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Chicago Blackhawks’ Second Pairing Key To Rebuilding Defense

By Tim Lively
Apr 17, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; St. Louis Blues center David Backes (42) is defended by Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk (57) with goalie Corey Crawford (50) looking on during the third period in game three of the first round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the United Center. St. Louis won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 17, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; St. Louis Blues center David Backes (42) is defended by Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk (57) with goalie Corey Crawford (50) looking on during the third period in game three of the first round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the United Center. St. Louis won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports /
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Chicago Blackhawks Second D Pairing Needs Reboot

So by now, it’s been pretty well established that the main reason our beloved Chicago Blackhawks were bounced in the first round of the playoffs this year was due to their weaknesses on defense.

The narrative about the ‘Hawks’ defense this year was their inability to adequately patch the hole that was left by Johnny Oduya’s departure. Given the types of D-men available this season and their respective price tags, GM Stan Bowman opted to double down on the offense and bring on forwards that were much more reasonably acquirable. It was a gamble Bowman obviously lost, but on paper it was at least a reasonably intelligent bet given the circumstances.

To be clear, the Blackhawks finished the 2015-2016 regular season at 10th in the league in terms of Goals Against, which is certainly commendable, but if we look at where they finished in GA’s during the seasons that ended in Stanley Cup wins (2nd in 2015, 1st in 2013, and 5th in 2010), it’s clear that if the ‘Hawks want to raise Lord Stanley’s Cup again, their defense needs to improve.

That being said, while there’s certainly a lot of offseason ahead of us, given the assets Bowman wagered at this year’s trade deadline, and more importantly, the swath of Blackhawks’ forwards that need to be locked down before the start of next season, it’s a safe wager to assume the ‘Hawks will have to fix their defensive woes with their current blue line personnel.

However, given the ‘Hawks defensive history, I’m pretty confident their current blue line talent is fully capable of rising to the level they need to be in order to make another run at the Cup. Let’s first take a look at why Johnny Oduya’s absence and lack of a viable substitute hurt the Blackhawks so much this season.

Oct 18, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Nashville Predators center Filip Forsberg (9) has a shot blocked by Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (50) as Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson (4) and Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya (27) look on in the second period at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 18, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Nashville Predators center Filip Forsberg (9) has a shot blocked by Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (50) as Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson (4) and Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya (27) look on in the second period at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports /

Both Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson are very talented D-men, but you’d be hard pressed to find them on many analysts’ lists of top 25 defensemen in the NHL. This is because both these players possess a fundamental, stay-at-home defensive mindset. This style of defense may not ink up the stat sheets that much, but it is vital to have on a team, and extremely potent when two such players are consistently paired together. This is why during their tenure with the ‘Hawks Oduya and Hjalmarsson were often called the best shutdown defensemen in the league.

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Needless to say, once Oduya left Chicago, this formidable defensive combination on the second line was dismantled, and the way the Blackhawks’ coaching staff tried to repair this breakdown only further hampered their defensive capabilities.

Frankly, it surprised me that Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith played on separate lines for the majority of the season, because the coaching staff has more or less done this before (i.e. the 2011 and 2012 seasons) and it hasn’t worked. I know the thought process here is to spread the defensive talent up and down the defensive lines, but even though Dunc and Seabs are among the best defensemen in the NHL, they only play at 80% of their full potential when skating on separate lines.

Seabrook and Keith need to stay on the same line, period. Their age, style, and experience levels are near congruent, so when they are forced to adjust their defensive approach to another skill set, their defensive game suffers. While Keith was able to somewhat maintain his usual level of consistency this season, thanks to being predominantly paired with Hjalmarsson, Seabrook’s defensive game degraded noticeably (finishing the regular season at +6 as opposed to Dunc and Hammer’s +13) since he was primarily paired with rookie blue-liners in Trevor van Riemsdyk and Erik Gustafsson. Both these Blackhawk neophytes are decent players, but they are a world away from Seabrook in terms of defensive prowess.

Jun 13, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith (2) and Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook (7) during the second period at game five of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 13, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith (2) and Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook (7) during the second period at game five of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Thus, reuniting Keith and Seabrook on the first line is the first, and easiest step to fixing the ‘Hawks’ defensive woes. It’s the next step that will be critical, and unfortunately, take a bit of a leap of faith on Coach Joel Quenneville’s part.

The next step to fixing the defense is finding another stay-at-home defenseman of second line caliber whom can skate with Hjalmarsson. The bad news is the ‘Hawks likely won’t be able get such a D-man on the waivers this offseason. The good news is the ‘Hawks already have a defenseman that can fit the bill: Trevor van Riemsdyk.

Now ‘Hawks fans have given Trevor van Riemsdyk’s first full NHL season mixed reviews for good reason. While TVR has shown flashes of brilliance, he’s also shown signs of regression. While sophomore slumps are fairly ubiquitous in pro sports, perhaps one of the catalysts for some of TVR’s down swings this year had to do with his typical line-mate in Brent Seabrook.

Since I’ve already established that Seabrook and van Riemsdyk are not a good match, what makes me think Hammer would be a better partner? After all, Hjalmarsson has only slightly less NHL experience than Seabrook, and is only slightly younger, right?

Mar 29, 2016; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk (57) during a game between the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks at Xcel Energy Center. The Wild defeated the Blackhawks 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 29, 2016; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk (57) during a game between the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks at Xcel Energy Center. The Wild defeated the Blackhawks 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports /

Let me break it down. As I mentioned earlier, stay-at-home defensemen typically don’t put tallies on the stat sheet in a traditional sense, but there is one stat that can be somewhat telling of such a defender: Blocked Shots. The reason a high number of Block Shots can be seen as indicative of a stay-at-home type blue liner is because it betrays their favored positioning.

By definition, a stay-at-home defensemen focuses on protecting “the house” in their own zone (remember those diagrams Eddie Olzcek kept drawing during Blackhawks’ broadcasts?). In other words, they are going to generally maintain a position on the ice that blocks passing and shooting lanes, as opposed to engaging in board battles.

Case in point, stay-at-home D-man Hjalmarsson blocked 151 shots this year, as opposed to the more mobile Duncan Keith, who only had 116. Not to mention, Seabrook has roughly averaged just over 140 blocked shots the past few seasons, and keep in mind he sports one of the biggest frames on the Blackhawks.

That being said, here’s what’s really interesting:

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Hjalmarsson’s Blocked Shots total was second highest on the team this year, second only to none other than Trevor van Riemsdyk, who finished this year’s campaign with 155 BS.

Again, take these stats for what you want, but it’s hard to deny that the Blocked Shot statistic is fairly telling of a defenseman’s usual positioning in the defensive zone. Thus, it would be a pretty safe bet that TVR favors a stay-at-home style of defense similar to Hammer’s.

Feb 6, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson (4) and center Andrew Desjardins (11) and center Artem Anisimov (15) and defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk (57) celebrate a goal against Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen (32) at the American Airlines Center. The Blackhawks defeat the Stars 5-1. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 6, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson (4) and center Andrew Desjardins (11) and center Artem Anisimov (15) and defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk (57) celebrate a goal against Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen (32) at the American Airlines Center. The Blackhawks defeat the Stars 5-1. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

This shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise. During his debut two seasons ago, van Riemsdyk was turning heads with his self-proclaimed “keep it simple” defensive play that was getting results. Well, in its simplest form, playing defense in hockey is protecting your goalie from shots, and what better way than to block them?

The aforementioned are really simple changes, and of course it still leaves the third defensive pairing up in the air. But the third line was up in the air last year, and the ‘Hawks were able to counteract that turmoil with solid synergy with their first two defensive pairings.

Putting Hammer and TVR on the same line has other benefits than simply matching defensive styles. It’s easy to forget how Hjalmarsson really didn’t hit his stride as a defenseman until he was consistently paired with Oduya. Before Oduya’s arrival, it was clear Hammer had talent, but at times he seemed lost, and committed quite a few mistakes. Oduya’s style of play gave Hjalmarsson a relatable model to emulate. Hammer hasn’t looked back since then.

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Now van Riemsdyk is the Hjalmarsson of four years ago: a talented D-man with a decent amount of NHL experience, but certainly needing the proper guidance. Hammer could easily serve as TVR’s Oduya and enable them both to reformulate that effective shutdown chemistry on the second line.

We have a very long offseason ahead of us, and there will certainly be a lot of developments in the near future, but giving a TVR-Hammer second line pairing a good long look needs to definitely be on the Blackhawks’ to-do list this summer.

FOR THE DAGGER!

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