hall and Ryan Donato, Bedard averaged 20:53 minutes on the ice through these first five games, which is the most of all forwards and second only to defenseman Seth Jones. He’s contributed a goal and two assists, as well as the team leading 20 shots on goal.

Connor Bedard Chicago Blackhawks
Connor Bedard is already making an impact with the Chicago Blackhawks. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Bedard would be the first person to tell you he’s not happy with his performance to date. But if you look a little closer you can see the potential there. For such a young player, he sees the ice so well, and plays a smart game. Plus, what a shot! It’s been thwarted so far, but it seems like that can’t last for long. He creates his own chances, but anticipates and understands the game in such a way that you can never discount his passing to his linemate for the big goal.

After the fourth contest versus the Maple Leafs, Bedard was tied with Auston Matthews for the league lead in individual scoring chances!

Matthews, by the way, scored two hat tricks for six points in his first two games. Bedard hasn’t had the same kind of luck, but it just seems like a matter of time before he breaks through. I see a streak coming in the near future!

New Defensemen, No Problem!

The Blackhawks are currently assimilating three young defensemen into the lineup; each being paired with a veteran partner.

Alex Vlasic

Vlasic has been paired with Jones on the top defensive pairing. The 22-year-old suited up in 15 games for the Blackhawks in the 2021-22 season, and six games with them in the 2022-23 season. Both stints were towards the end of a losing campaign, for the Blackhawks to see what they had in the young defenseman. Vlasic used that experience, and playing big minutes with the Rockford IceHogs last season, to jumpstart this current campaign.

All that experience has helped Vlasic grow more confident in his game, to the point where head coach Luke Richardson doesn’t have to shelter him anymore. He’s averaged 19:31 minutes of ice time, second to only Jones among defenseman. The Wilmette native actually provided the primary assist on the very first goal of the season, courtesy of Donato. More was made of Bedard providing the secondary assist (his first point in the NHL), but it was Vlasic who aggressively rushed the net and took a shot for Donato to capitalize on the rebound.

His second point, another primary assist, was a thing of beauty.

Said Vlasic after the game,

I wanted to honestly throw it off the glass at first, and I saw the D kind of pinch down the wall thinking I was going to, so I just thought I would send a Hail Mary sauce pass and it landed perfectly right on his tape. I’m pretty happy about that one… this year, definitely have a little bit more confidence, a little bit more mojo. 

This young man has been a very pleasant surprise. He always seems to be positionally in the right place, and he’s able to use his long reach to break up opposing plays. He looks the part of a top defenseman.

Kevin Korchinski

Yes, this is the Blackhawks’ 2022 seventh overall draft pick who is just 19 years old. Many weren’t sure if he would made the team out of camp, or whether he will stay long term. Well, he accomplished the first, and certainly looks like he should remain in the NHL.

Related – Blackhawks Should Keep Kevin Korchinski in the NHL

Korchinski has been paired with Connor Murphy on the second defensive pairing. Murphy is the more defensively responsible of the two, with Korchinski offering his speedy agility and offensive upside. Not that he hasn’t contributed defensively; he’s contributed 12 blocked shots which is second on the team (again to Jones).

Oh, and the Saskatchewan native has been deployed to quarterback the Blackhawks’ second power play unit, where he notched his first career point against the Maple Leafs.

When Korchinski first made the team at the beginning of the season, I personally thought the Blackhawks would send him back to his WHL team (the Seattle Thunderbirds) after the road trip. But he’s shown he deserves to stay.

Wyatt Kaiser

Kaiser was one of the biggest surprises out of training camp, being paired with Jones to start out and touted as “really standing out” and “being much stronger” by Richardson. He also benefitted from playing nine games in the 2022-23 season. It turns out the 21-year-old ended up on the third defensive pairing to start this campaign. He’s been deployed with Jarred Tinordi for the first three games and Nikita Zaitsev for the last two games.

Wyatt Kaiser Chicago Blackhawks
Wyatt Kaiser is one of the young defensemen that made the Chicago Blackhawks’ roster for the start of the season. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Kaiser struggled with committing some penalties and giving up a few giveaways, but this is all part of the learning curve. All in all, the Minnesota native didn’t really stand out one way or the other. This is a good thing when you’re a defenseman. For the most part, he’s held his own.

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The Special Teams Effect

Special teams is so important to the success of a team, and many times can be the difference between a win and a loss. While the Blackhawks have done well on the penalty kill, they’ve really struggled on the power play. I was the first to be excited about a great power play this season, but so far it hasn’t come to fruition. Let’s take a closer look at both the power play and the penalty kill for the Hawks.

Power Play

First Unit: Jones Hall-Donato-Bedard Corey Perry

Second Unit: Korchinski Tyler Johnson, Lukas Reichel, Taylor Raddysh Nick Foligno (Andreas Athanasiou)

Athanasiou subbed in when Hall was out for the game against the Canadiens, but for the most part the above units have remained intact. They look like they could do some damage, and the first couple of games they created a lot and had plenty of chances. But the man-advantage has gone south since. Overall, the power play has gone 1-for-22 over the first five games, with the lone goal tallied by T. Johnson against the Maple Leafs. Yes, that’s almost last in the league, and the Blackhawks have had the most PP opportunities (22) besides the Carolina Hurricanes.

Tyler Johnson Chicago Blackhawks
Tyler Johnson has scored the only power play goal for the Chicago Blackhawks so far this season. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It looks like the Blackhawks are just overthinking it. They’ve lost that shoot-first mentality that was stressed at the beginning of the season. They’re struggling with their entries and just don’t seem to be in sync with each other. Heck, they’ve even given up two shorthanded goals.

The Blackhawks’ power play certainly offers a huge opportunity for improvement.

Penalty Kill

Top PK Players: Jones, Murphy, Raddysh, Boris Katchouk, Jason Dickinson, Foligno, Tinordi, Kaiser, Cole Guttman, Vlasic

Kudos to the above players who have put in the hard work on the penalty kill. They finally gave up a power play goal to the Avalanche, but for the first four games they were perfect on the PK. They’re currently 12-for-13, which is definitely a positive considering the lackluster power play.

The Blackhawks switched to a diamond formation on their penalty kill mid-season last year. It proved more successful then and is continuing to do so now. This is where the four players set up at the point, on both sides and then one player at the net area, creating a diamond versus a square. It makes it harder for the power player unit to find horizontal lines, and limits their passing lanes.

It’s also a more aggressive way to approach the PK, trying to create turnovers and clear the puck. So far, this approach seems to be working with the personnel that’s involved. Of course, excellent goaltending has also had a lot to do with had a successful PK. Which leads me to my next section.

How About That Goaltending?!

Goaltending was a bit of an X-factor for the Blackhawks headed into this season. But both netminders have been strong through the first five games. 24-year-old Arvid Soderblom is essentially the “backup”, since this will be his first full season sharing the net with Petr Mrazek. He’s suited up for two games so far, against the Bruins and the Maple Leafs. Of these two starts, Soderblom has made 66 saves on 68 shots against, for a magnificent .955 save percentage and a 1.51 goals against average. What a way to start his tenure with the big club! It could be just a matter of time before Soderblom usurps Mrazek in net.

Arvid Soderblom Chicago Blackhawks
Arvid Soderblom has gotten off to an excellent start with the Chicago Blackhawks. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

However, Mrazek is also doing his part towards making that feat difficult for his younger teammate. The 31-year-old veteran struggled last season with ongoing groin injuries. When he was healthy he posted a .894 SV% and a 3.66 goals against average in 30 games. That’s not too pretty.

But in three contests this season he’s been stellar. Before the Avalanche game, Mrazek was posting a 9.35 SV% and 2.54 GAA. Against the Avs, he faced a ton of shots (41 to be exact) and was the best player on the ice. Mrazek can be credited with the game not being a much bigger blowout than the 4-0 loss.

Coach Richardson has already mentioned he will likely alternate his two netminders every other game until one pulls ahead. These two competing for the starting job is only going to push them both to be better. Which, of course, is a good thing for the Blackhawks. If Mrazek and Soderblom can keep up their strong starting performances, that would be just another reason the Blackhawks could be more competitive this season.

Blackhawks Establishing Identity Early

So what does all this mean? From this writer’s perspective, the Blackhawks are picking up right where they left off last season in the way of an identity. They’re a hard-working, grinding team, in the mold of Coach Richardson’s preferred style of play. They’re willing to go to the dirty areas to fight for pucks, they finish their checks and they’re physical. Plus, they stick up for each other. Murphy and Dickinson have already engaged in fights when they felt their younger teammates were being pushed around. They’ve set the tone that opponents aren’t going to get off easy when they play the Blackhawks.

In addition, this season there’s a lot more talent on this team. There’s Bedard, Reichel, the above-named young defensemen. Not to mention the veterans that were brought in to mentor the youngsters. Not only are they doing this off the ice, but on the ice as well. Hall, Foligno and Perry still all have quite a bit of skill to add. Donato adds great versatility. Heck, T. Johnson was with the team last season, but he’s already contributed a team-leading three goals.

Nick Foligno Chicago Blackhawks
Nick Foligno and other veterans were brought in to mentor a very young Chicago Blackhawks’ squad. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

It’s a great mixture of youngsters and vets. They all seem to be developing a team-first mentality, and the friendships, that it takes to succeed. The culture has been set, and the Blackhawks just might be a little bit farther along than anyone thought.

Oh there’s some bad, for sure. Three new young centers (Bedard, Reichel, Guttman), plus the NHL rules that give the home club an advantage with faceoffs, has led the team to an abysmal 34.6% success rate at the dot. Hopefully this will improve with some home games mixed in, and more experience. We’ve already spoken about how the power play has yet to find any sustained success. All these young faces are most definitely going to make mistakes and go through their growing pains. There’s going to be games where this young squad is simply overwhelmed, as they were against the Avalanche.

But all in all, the first stretch of games have been very positive. The Blackhawks appear to be in a pretty healthy place.

Related – Blackhawks’ Third Line Becoming Team’s Identity Line

The Blackhawks are 2-3-0 through their first five games after a road trip that was anything but easy. They’ve come out on the other side and can now enjoy some home games with a rocking United Center crowd to cheer them on. So far they’ve responded very well to the adversity they’ve faced. I would say this start to the season was a success. Let’s see if they can keep building.

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