Chicago Blackhawks’ Defensemen Need To Be Deployed Differently

By Colin Likas
Mar 29, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (50) makes a save against Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) as Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson (4) defends during the second period at the PPG PAINTS Arena. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 29, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (50) makes a save against Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) as Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson (4) defends during the second period at the PPG PAINTS Arena. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /
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The Chicago Blackhawks thought they had all their defensive issues put to rest earlier this month, but recent games have proven that incorrect

When the Chicago Blackhawks acquired Johnny Oduya from Dallas at this season’s trade deadline, many figured the Blackhawks would be just fine on the blue line. It looked like a much deeper unit with former Blackhawk Oduya back in the fold, likely to wash away the taste of the team’s lackluster blue line in last season’s playoffs.

Flash forward to being less than two weeks from regular season’s end, and the Blackhawks have wound up with just as many questions as answers on the blue line. What’s going on here?

Well, even while the Blackhawks have won seven of 12 games since Oduya’s re-debut in Chicago, they haven’t looked terribly strong in about half of them. I chalked up a fair amount of that to a lack of concern about the rest of the regular season, as the Blackhawks have been in good shape to take the Central Division and Western Conference titles since their wild run through February and early March.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Having Artem Anisimov sidelined has thrown the forward lines, which had settled very nicely, into a state of flux. But a major issue, to me, that’s gone mostly undocumented is how much the blue line has struggled of late.

Pairings can’t get settled

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This has been spoken about recently on Blackhawk Up by Tim Lively, but it bears repeating: The idea with Oduya’s return to Chicago was that he’d pair with former partner Niklas Hjalmarsson. And that did happen … and then quickly un-happened.

Coach Joel Quenneville thought it more prudent to keep Hjalmarsson playing with Duncan Keith, as the two had been doing for large stretches earlier in the season. That left Oduya to play with Brent Seabrook, while Brian Campbell and Trevor van Riemsdyk made up the third pairing.

Suffice to say, this hasn’t worked out terribly well. Oduya and Seabrook as a pairing just doesn’t allow them to be supported by one another. Neither guy is quick, so when one guy has a blowout, is taken out of the play by a hit or is just out of position, it’s very rare the other guy can cover for the gaffe.

What makes this even worse is Seabrook likes to be involved in plays offensively. That means, at times, Oduya is going to be the lone man back. You can see why you wouldn’t want this to be a thing, as a 36-year-old Oduya is lacking the speed and size to do a whole lot other than lie down on the ice when facing an odd-man rush.

It’s not exactly clear what this pairing is supposed to accomplish, either. Since Keith and Hjammer take the toughest assignments, you’ve got an offensively-inclined defenseman and a stay-at-home defenseman, neither who can move well, taking on … the middle competition? It just seems like such a waste of Seabrook and Oduya’s abilities.

Meanwhile, Keith and Hjammer are out there pretty much always (minus Hjammer on the powerplay). It’s beginning to show, as the two are being buzzed around by quicker forwards and beaten along the boards a little more frequently.

These are two guys who have played a ton of hockey in recent years — not to mention Keith’s offseason surgery — and Coach Q’s excessive reliance on the two appears to be taking its toll.

Meanwhile, the Campbell-TVR pairing can’t be trusted to do a whole lot of anything. TVR likes to pretend to be a forward throughout games, and Campbell seems to be caught flat-footed move often than not these days. Meanwhile, neither is providing appropriate offensive push to make up for their lack of defensive accountability.

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What to do with the defense

Well, unfortunately you really only have one move here if you’re Coach Q. But I think there are some things he should consider before the postseason begins.

First off, whether it’s for Game 1 of a Western Conference quarterfinal series or tomorrow against Columbus, the top two pairings have to be Hjalmarsson-Oduya and Keith-Seabrook. The guys on these two pairings play off each other so well, even with Oduya a little older and most of these four guys a little slower.

Oduya’s Corsi-for across all situations since his return to Chicago is a motley 38.84, while Seabrook’s is an equally putrid 45.56. Hjalmarsson’s rate has also been in the crapper since March 9, with an ugly 44.95 mark. Only Keith’s 51.85 is above water.

Most of these numbers have been compiled in the current Keith-Hjalmarsson and Seabrook-Oduya formations, so it’s clear those are not working from a puck-possession standpoint. And the Blackhawks are not one of those teams that will survive a long playoff series by not controlling the puck.

Put these two pairings back to the way they used to be and trust them as close to equally as you can. That’s the hand Coach Q was dealt with Oduya’s acquisition, and it’d probably be better to play it at this point versus continuing down this road of defensive struggling.

Second, I think Q needs to get Michal Kempny and Michal Rozsival in the lineup during the last four games of the regular season. You don’t want to put them in for tomorrow’s game against a high-powered Columbus team, fine. But after that, get the big guns some rest.

Give Hjalmarsson a night off. Give Keith a night off. Give Seabrook a night off. These guys clearly need it, if recent games have given us any indication. And the Blackhawks have shown they can still win while not being at full strength. If at least one of those big three is not out of the lineup April 4 against Colorado, I have no idea when they would be before the playoffs start.

And third, I think Q needs to be more open to adjusting his third pairing. I mean, he’s not going to trust whoever is on it regardless, right? The Blackhawks are going to be a four-defenseman team in crunch time.

What are the Blackhawks honestly getting from TVR and Campbell that couldn’t be provided by Kempny and Rozsival? Sure, Kempny and Rozsival’s game is more stay-at-home while TVR and Campbell like to push offensively. But has the latter option really gotten the Blackhawks that much extra production from the third pairing?

Maybe, if Q tries some different things on the third pairing down the stretch, he might come out with something different he actually likes for the postseason. Even that could eat a bit of ice time off the big guns.

I guess we could also consider the option of Gustav Forsling coming to town as a black ice, but the likelihood of him hitting the ice in the postseason is minimal. And it would not be a positive development if it occurred, though I think Forsling has some solid potential.

Next: 5 Thoughts After Blackhawks Throttle Penguins

Overall, the Blackhawks have some decisions to make on defense. And while a clear one is how to arrange the top two pairings, the issues go beyond that. It’d be best to get things sorted out before the Blackhawks host their first-round opponent.

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