State of the Union: The Blackhawks Defense

 

No pressure little buddy. Nope, none at all. (via blackhawks.nhl.com)

One could state that the Chicago Blackhawks swapped Brian Campbell and Chris Campoli for Steve Montador and Sami Lepisto, and make the argument that the Hawks won’t be as much of a defensive zone breakout team next season. I would disagree with that statement and counter that the Hawks defense was out of balance at the end of last season and that now balance has been restored.

First let’s look at all the Hawks defenders from last year and where you would ideally like to see each player on special teams:

Keith (PP/PK)       Seabrook (PK/PP)
Campbell (PP)      Hjalmarsson (PK)
Leddy (PP)            Campoli (PP)
Hendry (–), Boynton (PK), Cullimore (–), Scott (–)

Seeing some issues?

The players in bold were the defensemen the Hawks used going into the playoffs. Nick Boynton had already been shipped out to Philly, Jassen Cullimore to Rockford, and Jordan Hendry was done for the season due to injury. And yeah, John Scott was still on the roster (just in case the Hawks needed a spark on the PP).

Is that really a bottom pairing you’d ever want to see? Two smaller, primarily puck-moving defenders in a role normally assigned to physical, shutdown defenders – especially in the playoffs when things get rough? Yet these were exactly the lines Coach Quenneville rolled out to start the series with Vancouver. Midway through Game 1, Coach Q had already switched to pairing Campbell with Nick Leddy for offensive situations and Niklas Hjalmarsson-Campoli for more defensive ones.

But that was never going to work out well either. Campbell is much more valuable and free to do the things he does best when he has someone watching his back, not when he’s busy protecting someone else’s. And although Campbell-Leddy was fine when they had the puck on their sticks, actually getting possession was an odyssey. It wasn’t until Game 3 that Q found a lineup that worked (kinda), pairing Campbell-Campoli against weaker opposing lines, Brent Seabrook- Hammer as his shutdown pair, and Duncan Keith-Leddy for everything in between.

The other issue was special teams. The Hawks only had three true PKers and you need at least four. You also need at least one of your bottom pair defenders to be one of those PK specialists, like Brent Sopel was in 2010. The reason is simple. On any successful team, one or two of the top defenders is going to be a puck-moving, PP quarterback type. These guys typically aren’t shot-blockers or PKers. Aside from Boynton, who only dressed in four games after December, the Hawks had no other (cough, cough) “serviceable” bottom pair penalty killers. This led to Campbell being forced to play on the PK. Campoli’s signing in late February did mean less of Soupy there, but that’s really not the forte of either player now is it?

Fast forward to today and here is what the defense looks like:

Keith (PP/PK)          Seabrook (PK/PP)
Leddy (PP)               Hjalmarsson (PK)
Montador (PK)        Lepisto (PK)/O’Donnell (PK)
Scott (–)

Don’t worry about the pairings, there are many effective lineups Q can put together, but as you can see there is much more balance to these lines.

The Hawks have added size, grit, and depth to the bottom of the roster. In addition, they will have five true penalty killers in the lineup on any given night. Kiss last year’s PK – that was a dismal 25th in the league – goodbye. I don’t expect the PK to be quite as good as 2010 though, since the Hawks chose not to pick up a much needed John Madden type center, but they should be firmly in the league’s top 10.

Back to my original premise regarding the breakout. Yes, a lineup including Campbell, Keith, Leddy, and Campoli is more offensively talented then one that has Keith and Leddy (and Lepisto) as it’s only puck-movers, but sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. Remember, this is supposed to be the defense we’re talking about. It’s hard to have an effective breakout when you can’t gain puck possession and we saw a lot of that with the 2010-11 Blackhawks. This year the Hawks will have the personnel to win those board battles.

Other than Sean O’Donnell, none of this year’s defenders are slouches with the puck either (I’m going to conveniently ignore Scott until I see his name on the opening day roster).  Of last year’s bottom line defenders made up of cast-offs from the Island of Misfit Defenders, Hendry was the only decent puck-handler, but he froze like a deer (reindeer?) in headlights when challenged with any type of forecheck.

But how are we going to beat the trap??

I’m not going to deny that the loss of Campbell, and then Campoli, leaves A LOT riding on the rapid development of Leddy. Losing Campoli this offseason is somewhat equal to losing Marty Reasoner last summer. Last year, I forewarned that without Reasoner the Hawks would struggle with any injury to a center, especially Dave Bolland. Others wrote it off as no big loss until midway through the season when the lack of center depth had become an obvious issue.

This summer, most writers are praising Stan Bowman for standing firm and handing Campoli his walking papers. Not me (and I’ll write more on the subject in my next article). Make no mistake; Campoli’s departure has the potential to hurt the Hawks’ transition game. Any significant injury to Keith or Leddy will leave the Hawks short on puck-movers. If Lepisto really has an offensive upside, let’s hope he brought it along and didn’t permanently forget it in the AHL where he put up 87 points in only 125 games from 2007-09.

Fortunately though, this is a different team than last year. This year’s team is built to also play dump and chase.

One way to beat the trap is to skate through it with the Brian Campbells of the league. It’s a higher risk, potentially quicker reward method which requires a lot of physical exertion by the attacking team. The other way, and the one the Hawks are now built for, is the dump and chase. Unlike the first method, it’s a low risk style that requires some patience. When utilized effectively, it wears down the trapping team instead, by forcing them to turn their backs and take hits retrieving the puck. Wanna trap the Hawks? Be my guest. Here’s Carcillo, SmithMayers et al. I hope you enjoy the taste of glass.

So it’s not only the defense that was revamped and rebalanced; it was the entire team. This year’s offensive and defensive personnel have the ability to play better situational hockey. The Hawks were seldom blown out last season. When down by only one goal, they should have been patiently playing the dump and chase more frequently against teams willing to sit on a small lead. They were too small and too meek to do so. Instead they resorted to skating through traffic or home run passes, which led to myriad turnovers.

I don’t want to overplay the “grit card.” The Hawks are still a highly skilled team. It’s not like they went out and signed the Hanson brothers this offseason. All of the new additions can actually play hockey, but you’ll obviously see more hard-nosed hockey from the Blackhawks this season. It’s a deeper team built not only to play multiple styles during the season, but one that should be tough to compete against come playoff time. I’m excited already.

 

John Schultz, lead writer for BlackhawkUp. I enjoy your feedback, so please leave a comment and follow me on Twitter @ChiNativeSon.

Topics: Blackhawks, Campbell, Campoli, Chicago, Defense, Keith, Leddy, NHL, PK, Special Teams

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  • DaleHalas

    People kind of compare the Hawks at the end of last year to next years team. I don’t think that is really fair. I think you need to compare the new team to both the pre-Leddy/Campoli era and the post. So Campbell/Boynton/Hendry/Cullimore gets compared to Leddy/Montador/Lepisto/O’Donnell. To me there is NO comparison the new guys win and it’s not even close. And that is a win for 2/3rds of a season. That is where the additional wins and points come from for next season.

    After Leddy and Campoli arrived is when things get tricky. Eddie Olczyk took a lot of criticism for calling Campbell a fifth defensemen. Trouble is he kinda was. For at least 15-18 minutes a night he filled that role. At least once both Leddy and Campoli arrived. Yea, you are going to miss him because he also played another 5-10 minutes in the upper pairs. I just think that is replaceable. You need another 5 minutes/game from Leddy and Keith is playing normal minutes again.

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  • cliffkoroll

    Hard to go too far wrong leading off with Keith and Seabrook. The shortage of PK defensemen, especially considering this starting point, was appalling.

    Seabs isn’t so much a “puck carrier”, but he’s developed into a fine passer.

    I look forward to Stalberg pinning his ears back on the dump-ins as much as anyone.

    Curious about what exactly you saw in Campoli that so impressed.

  • K_Dog

    @DaleHalas Gotta think Leddy can handle an extra 5 minutes per game, right? I mean, last year he was sort of thrown to the wolves at the end of the season and he did just fine. Sure, he had some rookie hiccups, but considering the situation and the stress level I’m very happy with Leddy’s performance. I think with a clean slate of a new season coupled with the experience from last season, we’ll see a much more confident, composed Nick Leddy come October.

  • cliffkoroll

    @K_Dog @DaleHalas I agree Leddy will be under a microscope and knives unsheathed. The thing is, he WILL screw up, and the doubters will be heard. Crap, I remember Seabrook routinely making dumb mistakes in his own zone as recently as 2008. “SEABROOK!” I would yell in my Superintendant Chalmers voice.

  • http://BlackhawkUp.com/ ChicagoNativeSon

    @cliffkoroll It’s not that Campoli was anything incredible, but he was very consistent and reliable. That’s what you want from a 5-6 defender. The Hawks went from one extreme (too many puck-movers) to a nice balance with the starting rotation, but Lepisto is an unknown to me. His +/- rating is good, but other than that I don’t know much about his game.

    Campoli proved he could handle a larger role when needed, can Lepisto if there is an injury to Keith or Leddy? At this point I don’t know. So it’s mostly fear of the unknown.

    I will state that I don’t believe an injury this season will have nearly the effect it had last year. The Hawks have better depth. No more of Boynton (or Hendry) trying to fill in as a puck-mover. Will Lepisto be better if the situation arises? I guess he really couldn’t be much worse.

    I actually have a good feeling about Lepisto, but it’s not the warm and fuzzy I had envisioning Campoli’s on the bottom pair.

  • cliffkoroll

    @John Schultz I just didn’t see the same Campoli. I saw a guy who found himself down low in the offensive zone a lot- kind of adventurous for my tastes- and didn’t really stand out against generally meh competition.

    I’ll be interested to see your fuller thoughts here. After your call on Reasoner last year, I’m prepared to question my view of Campoli.

  • DaleHalas

    Thinking about this some more, I’m thinking Montador is probably going to get a few extra shifts then is typical for a 5th defensemen. If Leddy and Montador “split” the time the 4th and 5th d-man get, then Leddy’s TOI doesn’t need to be as high.

  • DaleHalas

    @John Schultz @cliffkoroll Lepisto was actually the higher rated prospect when drafted. It’s not like the Hawks talent level drops with Lepisto in there. Experience and known quantity issues, yes, but I don’t think talent level.

    And in any event 12 minutes from Lepisto has to be better then 7 minutes from Boynton.

  • http://BlackhawkUp.com/ ChicagoNativeSon

    @DaleHalas It’ll be interesting to see if Leddy initially gets a lot of extra time on the 2nd unit PP, or if the Hawks slowly work him in there. Not as many PP options as last year. Luckily Seabs proved he’s quite capable.

  • cliffkoroll

    Last year, when the PP settled down, Keith and Campbell were the second PP pairing (Seabrook and Sharp #1.)

    I would expect something similar this year (Keith and Leddy.)

    Q likes to have two d-men out there when the PP ends.

  • K_Dog

    @cliffkoroll @DaleHalas In the past I did my share of yelling “SEABROOK!” too, but around that same time period the name “BARKER!” was yelled equally as often. Sad thing is, three years later, Oilers fans will be yelling “BARKER!”.

  • matthew.m.mcclure

    While John is lamenting the loss of Campoli, I think that you’re slightly undervaluing Lepisto’s capabilities. The eye test and scouting report shows almost identical games, right down to bad jersey numbers in the teens for both. Though Lepisto’s pinching bias is far more sound than Campoli’s was. Lepisto posted plus ratings and produced a serviceable amount of points while playing #2 pair minutes. Those minutes will likely be reduced being relegated to the third pair here, which just shows the depth.

    Another facet that’s being underrated is Montador’s passing. While not a trap buster in the mold of Campbell, he translates to a poor man’s Seabrook, capable of a “quick up” pass that we saw used frequently to beat Tampa’s non-trap trap, as quick forwards are able to jump the zone before the landmines and tripwires can be set. But the key is that pass being tape-to-tape with a lane, not the Hjalmarsson insta-fire up the boards, which forecheckers and opposing d-men holding the line could sit on and wait for.

  • http://BlackhawkUp.com/ ChicagoNativeSon

    @matthew.m.mcclure Thanks for stopping by the other side of the tracks Matt.

    I definitely agree regarding Montador’s underrated abilities. (that was basically covered under my blanket statement “Other than Sean O’Donnell, none of this year’s defenders are slouches with the puck either.”) His offensive production is pretty solid for a defender without any PP time. In fact, if you take away Seabrook’s PP scoring, Montador has slightly better offensive stats over the past few years.

    I’m not *too* distraught over Campoli’s departure, but IMO it is the one situation Bowman fumbled since last February’s trade deadline. I believe Campoli was picked up (instead of what the Hawks truly needed at the time) because Stan was planning ahead for this season instead of filling the needs for last year. Lepisto may have been a good recovery, but I currently view him as “a poor man’s Campoli.” Again I don’t claim to know much about him. His numbers look good and I understand he has some unrealized potential.

    I will state that this year’s Hawks defense appears to be deeper than any other in recent years, including that of 2010 (in hindsight, since I thought that Barker was going to have a breakout year). 2010 ended with Sopel/Hendry/Boynton as the 5-6 rotation. Plus, Hammer was still an unknown going into 2010. Montador/Lepisto/O’Donnell is a hell of a good start for 2011, although I assume Montador will get closer to #4 minutes.

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  • cliffkoroll

    @matthew.m.mcclure good stuff mac. thanks for sharing!