Looking at the Chicago Blackhawks roster, you see remnants of the team that won three Stanley Cups between 2009 and 2015. It was a dynastic run during an era where that wasn’t supposed to be possible. Eventually, the salary cap caught up with the talented squad. Now, three years removed from their last championship, with no playoffs on the horizon for the first time since 2007-08 and an aging core, fans have started to wonder what’s next.
Alex DeBrincat answered that question this season. He’s what’s next. He’s next up in a seemingly endless wave of high-end Blackhawks forwards.
Entering 2017-18, the big name hitting the roster was Brandon Saad. Sure, he cost Chicago Artemi Panarin, but he arrived with more years of control on his contract, offering the Blackhawks more long-term stability than Panarin did. His second run in the Windy City wasn’t nearly as impressive as his first, though, leaving Chicago aching for more offensive output from players not named Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
Which is where DeBrincat came into play.
The former second-round draft pick wasn’t a lock to make the opening-night roster. He had a strong tournament in Traverse City, but the 20-year-old didn’t know if he’d be starting in the NHL until early October. DeBrincat was the first player to jump directly into Chicago’s lineup as a rookie since Saad did it in 2011, but Saad only stuck around for two games.
DeBrincat managed to turn himself from a hopeful into a mainstay over the course of Chicago’s first few contests — he notched three points in his first four outings and threw four hits in the season opener — and he hasn’t looked back since.
Over the course of the year, he’s evolved even further, from emerging rookie to light at the end of what has been a dreadful season for the Blackhawks. No one had him pegged as a forward who could possibly score as many goals as Kane on the year, yet here we are, just a few days away from the end of 2017-18, and he’s hanging until the very end.
DeBrincat was a generational scorer in the OHL, yet his size lead to questions about his ability to play in the NHL. Maybe someday general managers will learn not to undervalue a skater just because he’s not built like Eric Lindros or Jaromir Jagr. That oversight was Stan Bowman’s gain, though, and now he’s got a player who could possibly be an elite finisher within the next year or two.
The goals and points are there for DeBrincat, but perhaps the most encouraging thing has been his willingness to embrace an elevated role down the stretch. He isn’t overwhelmed by the prospect of playing with linemates like Kane, Toews and Duncan Keith. At the age of 20, he’s embraced his duty as one of Chicago’s top scorers head on, and it shows in the numbers.
Over the first half of the campaign, DeBrincat averaged 1.9 shots per game. That’s a rock solid number, but more than 170 forwards will finish with an average of 1.9 shots per game or more this season. He’s not an average shooter, however, and the more distance he can put between himself and players like Nick Foligno and Zach Hyman, the better.
DeBrincat has started peppering the net more frequently over the last few months. Since scoring a hat trick on Jan. 25 against the Detroit Red Wings, he’s averaged 2.6 shots per game. That’s a pretty massive step forward during a rookie showing.
Usually, we see younger players hit the proverbial wall during the 82-game grind that is the NHL’s regular season. Not DeBrincat.
He’s remained consistent and has been held shotless just once in his last 17 games. The Blackhawks, to their credit, haven’t overlooked the forward’s contributions.
Late last month, he was named Chicago’s “Player of the Year” during the annual Keith Magnuson Blackhawk Alumni Scholarship Luncheon. In securing that award, he became the youngest player to win it in Blackhawks history.
In a year full of unmet expectations in Chicago, Alex DeBrincat has managed to go above and beyond what was reasonably expected from him back in October. And he’s giving Blackhawks fans a reason to have hope for 2018-19 as this season comes to a close.