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Chicago Blackhawks Defense: Time to Make a Decision

By Tim Lively
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Oct 7, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; New York Rangers center Oscar Lindberg (24) scores a goal past Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (50) and defenseman Trevor Daley (6) in the first period at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Like many Chicago Blackhawks fans, I was very surprised when it was announced this offseason that the likes of David Rundblad and Michal Rozsival would be staying with the Hawks organization, the former having inked a multi-year contract.

This came as a bit of shock, because frankly, Rundblad and Rozsival have done very little to impress during their tenure with the ‘Hawks, and the fact that they’ve been able to retain roster spots on such a competitive franchise is unusual and a bit concerning.

While the true reasons may never be fully known, it’s a good bet that Rundblad and Rozsival are on the Chicago Blackhawks primarily as insurance policies for the blue line: they are reasonably reliable (and cheap) solutions to briefly patch any holes the ‘Hawks may experience in their defensive corp.

The Hawks got away with this by and large last year because of the outstanding play of their Big Four defensemen (Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook, and Johnny Oduya). Now however, with the departure of Oduya, and his replacement Trevor Daley’s defensive instincts already coming into question, the Blackhawks have become much more liable to suffer a blue line meltdown this season, one that would be well beyond the coverage that the Rundblad and Rozsival “policies” provide.

As previously mentioned, the Chicago Blackhawks found themselves in a similar situation last season when Trevor van Riemsdyk went down with a long-term injury. To the chagrin of many ‘Hawks fans, Coach Joel Qunneville’s answer was to expand the then 36-year-old Rozsival’s role, making his age-related deficiencies all the more glaring; the culmination point occurring during the first round of the playoffs when Rosy literally ran his legs out from under himself, forcing the ‘Hawks’ top defensemen to double shift to compensate. On top of this, both David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey were rotated in and out as a like a rock and a hard place

Again, the Hawks were able to get away with this because of the Big Four’s talent and inhuman endurance, but with the loss of Johnny Oduya, it goes without saying that this is a situation the Blackhawks can’t put themselves in again.

Thus, the Chicago Blackhawks are at a crossroad. What they could really use is a proven veteran defensemen that still has some gas in the tank, but given the salary cap, this solution is more a pipe dream than anything. Therefore the ‘Hawks have two options: they can go with their roster’s status quo and hope an underwhelming Rundblad, unproven Daley, and a still developing TVR can hold down the defensive fort as the bottom three defensemen, or they can dip deeper into their defensive depth chart and in a sense, “let the kids play.”

Unfortunately, we all know that the latter is probably a moot option, given Coach Q’s well established unwillingness to give younger players the time and guidance they need to fully develop. However, Q-stache may not have the luxury to maintain his stubborn ways this season when it comes to the ‘Hawks defensive ranks, especially if Daley proves not to be a fit. Even worse, if Keith, Seabrook, or Hjalmmarson sustain a serious injury, the ‘Hawks would be forced to trade one of their prized forwards for a veteran defensemen it what would no doubt be a lopsided transaction.

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Therefore now is the time to open the door of opportunity for some of the Blackhawks’ more promising defensive prospects such as Ville Pokka and Erik Gustafsson to get their NHL legs under them now while the season is young and the ‘Hawks have time to come back from any dip in the standings they may encounter during said blue line experimentations.

This course of action is not without risks obviously. By nature defensemen take longer to develop than forwards and pushing a D-man too far ahead of schedule can hinder his ability to reach full potential. Additionally, the ‘Hawks are perhaps in the toughest division in the NHL. If they were to fall too far down in the standings during the season due to defensive experimentation, they may put themselves in too precarious a position to climb back into playoff contention by April.

Still, the fact the Viktor Svedberg was swapped out for the slightly-more experienced Villa Pokka at the eleventh hour may be an indication that Coach Q realizes he needs to get at least some of his younger and unproven defensemen NHL ready, and soon. If that’s the case, the best we can hope for is that Pokka does well enough to encourage Q to call up more defensemen from Rockford to cut their teeth with the Hawks and hopefully form some effective defensive pairings as the season progresses. Here’s hoping…

FOR THE DAGGER!

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