DENVER — There's a lot to be excited about in Chicago going into the 2021-22 NHL season, whether it's the return of Jonathan Toews, the major offseason acquisitions that included Marc-Andre Fleury and Seth Jones or simply just the fact that's it's a normal season again, for the most part.
"Very excited," Blackhawks President/GM Stan Bowman said before Wednesday's season-opening loss to the Colorado Avalanche. "I guess that word is overused, probably, but can't wait to get going."
The Blackhawks are going to be one of the most interesting teams in the NHL this season. On paper, they're a significantly improved group from top to bottom. But what the roster looks like vs. how that translates onto the ice are two entirely different things.
"I really like the group," Bowman said. "A lot of energy this year. I don't know if it's because we're back sort of in a normal year with fans in the building, but we have new players and young players taking that next step and showing us in camp that they've come back and they're building on their first year. We've got a new look. It's a different make-up than we've had last year, but optimistic.
"You don't know how it's going to all come together. It's going to take a little bit of time, but from what I've seen so far, it seems like it's going to be really competitive team."
No doubt the depth of this Blackhawks group is considerably better; addressing that was a priority going into the summer. The lack of depth was a reason why they tailed off starting in March last season because it was simply too difficult to match the Tampa Bay's and Carolina's of the world pound for pound.
"We've got a much deeper group than in years past," Bowman said. "Part of that is we've brought in some new players, but a lot of these guys have started to take that next step. 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."
The forward battles were so competitive at training camp that it's pushed some surprising names on the outside looking in. One of those players is Dylan Strome, who was a healthy scratch on Opening Night.
Last season, he went into the season opener as the first-line center. Now he's struggling to secure a spot among the 12 forwards. It's why Strome's name has been circulating the rumor mill as of late.
Bowman tried to downplay it, but it wouldn't be surprising at this point if the Blackhawks tried to give Strome an opportunity for a fresh start elsewhere if they feel he's not an important piece of the puzzle going forward.
"I think it's probably more circumstantial," Bowman said of Adam Gaudette and Strome being healthy scratches. "All players can do is control their performance. I thought Dylan has had a good camp. ... There's nothing wrong with the way they played. But where we are tonight, they're not in the lineup, but they're still with us, they're still part of the team, and all you can ask them to do is keep being ready when their opportunity comes, so there might be a little too much made out of that."
The fact that an impact-type player like Strome is fighting for a spot might be an indication of just how deep the forward group has become over the last few months alone. The Blackhawks still have a ways to go before becoming a legitimate four-line team, but they're trending in the right direction as they look to bridge the gap between winning and rebuilding.
"We want to win," Bowman said. "I mean, we wanted to win last year. It's not that we ever don't want to win, but we're trying to do those two things at the same time, which is seeing our young players take a step forward."