When your team is ranked as the 14th best defensive squad in the NHL, you certainly wouldn’t think its time to hit the panic button when it comes to the blue line, especially when it’s backed up by the league’s #1 offense. Yet for our beloved Chicago Blackhawks, the 14th best shouldn’t be acceptable, and it’s time to look to the future defensively speaking.
Let’s be clear here, the Hawks defense has certainly proven they can get the job done, and the likes of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson have two Stanley Cup Champion rings to prove it. However, if you really scrutinize the Blackhawks’ defense, there are certainly a few areas that could use some improvement.
For starters, the Hawks are really only able to roll five defensemen on a regular basis. The tandems of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, and Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson are certainly proven quantities. However outside these two defensive pairings there is a void. What I am referring to here is the Blackhawks’ fifth defensemen Nick Leddy, and his blue line partner, or lack there of.
Let’s make something perfectly clear: Nick Leddy is an excellent defensemen who at a mere 22 years of age has a long and very promising career ahead of him. He reminds me a lot of Brian Campbell, especially in terms of his coast-to-coast clearing ability. The current problem the Hawks have with Leddy is they haven’t been able to give him a permanent partner to hold down the blue line. Instead for the past few seasons it’s been a mix of pairings with Michal Rozsival, Sheldon Brookbank, and Michael Kostka, all defensemen who are for the most part in the twilight of their careers, have a cumulative age of 96, and are more or less space fillers on the roster to eat up ice time and give the first two Blackhawks’ defensive lines breathers.
Needles to say, the Blackhawks at the moment aren’t as built for the long term defensively as they need to be, and this is an area in which they can’t afford to be left behind, especially considering the Central Division contains the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche, teams with young forwards and are currently the #2 and #6 best offensive teams in the NHL, respectively.
Ever since the roster purge following the 2010 Stanley Cup win, the Blackhawks have used the draft picks they’ve accumulated to amass many promising prospects in their farm system, and from a defensive standpoint, the most encouraging Hawk hopeful is defenseman Stephen Johns. This 21-year-old Norte Dame defenseman is currently finishing up his senior season in South Bend and will likely be making his way to the Rockford IceHogs in the near future and hopefully onto the Blackhawks permanent roster shortly thereafter.
Johns is the muscle the Hawks D needs. He’s not afraid to throw his 6’3” 215 lbs. frame around to dole out punishment and this makes him a potentially critical contributor to the Hawks’ shutdown capabilities, which have been lacking as of late. Johns’ proven penchant for physicality is also exactly what the Blackhawks need to deal with the big-bodied forwards on teams like the Anaheim Ducks and St Louis Blues that like to throw their weight around on the crease. Not to mention his right-handed slap shot is also pretty noteworthy.
Johns is certainly a promising all around package of a defenseman, but the biggest contribution he’ll bring to the Hawks roster is giving Nick Leddy a permanent line-mate to form chemistry with and really flourish. As we all know, Duncan Keith is currently in the running for his second Norris Trophy, but let’s not forget that his name probably wouldn’t even be in the conversation if he wasn’t skating with Brent Seabrook.
I’ve said it before, chemistry on a hockey team’s depth chart directly correlates to their success, and when it comes to the blue line, that chemistry is all the more crucial, because A.) there are only two defenseman and B.) their synergy is what is ultimately going to win games. You can have a lights out offense, but if you’re giving up as many goals as you’re scoring, you’re not going to be raising the Stanley Cup any time soon.
The type of deep bond defensively I’m referring to here is not easy to form between two blue liners. They need to create a trust and understanding of each other’s playing styles, strengths, and weaknesses and they need to be confident that they’ve got each other’s backs. Thus, it takes years for this kind of connection to form, but when it finally materializes, it pays big dividends.
Which is why we all need to root for Stephen Johns to get on the fast track to a permanent spot of the Blackhawks’ roster. Nick Leddy has steadily improved each and every year, but imagine what heights he could reach if he had a consistent and reliable line-mate to help bolster his gameplay?
Stephen Johns is one of the many chips the Blackhawks have been holding in their farm system over the years, and it looks like now might be the best time to cash in, because defensively speaking, the conditions are primed for a big payout, and Hawks fans want a new pair of rings.
FOR THE DAGGER!