Chicago Blackhawks’ Defense Being Rebuilt From Within And Overseas

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 13: Gustav Forsling
CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 13: Gustav Forsling /

The Chicago Blackhawks have gone all over the map to fill their forward corps for the 2017-18 season, but they’ve got two very specific breeding grounds for completing their defensive ranks

This is the story of the Chicago Blackhawks’ farm system, at least in recent years: It’s filled with forward talent, but bereft of defensive and goaltending prospects. The Blackhawks focused primarily on the former in the early stages of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, showing they recognized this trend.

But that doesn’t necessarily equate to certain guys filling certain spots at the NHL level, at least not right away. You’d think the Blackhawks, with various young forwards who are working for a shot at the big show, would lean toward filling their forward ranks for the 2017-18 season with said young guns.

Meanwhile, a defense that is currently without three pieces from the 2016-17 team — Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya — could be rounded out in the form of trades and signings. That theory would make sense given the state of Chicago’s farm system.

That’s not how it’s playing out, however. General manager Stan Bowman has opted for a reversal in these thoughts, lining up various low-cost forwards while also trading for former Blackhawk Brandon Saad. It seems to be an effort not to rush some of these young guys up to the NHL level before they’re ready, a move I support.

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At the same time, the Blackhawks have turned to two very specific sources to rebuild a blue line that took some major hits this offseason. Connor Murphy was acquired via trade, yes. But beyond that, the Blackhawks have looked to their farm system and to overseas acquisitions.

Building from within

Didn’t I just get done saying the Blackhawks’ farm system is bereft of defensive prospects, though? Well, it’s not entirely true. There are just no standout options who are NHL ready. More so guys who can slot in on the second and third pairings.

But that seems to be OK for Bowman at this stage. With Erik Gustafsson re-signing with the team Friday, the Blackhawks are officially putting a ton of weight on the likes of Gustafsson, Gustav Forsling and Jordan Oesterle, with Ville Pokka, Viktor Svedberg, Carl Dahlstrom and Robin Norell on the fringes.

The Blackhawks expect at least one of these guys — specifically from the Gustafsson-Forsling-Oesterle trio — to step up in a big way next season to prove it made sense to approach their roster reconstruction from this angle. Bowman is showing a ton of faith in his defensive farm system despite it not being terribly strong.

Of course, this could lead to the Blackhawks having a rough back end of their blue line and needed a mid-season acquisition — something they could potentially afford depending on how they use the cap space afforded by Marian Hossa’s long-term injured reserve status.

Or, at least one of these guys could rise to the occasion and create a new role player for the Blackhawks moving forward. It’s an admittedly risky way to approach growing your defense, but it has a solid reward if successful. Bowman has been in a gambling mood the entire offseason, and this might be the biggest indication of that.

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  • Building from overseas

    By the same token, the Blackhawks are expecting quite a bit out of guys who have limited to no experience playing North American hockey. Last season, it was Michal Kempny. This year, it’s Jan Rutta.

    Kempny is pretty much being penciled into a top-four role out of necessity, something that Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville are no doubt butting heads over. Q was reluctant to give Kempny key minutes last season. It appears he has no choice now.

    Meanwhile, Rutta will be viewed in the same light as Kempny was last season. The two are not entirely similar defensemen — Rutta is more offensively oriented and a bigger body — but there’s a transitional phase to worry about.

    Still, Rutta wasn’t brought from the Czech Republic to play in the AHL. He’s going to get third-pairing minutes at the least. Again, it’s a gamble by Bowman amid an offseason of major turnover on the blue line.

    However, it’s not as though Rutta doesn’t know how to play high-level hockey. The guy is 26 years old and has been playing at a high level at the international level. The same could be said for Kempny, who is also 26 and now has a year of NHL experience under his belt.

    Basically, the Blackhawks know what they have in Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Murphy. Beyond that, they’ve plunged head-first into their farm system and into the overseas market in hopes of inexpensively filling the remaining holes.

    It’s really a boom-or-bust strategy for Bowman. It’s being done to try and keep the Blackhawks competitive as their superstar athletes begin to age while also protecting some of the team’s youth to better the organization’s future. Bowman is trying to play two sides of a coin at once.

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    It’ll be extremely interesting to watch how this unfolds during the 2017-18 season, but you can’t say Bowman is above taking a big-time risk.