Blackhawks Season Preview Part 1: The Defense
And then there were two. It’s a different time now in Chicago. Oduya, Campbell, Hjalmarsson, and Rozsival, guy that helped this team win Stanley Cups are gone and all that is left are 2 and 7. I remember watching games from the 300 level back in 2006, looking down on a shitty team for the 1oth year in a row, seeing those two guys and having that realization like the scene in Major League
Three Stanley Cups and eleven years later, 2 and 7 are still there and maybe that’s not a bad thing. Just like the guy in the GIF above, Stan Bowman did some construction. Keith and Seabrook are a strong foundation, but in an NHL Fixer Upper offseason, the Hawks decided they would gut everything else and bring in some new finishes…on a budget. Stan even brought in Cody Franson who moves about as well as a refridgerator.
After getting knocked out in the first round two years in a row and getting completely smoked by a faster Nashville team changes were definitely necessary on defense. Having said that, I’m starting the preview series with the defensemen because that’s where this thing could go off the rails. There’s questions about literally everyone in the lineup other than Duncan Keith who is now 34 years-old. There’s some real talent in this defense corps, but it’s painfully inexperienced and that’s typically not a good thing for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. The man in charge, to some extent, to bring along these young Dmen: new assistant coach, Ulf Samuelsson. For those of you who don’t have any memories of the 1990s, Ulf Samuelsson was one of the biggest villains in the league. When Mike Milbury was coaching for the Bruins in the early 90s he called up five goons from the minors just to kick Ulf Samuelsson’s ass.
How does that relate to Samuelsson as a coach in 2017? Probably not at all. Still a great local tv clip from the youtube Gods. Samuelsson was a top flight defenseman in his heyday. Having a younger, former NHL Dman from Europe, might help guys like Rutta, Kempny, and Forsling. The reason I am making a big deal about Ulfie is because even though the Blackhawks have some cap space from Hossa going on IR, I don’t think the cavalry is coming to save the day. In terms of rental type defensemen there’s just not much out there. If the Hawks are going to go on a deep playoff run it’ll be because the group they have in the room right now has grown into capable NHL defensemen.
The Blackhawks decided to keep 8 defensemen to start the year. Keith, Seabrook, Murphy, Forsling, Kempny, Rutta, Oesterle, and Franson. I think the easiest way to breakdown the defense as a whole is to divide them into two groups: guys who will play every night if healthy, and guys who won’t.
Playing Every Night:
Duncan Keith is turned 34 during the summer, but he doesn’t look like it. He’s a physical freak who takes his health, diet, and conditioning VERY seriously. I think he will play at an elite level for a few more years. Reminds me almost of Scott Niedermayer at this point. At 36 years-old Niedermayer played over 26 minutes a night, made the all-star team, and even got some Norris votes. Also won a gold medal as captain of Team Canada. Ideally, Duncan Keith would NOT need to paly 26 minutes a night this year, but something tells me he will because the team won’t trust the other guys. Keith is still the engine of this team. He is an elite defender who plays in all situations. It’ll be interesting to see how exactly he is used and who he’s partnered with. It sounds like he will open the season with his old fiend, Brent Seabrook, but during the preseaon he got ice time with Conor Murphy and Jan Rutta. I think there will be nights when Keith skates with all three guys.
Brent Seabrook has been dragged through the internet streets. Some of it deserved, as his game has definitely slipped from where it was 4-5 years ago. The extent of his demise I think is exaggerated and he’s also judged against his contract. Brian Campbell went through the same thing his first time around in Chicago. Is Seabrook’s contract bad? You betcha. Is Seabrook himself bad? I don’t think so. He’s still a top 4 Dman. He’s good on the PP. He blocks shots, kills PKs, he makes good decisions with the puck, and starts a TON of odd man rushes with great stretch passes out of the zone. He’s no longer and all-star type guy though. The past couple years he’s been forced to babysit players who aren’t legitimately top 4 D while Keith and Hjalmarsson formed the shutdown pair. If the Blackhawks do end up playing Seabrook with Keith, and also have Toews on the ice with them you’ll see Seabrooks shot-based analytics tick up and people will say he’s having a resurgance.
Connor Murphy has some pretty big shoes to fill. Even though he’s only 24 years old, he still has more NHL experience than anyone besides 2&7 on defense. I’m pretty optimistic about Murphy. I don’t think the Blackhawks have ever had a guy quite like him. He’s a big boy and he plays big boy hockey. 6’4 215lbs and uses it.
The Hawks got bullied by Nashville last year. That won’t happen again and Murphy will be a part of that equation. He also looks like a pretty good skater for his size. He was a willing shot-blocker in the preseason. I really love what his former coach Dave Tippett had to say about him.
“He’s a big guy and when we first got him he had to fill out a little. His attitude and his smarts are what I liked about him. He really has a passion to be a really good player and every day he comes to the rink trying to get better. He’s dialed into all the aspects of getting better: skating, nutrition, everything. He watched video, not just of his own stuff but also the team. He’ll have no problem adapting. You’ve gotta remember he’s a young player but there’s a lot of upside. He’s just starting to scratch the surface.”
High character kid trying everything he can to get better in an impossibly bad situation on a very bad team. A rising tide lifts all boats. Having better players next to him, a better goalie behind him, and forwards who can control the puck will make Murphy think he’s in hockey heaven. There’s an old hockey cliche that defensemen need 200 professional games before they start to reach their potential. Here’s hoping that it applies to Murphy. He appears to have all the physical tools, but realistically its going to be a work in progress this year. New city, new system, new teammates, and still a young player. There’s going to be some speed bumps along the way, but I believe Murphy is going to be able to help the Blackhawks.
Guys Who Won’t Play Every Night
Michael. Kempny. I don’t know what to make of this guy. Physically he’s very impressive. I met him out at a bar last year before the season, but I didn’t recognize him. He’s an imposing dude even in street clothes. Kind of barrel-chested and built like a football player. He skates well, has a good shot, and if you like corsi then he’s your guy since he had a 56% rating. Kempny having that high of a corsi percentage is really an indictment of that statistic. Kempny found himself in Joel’s doghouse a lot and rightfully so. He’d struggle with decision making with the puck, gap control, and would get caught up ice at times too. He always looked off balance to me. Like he was thinking too much. Going from the Czech League to the KHL to the NHL is a huge adjustment. Maybe in year 2 on the smaller ice sheet and a familiarity with the speed and system will allow Kempny to reach his potential. Or maybe he’s just a dummy. I really can’t tell. I’m hoping he blossoms into a top 4 guy, and he’s starting the year next to Connor Murphy, but something tells me he’s a bottom pair guy who will see some time in the press box again. Having said that, of the guys in this group he probably the closest to playing every night.
If you could put Gustav Forsling’s brain in Michael Kempny’s body you’d have one hell of a player. Year 2 of Forsling and he should see plenty of ice this year. I love his game. It’s typically pretty quiet. He skates very well and makes good decisions. He just tends to get over-powered downlow in his own end. Forsling is obviously still developing at 21 years-old. I was hoping to see a bigger and stronger version of the guy we saw last year, but it didn’t really look like that in limited action this preseason. I like the idea of playing Forsling with Murphy in the second pair. Their games, in my brain, compliment each other very well, but to my knowledge they haven’t skated with each other yet.
Jan Rutta is another mystery man. 27 years old and signed straight out of the Czech League. He looks the part of an NHL defenseman at 6’3 and 200 pounds and he definitely didn’t look out of place in preseason action. Joel Quenneville even called his game “predictable, safe, and reliable” which is Coach Q speak for…
My guess is that he will be given plenty of chances to claim that right hand spot on the third pair.
If Rutta struggles then the Blackhawks will turn to Cody Franson. Franson came in on a PTO and looked good enough to get a million bucks out of Stan. He’s going to get some games and some ice. Franson showed what he can bring to the table in the preseason…he’s great on the powerplay. Moves the puck quickly, reads the play well, and has a nice shot. If Franson is in the lineup and gets PP time that could reduce some of the minutes which would normally go to Seabrook or Keith. For a team that didn’t have great special teams, adding a weapon like Franson on the blue line could really help. The problem is that he is so slow. If he’s not on a PP then he’s a below average player. Franson is a guy who was born too late. If he played pre-2005 he’d be an awesome player. The game seems a little too fast for him now, but maybe he can give the Hawks enough minutes. Not a bad insurance policy though as a 7th Dman.
The 8th and final dman on the roster is my dude Jordan Oesterle. I won’t lie to you…when the Hawks signed him this summer I had never heard of him before. I assumed he was a Rockford depth defensemen, but he’s clearly more than that. Looked good in the preseason and he reportedly had as many as 20 teams interested in signing him this summer. He is a good little skater who moves the puck quickly. I don’t know how much he will play, but I certainly like what I’ve seen so far. In fact, I thought on preseason play alone he probably deserved to be in the lineup in Game 1. The Hawks may have a found a gem here.
A lot of people are pointing to the defense and using it to claim that the Blackhawks are in big trouble. That’s an extreme overexaggeration. The Hawks are deep up front and they still have a top-end goalie in Corey Crawford and he will cover a lot of warts as this group of defensemen grows throughout the year. It’s right to be nervous because not only did they lose Hjalmarsson on D, they also lost Kruger and Hossa. That’s 3 of their best 5 defensive players from a year ago. Stan said after the trades that sometimes change is good. That can be true, and clearly the way the Blackhawks have been doing things the past two years doesn’t work. Sometimes you need to sacrifice what you are for what you could become. That’s the story of this group. What can it become.