In Defense of the Defense


Around the Blackhawks’ blogosphere, I’ve acquired the label of “Leddy apologist” which I really don’t mind. For a 20-year-old defenseman whose development was rushed, he’s been nothing short of outstanding. Those who can’t see that probably are just upset that they don’t have Brian Campbell and his contract around to boo anymore.

I also have a reputation as a “Keith-Leddy apologist” but that label is actually somewhat misleading. I’ve got no qualm with people who dislike the pairing (when they’ve at least put some thought into their opinion or considered the alternatives). Besides, having competing ideas and opinions is what makes blogging worthwhile. In discussing these sometimes polarizing topics, I, and hopefully others, learn to appreciate the game we love even more.

What I am is really more of a “Seabrook-Hjalmarsson advocate” and a “Seabrook-Keith opponent” but because everyone, including me, is concerned about keeping Keith’s head out of his ass (notice I said “keeping” not “getting”), the conversation always reverts back to 2-8. For the most part, I couldn’t care less about who Duncan Keith is paired with (if he’s productive), as long he’s not often paired with Brent Seabrook.
Yeah, I said it.

You see, in my opinion, with the current defensive personnel, if coach Quenneville has to resort to reuniting Marlboro 72 for the majority of the season, then something has gone terribly wrong.

Campbell’s Gone, and We Couldn’t Do Nothin’ About It

Many look back to 2010 and recall the glory that was Keith-Seabrook without looking at the rest of the defensive structure that season. Brian Campbell was the “pure” puck-moving defender in that group. Since Soupy was getting the easiest zone starts against the weakest competition, it made sense to pair him with Niklas Hjalmarsson, who was in his first full NHL season and could use the added protection. Plus, the only other options were Cam Barker, Jordan Hendry and Brent Sopel – none of them were going to crack the top two defensive lines. (Although I previously had hopes for Barker. Didn’t we all?)

Keith and Seabrook had already become “a thing” and each thrived in the partnership. But they also were splitting most of their time between the checking line and Toews’ line. The forward line talent was able to make up for the lack of a full-time shutdown duo, but 2-7’s minutes piled up.

2011 brought more of the same. The top 4 were identical, but the supporting cast was markedly worse. As you can see from the chart above, 2-7 were again cast in a dual role (for 65% of the season). Only half the time that the checking line was on the ice was it with 2-7 since their services were also needed elsewhere. This had a ripple effect. Not only was the checking line not out there with the best defenders half the time, but the designated offensive pairing of 4-51 was only on the ice for about 30% of the shifts with the 1st and 2nd lines. Top line scoring benefitted from having two defensive pairings that could contribute, but the minutes for Keith and Seabrook again multiplied – and the defense suffered.

Fast forward to this past summer. Campbell is gone, but Bowman brings in three solid veteran defenders in Montador, O’Donnell, and Lepisto. Although Montador is versatile, he’s definitely not capable of replacing Campbell’s production, so Quenneville HAS to free up Keith to play a more offensive role. It’s also the first time that Quenneville has a realistic opportunity to do so without sacrificing the integrity of the shutdown line. Prior to 2009-10, the Hawks’ defense was crap and even in that Stanley Cup season it lacked depth. Keith-Seabs was really the only option. Some suggest pairing Leddy – who still doesn’t have a full season under his belt – with a (so far) less-than-offensively-capable partner, Hjalmarsson, to pick up the offensive shifts with the 1st and 2nd lines. But that definitely isn’t the answer. Leddy’s not Brian Campbell, and Hjammer has always been miscast in that role (Barker was supposed to be that guy, so think Barker/Kim Johnsson mold). The only realistic answer is to put your best offensive-defenseman out there with those lines: Duncan Keith.

And how do you make the checking line stronger? You do that by making sure that one of the league’s best shutdown and overall defenders, Brent Seabrook, is out there with Bolland’s line as much as possible. Since you can’t clone Keith and Seabs, you HAVE to split them up on most occasions. The only other option is to tax them with more minutes like previous seasons, rendering them both useless like we saw in too many 3rd periods last year.

This season’s defense is too deep to justify that, and the Hawks still don’t have the forward depth they had in 2010 to make up for not having a full-time shutdown duo. Bickell, Brunette and Carcillo are not equal to predecessors like Ladd, Byfuglien and Versteeg.

Many argue that the pairing of Keith-Leddy is redundant. Although I disagree (is Seabs-Hjammer or Monty-OD therefore redundant?), I understand their position. The argument that “they have no chemistry” doesn’t hold water for me though. Chemistry implies familiarity and 2-8 have spent more time together than any of the other current pairings, since almost half the D corp is new. They’ve also been the most productive of all 3 defensive lines.

During the summer when I suggested we’d see Keith-Leddy as the #1 pair, I also mentioned that Keith-Monty might be option #2. We saw Q switch to that configuration last night during the ugly loss to Carolina. With so many veterans, dropping Leddy to the 3rd line makes initial sense. In a vacuum, a slightly defensively weaker 3rd line in exchange for a defensively stronger partner for Keith is a no-brainer. My only concern is that a 3rd pairing of Leddy-OD/Lepisto wouldn’t be as trusted in the situations that Q has been able to play Monty-OD, so the minutes for Keith and Seabs would again start piling up.

It’s All About the (Benja)Mins

The chart below shows the TOI distribution for the first 8 games this year.

As you can see, by pairing Seabs and Hjammer, Q has been able to increase the checking line’s support by almost 20% (up from around 50% for both 2010 and 2011, to 69% this year). When paired, 4-7 have only been on the ice for a remarkable 2 goals-against during 5on5 play thru the first 9 games. And paired on the PK, they haven’t given up a single goal. (Familiarity?) Last year, paired with lesser talent, Hjalmarsson was statistically among the league’s worst PK defenders. The incredible success of this pairing cannot be ignored.

Q has also bee able to free up the offensive combo of 2-8 to spend more time with the top lines. When Toews or Kane are on the ice, they have been paired with Keith-Leddy 45% of the time.

Keith’s high risk style is going to lead to some easy goals and that’s probably something we all need to finally accept. But that style also leads to a high rate of goals-for. 2-8 has had a remarkable GF/60 rate of 4.5, which is more than double that of any other pairing. They’ve done that while allowing less than 3.0 GA/60. Although it’s the highest GA/60 rate among the defensive lines, it’s also the largest differential. Last season Keith’s GF-GA/60 differential was -.20 and Seabrook’s was even. Please explain to me again how this isn’t working?

Not only has DK’s TOI dropped by 1 minute, Seabrook’s TOI has been reduced by 2, and the 3rd pairing’s ice time has increased by a whopping 3 minutes. That should bode well down the stretch. No matter how the defensive pairings end up, it all needs to start with Seabrook-Hjammer on the shutdown line, and Keith freed up to give him a chance to get back to Norris form.

This article was printed in Saturday’s Committed Indian, the Blackhawks fan program sold outside of the United Center and also available by subscription in PDF format.

Editor’s note: As a team, the Hawks had a total of 12 points (goals and assists) on Saturday night against the Blue Jackets. Of those 12, Leddy and Keith had 3 assists (25% of the team’s point total) and were a combined +2. It could have been +3, but Leddy was exiting the ice on a line change after his pass to Brunette set up Viktor Stalberg’s 2nd goal and he therefore was not credited for the Plus.

Seabrook and Hjalmarsson were on the ice together for 3 Hawks goals and were a combined +2 on the night. They were again perfect on the PK.

With 3 goals in the 3rd period and 0 against, the Hawks continued to distance themselves from the rest of the league as the NHL’s best 3rd period team this year.

All of these positives should definitely allay any concerns around Blackhawks nation about the pairings for at least a day or two. Right?


John Schultz
Follow me on Twitter: @ChiNativeSon