The 2021-22 Chicago Blackhawks were not good. They finished the season with only 28 wins, and when a season goes wrong, it’s due to an entire team effort. Nothing went right, and that includes the defense. It was lauded as being new and improved due to the additions of Seth Jones and Jake McCabe, but not even the big names could mask their struggles. The Blackhawks’ defense ranked seventh-worst in goals against per game with 3.52 goals. They also ranked top-10 in the league for shots against per game at 32.96. Those two averages together rank the defense as fifth-worst in the entire NHL. Those measly numbers don’t paint a good picture for the defensemen on the team, but stats don’t always paint the complete picture of how well someone plays, especially with a team like Chicago, where there are a lot of factors in play.
Now, without further ado, here are the defense grades.
I think it’s only fair to start the grading off with the Blackhawks’ No. 1 defenseman, Seth Jones. When Jones was acquired by the team back in July 2021, he was facing a lot of pressure to step up and be the top-pairing defenseman that the Blackhawks have been lacking. He lived up to his reputation as an offensive defenseman and found himself one of the best on the team in production.
He ranked second-best in assists behind Patrick Kane (66), third-best in points behind Kane (92) and Alex DeBrincat (78), and fourth on the team in points per game (0.6). Although the goals didn’t come for him, it wasn’t from a lack of trying. His 194 shots were third-best on the team behind Kane (287) and DeBrincat (270), yet, he encountered bad luck. Also, his 155 blocked shots were third-best in Chicago and 12th-best among NHL defensemen. Lastly, his ice time shouldn’t go unnoticed as he ranked second in the NHL with his TOI (time on ice), averaging 26:12 minutes a game.
The Blackhawks rely on Jones a lot. They depend on him to play most of the game and in all situations, including special teams. He showed that he will play a vital part in how the team’s offense shapes up in the future. I know there are concerns regarding his eight-year, $76 million contract and how much the Blackhawks gave up to acquire him with the two first-round picks and Adam Boqvist. However, he logged a lot of minutes, was reliable, and produced offence, which is what he was paid to do. His 46 assists are a career high for him. This season was not perfect, as he had some defensive miscues and posted a minus-37 in the plus/minus column.
Jones started the season slowly but significantly improved as time went on. He bears a lot of responsibility for the defense because the Blackhawks don’t have many options for defensemen who can do what he can with how much he plays. With that, I think he had a pretty good season. Jones recently stated in an interview, “I had some good moments in the year and had some not-so-great moments… I obviously have put a lot of pressure on myself to be the best player I can be… [I’ll] watch a lot of video this summer on how I can be better in those areas and be that player that this team needs me to be.” (from ‘Seth Jones disappointed with debut season with Blackhawks, but he hasn’t been the problem’, Chicago Sun-Times, 04/27/2022)
I appreciate Jones’ honesty and accountability and hope he comes back with an even stronger season next year because the team needs him. His final stat line was five goals, 46 assists, and 51 points in 78 games, and was a minus-37 in 78 games.
Final Grade: B
On the subject of Jones, the next person up is Seth’s younger brother, Caleb. The Blackhawks acquired him over the summer as part of the Duncan Keith trade, and he had an intriguing season. He came into the season thought of as a seventh defenseman option. He found his way up and down through the d-pairs but mainly was a third-pairing defenseman. Yet, he did see himself as a top-pairing defenseman with his brother at some points. There weren’t many expectations for him coming into the season, other than he was a young, 24-year-old defenseman who may or may not be a nice piece for the young core. He had an unlucky start to the year, missing the first six weeks with a left wrist injury. However, I think he surprised people. He played a gritty game and was not afraid to play the role of a pesky defenseman. He can create havoc, which is a trait that you want to see out of a defenseman.
Caleb tied Seth on the season with five goals, which was a fun storyline. His ice time steadily increased throughout the season as well. His TOI first averaged 13:20 minutes a night, rising to 16 minutes after that. His highest TOI average was when he played 26:14 minutes against the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 25. This season, he took some significant steps to show offensive capabilities and dependability in his own zone. This summer, he is a restricted free agent, and it’s unclear whether the Blackhawks will re-sign him because of their log jam on the blue line. But I think he proved this season that he deserves a shot and could be a good depth option, whether that is in Chicago or elsewhere. He is still growing into the game, and there were some hiccups, but overall he made a quality first impression. His final stat line was five goals, 10 assists, 15 points, and a minus-3 in 51 games.
Final Grade: C
Jake McCabe was someone that Blackhawks fans were excited about when he was signed as a free agent over the summer, as he was described as a pure defensive defenseman. He always had an excellent reputation for his play during his six-year career with the Buffalo Sabres. However, he faced highs and lows this season. The 28-year-old started the season badly where everything was going wrong for him. He found himself out of position a lot with some ugly turnovers. It wasn’t until February that the tides started turning for him, as the longest he went without a point was six games. He was producing consistently and started playing like the defenseman that people recognized. He started coming up with big hits and blocks, and he even started coming up with pretty assists on offense. He ended up having a career-high in assists and points.
McCabe ranked first on the Blackhawks in hits (166), ranking seventh-best in the NHL. He also ranked second on the team in blocked shots (167). I applaud him for his strong second half, but I’m conflicted with his play. His minus-32 on-ice goal differential was the worst by a 14-point margin on the Blackhawks. That can’t happen. He was a top-pairing defenseman whose TOI was 20 minutes a night. Chicago is not a team that can afford to give up so many goals, which has to change next season. Again, he will be the first to admit that he was not at his best. Since he ended the season on a high note, I believe next season will be better for him, but the fact that he started 2021-22 so awful has left a sour taste. His final stat line was four goals, 18 assists, 22 points, and a minus-27 in 75 games.
Final Grade: D+
Isaak Phillips was the Blackhawks’ fifth-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft and made his NHL debut on Oct. 29 against the Carolina Hurricanes. He only appeared in four NHL games before being sent down to the Rockford Icehogs. During his tenure in Chicago, his TOI was 12:20 with three hits and one blocked shot. Four games isn’t a huge sample size, but he did make some nice passes. One of them set DeBrincat up for a scoring chance against the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 27.
I don’t have anything negative to say about Phillips’ stint with the Blackhawks. His final stat line was zero points and a minus-1. Back in Rockford, he ended the season with 10 goals, 15 assists, and 25 points and was even in plus/minus in 64 games. During the Calder Cup Playoffs, the 20-year-old led the Icehogs in assists with two in five games and was a plus-3. He has a very bright future, and I think he will see more time with Chicago next season.
Final Grade: B
Ian Mitchell was one of the Blackhawks’ highly touted prospects as he is a speedy skater with great passing ability while being a non-flashy defender. He made his NHL debut last season, where he had 3 goals, 4 assists, and 7 points in 39 games and was a minus-10. He had spurts where he looked elite for a prospect and then disappeared, which is not unusual for rookies. He was a player I thought would get a more prominent role this season, but the 23-year-old’s leash with the Blackhawks was not very long. He only appeared in eight games while being sent down to Rockford twice. The last time he played for Chicago was in January. The club wanted him to regain his confidence, and sending him down proved to be the right move as he led all defensemen on the Icehogs in goals and points.
Mitchell finished the season with 11 goals, 24 assists, and 35 points and was a minus-2 in 57 games. He also had a goal and an assist in the Calder Cup Playoffs. His confidence looks to have returned, but his spot with the Blackhawks may be dwindling because six other rookie defensemen will be looking to make the team next season. Therefore, he will have to have a strong training camp, and I believe he can because he has the skill to do so.
Final Grade: D
Riley Stillman played in his second season with the Blackhawks after being acquired from the Florida Panthers in April 2021. He dealt with a shoulder injury and some healthy scratches, but this was essentially his breakout season. His 52 games were the most of his career thus far, and he indeed stood out. He plays a very old-school hockey role. He excels at hip checks and big hits in general and plays a rough and tumble game style. He is someone who Blackhawks broadcaster Nick Olczyk called a “heart and soul” player because he was always there to stand up for his teammates and provided energy and effort on every shift. Out of all the Blackhawks’ defensemen, he was third-best on the team in hits with 132 and fifth-best in blocks with 67. His TOI was 15:04, which should increase next season.
Stillman is a player that can come up with fantastic plays that prevent goals by diving in front of pucks, but when he messes up, it’s just as noticeable. He is either in perfect position or way out of place, making his blunders apparent. Yet, the 24-year-old had a respectable season. His goals, assists, and points set a career-high for him, and the team has big hopes that he can develop into a solid shutdown defenseman that they can utilize more on the penalty kill. He is mainly used as a third-pairing defenseman right now, though that could change. He has become a fan favorite for his hustle, and he is far from a finished product, so I hope these are the makings for an even better season next year. His final stat line was 2 goals, 10 assists, 10 points, and 12 points, and he was a minus-8 in 52 games.
Final Grade: C
Connor Murphy entered his fifth season with the Blackhawks, and the 29-year-old has always been their most consistent defenseman. He plays the game in a way that is not flashy and is a solid NHL defenseman. His play year after year proves he is who he is. He is not an “elite” defenseman, but he gets the job done. It’s not always pretty, but it works. Even with the additions of Jones and McCabe, Murphy still found himself on the team’s top-pairing. He anchors the penalty kill and does a great job of being a leadership presence on the blue line. There is always the observation that Murphy would likely be a third-pairing defenseman on a championship-caliber team, yet, on a team like the Blackhawks, he has always taken on the top-pairing role well. He doesn’t try to act like a player he is not. Instead, he succeeds in working within his capabilities as a shutdown defenseman.
Murphy can draw penalties and do the little things that can stop opponents, whether it’s taking up space or coming up with a big takeaway or block. He is also a physical presence on the team by being fourth-best in hits (130) and third-best in blocked shots (150). There’s no doubt he is beloved in Chicago as he is an alternate captain on the Blackhawks and has been a class act on and off the ice. Unfortunately, he had a scary season as he suffered two concussions that kept him out of the lineup for the final two months of the season. The good news is, that Murphy said he was feeling great and should be good to go for next season. His final stat line was 4 goals, 6 assists, 10 points, and was a minus-14 in 57 games.
Final Grade: C+
Calvin de Haan
When the Blackhawks acquired Calvin de Hann from the Carolina Hurricanes in June 2019, he was considered the closest defenseman the team could get to a Niklas Hjalmarsson-type. Now, he is not Hjalmarsson by any means, but he does carry similarities by watching him play over the past three years. I believe he is exceptionally underrated within the club’s defensive core. He provides so many shot blocks and makes the dire plays in minutes that you need to prevent goals. He is a pure defenseman as he barely provides offense, but he was an anomaly this year. Since 2017, the 31-year-old only scored one goal a season. This season with the Blackhawks, he finally broke the five-year streak and came up with four goals. I think he could have had more, as he was shooting a lot, and he hit some posts along the way, but for him, that’s impressive.
de Haan’s 107 shots were the eighth-best on the team, and that was fun to see. His 172 blocked shots were the best on the team and third-best in the entire league. His 146 hits were second-best on the team, while his TOI averaged 18:57. Occasionally, he was used as a top-pairing defenseman alongside Jones or Murphy, but you could usually find him on the third pair. Because de Haan blocks so many shots, battle wounds are a regular occurrence. He missed some time this season with a wrist injury, and he even played with a broken leg last season. I don’t know what de Haan’s future is in Chicago because he seems to have been on the trade block the past two seasons, and now he is an unrestricted free agent.
Surely, de Haan will have a lot of teams seeking his services because he plays a solid shutdown role, but I wouldn’t mind him staying in Chicago as I think he provides stability to the blue line. His final stat line was 4 goals, 4 assists, and 8 points, and was a minus-21 in 69 games.
Final Grade: C+
Jakub Galvas was a 22-year-old rookie that came out of nowhere this season, but because head coach Derek King coached him in Rockford, he was familiar with the way Galvas played and thought he deserved a shot. He made his NHL debut on Jan. 11 versus the Columbus Blue Jackets and played 23:40. That was the most ice time in an NHL debut by a Blackhawks player since Duncan Keith played 24:18 against the Anaheim Ducks in 2005. Coach King was impressed by his play stating in part, “I knew he was pretty calm with the puck, could skate, make plays and he’s a smart player, but he looked really good today. He stepped up. That’s not easy.”
Galvas is so good in transition and getting the puck to the net and could be a hidden gem in the organization. He played in six games with the Blackhawks this season, and I’m surprised it wasn’t more. During his tenure, he made a great play that stopped a puck on the goal line on an Anaheim Ducks’ power play in his third NHL game. I think he has a bright future, and it will be interesting to see how Chicago will want to utilize him next season. His final stat line was zero points in six games with an even plus/minus, two hits, and nine blocked shots.
Final Grade: B
Alec Regula was brought to the Blackhawks in October 2019 from the Detroit Red Wings, and they wanted to see more out of him. He appeared in six games in early February before being sent down to Rockford. In April, he was recalled again as he ranked fifth-best in the American Hockey League (AHL) among rookie defensemen in points (25) in 40 games. After his second call-up, he became a regular in the Blackhawks’ lineup until the end of the season. At 6-foot-4, he can move, create chances and come up with big stops when needed. Something that stands out is that he could be a weapon on special teams as he has a very good shot.
Regula’s TOI averaged 16 minutes, and the coaching staff seemed to trust him right off the bat as he ended up being on the second pair with McCabe. He got his first NHL goal against the Calgary Flames on April 18, which showed his capability for offense. There were some rookie mistakes with some bad turnovers, but overall, I think he was a positive presence whenever he was on the ice as he was always looking to create a play. At 21-years-old, he may have played his way into Chicago’s future. His final stat line was 1 goal and 1 point, and he was a minus-1 in 15 games with three hits and three blocked shots.
Final Grade: C
Alex Vlasic came to the Blackhawks in March from Boston University and made his debut on March 19 against the Minnesota Wild. He and Regula were the only rookies playing on defense at the time, and Regula overshadowed him for the first couple of weeks. With that, Vlasic found himself as a healthy scratch a few times. Then, Vlasic started coming into his own, and the coaching staff gave him a bigger role. At one point, he was paired with Seth Jones on the top pairing. At first, he made many mistakes and didn’t look comfortable, but then he became more consistent with his overall defensive game. He started making big plays in front of the net and at the blue line, with his average TOI being 14:19. Although he only appeared in 15 games, his on-ice goal differential of 0.62 was the fifth-best on the Blackhawks, which is encouraging for the future.
At 6-foot-6, Vlasic is a robust, physical presence, and he got his first NHL goal on April 20 against the Arizona Coyotes. With his impressive stint, Chicago did not send him down to Rockford to help with their playoff push because general manager Kyle Davidson stated they wanted him to have a healthy offseason of training in preparation for next season. So, look for him to make some noise on the Hawks’ roster next season as the organization really likes him as a prospect. Oh, and he is also from Wilmette, Illinois, and has the hometown love in his corner too! His final stat line was 1 goal, 1 assist, 2 points, and a minus-2 with 15 hits and 16 blocked shots.
Final Grade: B-
Wyatt Kalynuk impressed Chicago when he made his NHL debut last season. He had four goals in 21 games and was expected to get a bigger chance in the Windy City this season. However, he only played in four games for the Blackhawks, with an average TOI being 12 minutes. He was sent down to Rockford in December. I really like his game and think he could be a good offensive defenseman, as he can create off the rush. Unfortunately, this season did not work out for him.
I once believed Kalynuk would be in the Hawks’ future plans, but now I am unsure. With Regula and Vlasic having strong debuts, I don’t know where that leaves him, yet, I don’t think he should be written off as he has skill. In Rockford, he had 7 goals, 20 assists, and 27 points in 52 games, which was better. But overall, it wasn’t a great season for him. His final stat line with the Blackhawks was zero points in 5 games and a minus-3 with nine hits.
Final Grade: D-
Finally, to close out the grades, I have to mention everyone’s favorite defenseman, Erik Gustafsson. The 30-year-old is on his second stint with the Blackhawks after spending time with the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens last season. Chicago signed him to a one-year deal before the season to add to their defensive depth, and I think most fans are over the Gustafsson train. The one area he excelled at was the power play because he has a wicked shot. His past success led to him having a career-high 60 points in 79 games in 2018-19. He has offensive capabilities, but the Hawks have yet to see him replicate that success and his offense has become stagnant.
Offense aside, Gustafsson’s defensive blunders are too hard to ignore. He turns the puck over ten times more for every good play he makes or loses his coverage altogether. For reference, he had 10 takeaways and then 39 giveaways this season. If he doesn’t have the offense to make up for his defense, it just doesn’t work. Unfortunately, the production didn’t come on the power play or anywhere else this season, as he found himself as a third-pairing defenseman. I think he has run out of chances in Chicago, and I don’t expect Davidson to re-sign him. His final stat line was 3 goals, 15 assists, 18 points and was a minus-4 in 59 games with 45 hits, 55 blocked shots, and an average TOI of 16:33.
Final Grade: F
As you can see, the defense grades are in the average range because the play itself was either that or just plain bad. The cherry on top was that the Blackhawks had no power-play goals from a defenseman all year, which was the first time since the 1970-71 Buffalo Sabres’ inaugural season. So it can’t get much worse than the season they had. Yet, the defensemen listed bring positive attributes, and their pipeline looks promising. This year made one thing very clear, if the Blackhawks want to win, everyone on their defense has to be better. Now, they have to turn the page and keep their eyes on a bounce-back season in 2022-23.
Just a small town girl with Midwestern charm; combined with a love of dogs, writing, frappuccinos, Chicago-isms, sports, and a whole lot of Blackhawks hockey. Twitter: @brooke_lofo.