May 21, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith (2) congratulates defenseman Nick Leddy (8) for scoring during the first period of game two of the Western Conference Final of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Los Angeles Kings at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago Blackhawks Ruminations Part III of III: Defense Revisited

As many of you know, I’m not the biggest fan of relying on stats, because they can become so meaningless so quickly. For example, I was taking solace in the statistic that our beloved Chicago Blackhawks would move on to the Stanley Cup Finals should they end up facing the Los Angeles Kings in a Game 7, because no team in NHL history has ever won three seven-game series to advance to the Finals. Well, here we are…

However, there are certain stats even I just can’t get around. For example, the four teams that made it to the Eastern and Western Conference finals ranked 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 14th in defense for the regular season. Guess which two teams moved on to the Finals (hint the 2nd defensive team beat the 3rd defensive team to win the Stanley Cup)?

So what’s the point? If ever there was a time for Hawks fans to (re)subscribe to the old adage offense wins games, defense wins championships, now’s the time. Don’t believe me? Here’s another interesting FYI – When the Hawks won the Cup in 2010 they ranked 1st in defense in the NHL and 5th when they won it again in 2013.

Taking all that into account, it’s no wonder that a Blackhawks team with a 14th-ranked defense didn’t make it back to the Finals, and here’s another tidbit I find to be the most interesting statistic regarding the Hawks in the 2014 playoffs: during the post season, the Blackhawks let their opponent climb back from a two goal deficit four times in 19 games, the most prominent being Game 7 against the Kings.

Take those stats anyway you want, but they certainly highlight interesting trends. Given the Hawks’ league leading offense this season, any deficiencies they had on defense took a backseat, but as we all know now, they could only get away with it for so long.

Suggesting the Hawks D is sub-par may seem counterintuitive. After all, Duncan Keith is yet again a strong candidate for the Norris Trophy this year and Niklas Hjalmarsson had a career year. So what’s exactly the problem?

Each Hawks defenseman is a talented player in his own right, but the strength of the Blackhawks defense has always been their blue-line pairings. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have been one of the best combos of defensive brawn and offensive brains for the better part of seven years. In 2010 Hjalmarsson and Brent Sopel’s line was a shot-blocking machine, and by 2013 the shutdown capabilities of Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya grew so potent, Sweden’s Olympic team took notice.

The Achilles heel of the Blackhawks’ defense has long been finding a permanent 6th defenseman to form a third D-line pairing with just as effective chemistry as the first two lines. First Brian Campbell and now Nick Leddy have been subjected to partner rotations for the bulk of their careers as Blackhawks. The Hawks have rotated roughly four different players into the 6th defense spot over the span of the past four years, and frankly, this needs to stop.

Like the second-line center problem, Hawks GM Stan Bowman needs to make a choice when it comes to the 6th defenseman: either go out to the free agency with a long term signing in mind, or commit to a blue-liner from the Rockford IceHogs. Like many Hawks fans I feel Bowman should stick to the Hawks’ farm system to complete the third line, in which the three most attractive candidates to crack the Blackhawks roster next season are Adam Clendening, Klas Dahlbeck, and Stephen Johns.

At 5’11” 190 lbs., Clendening is the most accomplished of the three, with two seasons on the IceHogs under his belt and this year set an AHL record for goals by a defenseman with 12 and set a franchise record for most assists by a defenseman with 47, to name a few distinctions. The 6’2” 206 lbs. Klas Dahlbeck shared the blue line not to mention the IceHogs’ Best Defenseman Award with Clendening this season in Rockford. This Swede also has two seasons with the IceHogs. The greenest of the three is Pennsylvania native Stephen Johns, who is coming off a very successful colligate career at Norte Dame and has yet to play a full season in Rockford, but at 6’4” 215 lbs. is poised to make a very strong impact.

All of the aforementioned defenseman are under 25 years old and sport big statures; both being attributes the Blackhawks are somewhat lacking on the blue line. While all the current Hawks’ defensemen can certainly hold own their physically and have plenty of tread left on the tires, not counting 23 year old Nick Leddy or 35 year old Michal Rozsival (who’ll likely not be returning to the team next season), the average age of the Hawks defensive core is 30, and getting a youthful injection of physical vitality would do wonders, especially on the crease.

It’s a safe bet that in order to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, the Blackhawks are going to have to go through either the St. Louis Blues or the Los Angeles Kings, if not both, for the foreseeable future. Both these teams are heavy hitters with big-bodied forwards. If the Hawks defensemen can’t out muscle their opponents along the boards or more importantly on the crease (as was the case against the Kings), the Blackhawks will be hoisting more golf bags than Stanley Cups down the stretch.

The Blackhawks need to role three defensive lines just as badly as they need to role four offensive ones, and the rotation of Sheldon Brookbank and Michal Rozsival as the 6th defenseman isn’t going to cut it anymore, especially given the alternatives available in Rockford.

Yes, defensemen take a longer time to develop, and rushing any of the aforementioned blue-liners ahead of schedule would be disastrous, but the Hawks are in a good position by having three, if not more defensive candidates in their farm system that have a chance of moving up to their permanent roster, and could even do a rotation among the three during regular season until the optimal fit for Nick Leddy arises.

Both Nicky Leddy and Johnny Oduya are names that have been circling as trade bait rumors, but while the Hawks defense needs a revamp, they don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Having three solid D pairings is something the Hawks have been without for quite some time, and they still have two Stanley Cup wins in four years; imagine what they could do with with six solid blue-liners?

Bottom line, the Blackhawks’ offense will always be lethal, but leads don’t matter if you can’t defend them, and the same goes for the Stanley Cup. It’s time for the Hawks’ D to make headlines again.

FOR THE DAGGER!

Tags: Chicago Blackhawks Chicago Blackhawks Defense

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