State of the Union: The Blackhawks Defense

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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.

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

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