Blackhawks Future Focus: Diving into Defense

With the playoffs far out of reach, the Chicago Blackhawks were sellers at the recent trade deadline for the first time in a long while. They’re working on getting younger and faster to keep up with the rest of the NHL. They’re also committing to the kids, giving them more playing time and opportunities to learn and grow.

Last week we delved into the Blackhawks’ offense, and how they can use the remainder of this lost season to develop for the future. Today, I’d like to take a closer look at the defense. Now that they don’t have to fight for every win, what can the Hawks do with the pieces they have in place?

Blackhawks’ Defensive Pairings

For the most part, Duncan Keith and Jordan Oesterle have made up the first defensive pairing since Oesterle became a regular part of the lineup in December. Considering head coach Joel Quenneville’s constant shuffling, it’s pretty amazing these two have so consistently been together. The second and third pairings, on the other hand, have been anything but consistent. Here’s a general breakdown of how these pairings have been deployed over the last eight games.

Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Jordan Oesterle
Jordan Oesterle has found his niche on the Blackhawks’ first defensive pairing. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Brent Seabrook has been the only staple, lining up on the right side of the second pairing. He’s had a number of different partners in Erik Gustafsson, Michal Kempny, Carl Dahlstrom, and most recently Connor Murphy. The third pairing had Murphy as its staple until he played up with Seabs the past three games. Oh, and did I mention Murphy is tasked with playing on both the left and the right sides, depending on who he lines up with? His partners have mostly been Dahlstrom and Gustafsson, but don’t forget about Jan Rutta, who’s drawn back into the lineup on the final pairing for the last two games.

Are you confused yet? Yeah, me too. Can you imagine what it’s like to be a player and deal with all this? It must be the toughest job in the NHL – playing defense for Coach Q and the Blackhawks.

At least the Hawks aren’t dressing eight defensemen anymore like they did at the beginning of the season. This all ended in early January, when Cody Franson was sent down to the Rockford IceHogs. One could point to this move as the start of the Hawks’ commitment to youth on the blue line.

We also now know Kempny is out of the picture, as he was traded to the Washington Capitals on Feb. 19. Although he showed some flashes, especially offensively, Kempny never was able to establish himself as a regular in the lineup. He’s also not so youthful, at 27 years old.

The Blackhawks’ Defensive Anchors

So, Keith and Seabrook are the cornerstones of this defense. Get used to it, Blackhawks fans. They might be old and slow, but they’ve been a part of three Stanley Cups. They have huge contracts and no-movement clauses. Are they here to stay? Well, I believe someone with a big contract could get moved in the offseason. Whether it’s one of these two is hard to say. In the meantime, let’s assume they’re part of this team for the long haul.

Duncan Keith Blackhawks
Duncan Keith and teammate Brent Seabrook are long-time members of the Chicago Blackhawks. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The key with Keith and Seabs as the season winds down is to start cutting back their playing time. Don’t overwork them – there’s no reason for that anymore. Instead, give more of their minutes to the other guys. Give the youngsters more responsibility and see what they can do with it. And if Oesterle is the fix with Keith, for goodness sakes, find someone for Seabs to settle in with! After all, these two grizzled veterans still have a lot of value, they just need the right complements.

Looking at the Youngsters

Oesterle has been a pleasant surprise, and definitely offers some offensive upside. But he hasn’t been without his defensive mistakes. He’s had many of them, to be sure. But this is what it’s all about. As long as he’s learning from said mistakes, it’s all we can ask. Hopefully, he’ll be better for it next year.

It has to be tough for Gustafsson. While he thought he’d made it by playing 41 games for the Blackhawks during the 2015-16 season, he spent the entire next season with the Rockford IceHogs. Now he’s being given a second chance. Perhaps the current situation will help him build some confidence. By the way, Gusty’s recorded three assists in the last five games.

On to Dahlstrom. This 23-year-old is green and inexperienced. He’s only suited up for seven NHL games since being brought up from the IceHogs on Feb. 9. Interestingly, Dahlstrom got the call ahead of Gustav Forsling, who played 41 games with the Hawks earlier in the season. I guess the Hawks really are looking at all their pieces.

Rutta’s had a rough go of it as well. He actually leads all Blackhawks defensemen with six goals, even while mostly shoring up the third D-pairing. But Rutta has struggled with healthy scratches and the injury bug, as he’s only played in 43 games this season.

Connor Murphy Blackhawks
Connor Murphy has had to endure a lot in his first year with the Blackhawks. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Finally, if Murphy isn’t feeling some major frustration at this point, then he’s a saint. The poor guy had to come in and attempt to fill the skates of fan and coach favorite Niklas Hjalmarsson. What a bad way to start with a new organization. Since then, he’s been slotted up and down the lineup, asked to play his off-side, babysit the newbies, and he’s been a frequent healthy scratch. And to top it all off, he’s still playing for a losing team. Murphy’s big and strong, and he’s a physical presence. If he could just be given some consistency by the coaching staff, he might have more to offer.

Related – Blackhawks Weekly: The Kids & Company

Closing Thoughts

The Hawks certainly have a conundrum on their hands. They’re committed to two aging defensemen that simply don’t play the way they used to. Around them, they have a number of moving parts. The problem is putting these parts together to form a fine-tuned unit.

Coach Q has struggled with this all year, by carrying eight defensemen and changing the lineup on almost a nightly basis. Perhaps he’s been too quick to pull the plug on things if they don’t work right away. It’s fostered an atmosphere of too much caution and nervousness from his players.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Let’s hope so. This last leg of the season gives the Hawks the opportunity to really see what they have. There’s lots of potential with this group of defensemen, but they still have to live up to it. Let them play through their mistakes and build their confidence. They’ll be better for it in the long run.