Chicago Blackhawks Thin, More Talented than Tampa on Defense

By Matt Barbato

Many of the stars featured in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Tampa Bay Lightning are forwards, but one of the most intriguing stories heading into Wednesday’s puck drop is the defensive units for both teams.

The Chicago Blackhawks are led by do-it-all defenseman Duncan Keith, who is leading all defensemen with 18 points in the playoffs. Tampa’s Victor Hedman isn’t quite as flashy as Keith, but he is second in the playoffs with a +11 rating and is one of the most reliable defensemen in the league.

Both teams have stars at the top, but both have questions of depth. The Blackhawks lost their fifth defenseman, Michal Rozsival, after he suffered a gruesome ankle injury in Game 4 of the conference semifinals. The Hawks have been piecing the back-end of the blue line with a revolving door of Kyle Cumiskey, David Rundblad and veteran Kimmo Timonen.

Rundblad, a former first-round pick, filled in for Rozsival originally and was benched in favor of Cumiskey after Game 1 of the Western Conference final. Ten days later, Rundblad was back in the lineup for Game 6 after head coach Joel Quenneville benched the ineffective Timonen.

Reports are Rundblad and Cumiskey will get the start in Game 1, but another intriguing possibility is the return of Trevor van Riemsdyk. The undrafted rookie played 18 games during the regular season before suffering a knee injury Nov. 16. He then suffered a wrist injury after rehabbing his knee ailment.

Quenneville announced van Riemsdyk will travel with the team to Tampa after he was recalled from Rockford May 22. The 23-year-old might be the most talented defenseman of the bottom tier, but throwing him onto the ice for the first time in almost six months during the Stanley Cup Final may be too risky.

Cumiskey and Rundblad should be able to play better against the far less physical Lightning. Cumiskey’s speed could become very useful in what is expected to be a high-flying series. In Tuesday’s practice, Cumiskey was paired with Brent Seabrook, while Rundblad skated alongside Johnny Oduya.

The bottom two defensemen probably won’t factor into the series much simply because Quenneville will ride his top four blue liners. Chicago’s top-four defensemen each rank in the top-20 in average ice time during the playoffs. Keith averages 31:35, Niklas Hjalmarsson averages 26:33, Seabrook logs an average of 26:21 and Oduya has played an average of 25:23. With a long summer ahead, expect to see plenty, if not more of, Chicago’s top four.

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Although Tampa has a reliable group, its unit might not be as strong as Chicago’s. Hedman is a stud who plays opposite Anton Stralman on Tampa’s top pairing. Stralman was Tampa’s top scorer during the regular season with nine goals with 30 assists.

Head coach Jon Cooper throws a bit of a wrinkle by activating seven defensemen. Nikita Nesterov has been that seventh guy and although he doesn’t log a ton of ice time, he can be impactful occasionally.

Another interesting note is two of Tampa’s oldest defensemen also have playoff history against the Hawks. Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle were both on the 2009-10 Philadelphia Flyers, which lost to the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final. Carle scored a goal and tacked on two assists with a -2 rating in the series, while Coburn was -9 during the series. Coburn was paired with fellow veteran Jason Garrison while Carle was with 24-year-old Andrej Sustr during Tuesday’s morning skate.

The Blackhawks may lack depth on the blue line, but they make up for it with a very talented foursome. Outside of Hedman and Stralman, Tampa is more susceptible on defense than Chicago. The Lightning will need to take advantage of opportunities whenever Cumiskey and Rundblad are on the ice, although the opportunities may be slim.

The forwards may define this series, but the play along the blue line will be the difference in determining who takes home the Cup.