The Blackhawks’ signing of Brian Campbell to a one-year, $1.5 million contract this offseason has been widely regarded as one of the best free agent signings this offseason. The veteran defender is coming off five solid seasons with the Florida Panthers where he appeared in every regular season game and helped Aaron Ekblad develop into the exceptional player that he is today. With a résumé like that, it isn’t hard to see why the Blackhawks were so excited to have him back in the fold.
The longtime standout is expected to play on the team’s second defensive pairing, presumably with holdover Niklas Hjalmarsson. That duo — along with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook — combined to form what might have been the best top-four in the NHL from 2008 to 2011. With all four players now back on the team, a return to the strong blue line play that drove those Chicago teams is a very real possibility.
And while Hjalmarsson certainly stands to benefit from the extra time he will be able to play with his former defensive partner in Campbell, the benefits that Campbell’s presence brings will extend throughout the lineup — especially within the rest of the blueline.
Why Seabrook Will Benefit
To be more specific, I anticipate that the Blackhawks will see improved performances from both Brent Seabrook and Trevor van Riemsdyk this upcoming season. Seabrook’s massive contract extension from last summer combined and his decline in play has made him a scapegoat of sorts within some hockey circles.
Radko Gudas vs Brent Seabrook
Ones paid $12-14M for the next four years & ones paid $55M for the next eight years. pic.twitter.com/0Hh6hcwGu5
— Blackhawks Breakdown (@HawksBreakdown) June 24, 2016
And while his play certainly doesn’t justify the size of his contract at this point in his career, he is still a valuable player that can be successful in the right situation. And thanks to last season, at least the Blackhawks now know that playing the longtime Hawk next to TVR is definitely not the right situation.
The pair played over 400 5v5-minutes together this past regular season (according to corsica.hockey) with relatively terrible results. It’s pretty hard to find a positive in the pairing’s performance when they recorded a 41.21 CF% and 40.27 xGF% in a top-four role. Thankfully the two didn’t spend all of their time together throughout the season and playing with different partners ended up producing better results.
Which is where Campbell comes in. Some have speculated that he will form a pairing with Seabrook in order to maintain the Keith-Hjalmarsson shutdown combination at the top of the lineup, but I see things playing out differently.
The previous chemistry between Campbell and Hjalmarsson make them almost perfectly suited to form the team’s new second defense pairing while playing alongside Keith has always brought out the best in Seabrook (even if the same can’t be said about Keith when playing alongside his former partner).
Which is all to say that the potential for a Keith-Seabrook reunion is part of what makes the Campbell deal so valuable. And even if Seabrook is the one pegged to play alongside #51, the pairing will be an improvement mostly because it can’t be as bad as the Seabrook-TVR duo from last season.
TVR Returns to Form
As for van Riemsdyk, much of the same can be said in terms of his expected improvement. Sometimes lost in the inconsistencies of last season is the fact that TVR was actually a very good player in his first 18 NHL games in 2014. Coach Joel Quenneville grew to trust him more as the season progressed until a fractured leg ended his regular season.
Those 18 games saw him play most of his time with Michal Rozsival, a player who was recently brought back on a one-year contract. Rozsival wasn’t the same player last season after recovering from a terrible injury suffered in the previous year’s playoffs, and I would be surprised if he made the team as a regular contributor out of camp. But losing his former defensive partner won’t actually be a negative for van Riemsdyk.
Instead, an influx of young talent in Ville Pokka, Michal Kempny, Gustav Forling, and Erik Gustafsson means that there will be intense competition to lock down the sixth defense position next to van Riemsdyk. Those four players are all talented puck-movers who play intelligent defense when called upon, a style that should work well alongside the opportunistic TVR. It’s difficult to project the success of any of those pairings, but as with Seabrook’s pairing, the standard of play they would have to exceed is fairly low.
Of the potential opening night #Blackhawks in Group C; Hinostroza, Schmaltz, and Kempny look sharp so far today
— Blackhawk Up (@Blackhawk_Up) July 12, 2016
Of those four, I think Kempny and Forling have the best chances of playing regular roles this season, so tracking how they play with TVR in camp can go a long way in determining if one of them ends up sticking around.
Review: The Campbell Effect
In addition to signing an incredibly team-friendly contract with the Blackhawks this summer, Brian Campbell is expected to benefit the team in multiple ways this coming season. His steadying presence should help improve the play of whichever defenseman he eventually skates with, while his addition to the top-four should allow Trevor van Riemsdyk to join a more productive pairing.
The positive effects of this move will extend throughout the Blackhawks’ defense, and should help both Seabrook and TVR raise their performance levels in 2016-17.