Chicago Blackhawks’ Defensive Support And When It Should Arrive

BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 11: Cody Franson
BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 11: Cody Franson /

The Chicago Blackhawks’ blue line is arguably in its weakest state in some time, which leads to the question of when possible support should be expected

When Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman shipped defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson to Arizona in June, there was immediate concern about the condition of the team’s blue line as a whole. After all, Hjammer had more or less served as the No. 1 defenseman through swaths of the 2016-17 season while Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook struggled.

Promising youngster Connor Murphy was acquired in that Hjammer trade, and he’s expected to get top-three minutes pretty quickly in Chicago (especially since he was playing on the top pairing with the Coyotes). But that hasn’t done much to assuage fears heading into 2017-18.

You see, the Blackhawks’ defense would look pretty abysmal even if Hjammer was still on the roster. You’d have him — possibly an injury or two away from a serious career trajectory change — along with the aging and slowing Keith and Seabrook. That would be your top three. Replace Hjammer with Murphy, and that’s your current top three.

Beyond that, you have Michal Kempny — who wasn’t trusted whatsoever by coach Joel Quenneville last season. You also have Gustav Forsling, who bounced between the NHL and AHL ranks last season and could really bear to put on some weight. You have Michal Rozsival, who amazingly hasn’t retired just yet. You’ve got Jan Rutta, who hasn’t played North American hockey. And you have Jordan Oesterle, who has never seen extended NHL time.

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So that’s … concerning for a team that’s trying to extend its championship window for guys like Keith, Seabrook, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Corey Crawford. Marian Hossa would be included in that group as well if he was healthy, but Hossa’s skin condition is actually key to my talking point in this post.

When can we expect reinforcements?

Maybe Bowman and Q are happy with the defensemen they have now. I’d find that hard to believe, but maybe they’re taking a positive outlook toward this group heading into training camp. Or, perhaps they’re looking at using salary cap space freed up when Hossa goes on long-term injured reserve to immediately bolster the unit.

This situation can’t play out until right before the season begins, unfortunately. So the soonest the Blackhawks could go about acquiring any player, defenseman or otherwise, would be as the 2017-18 campaign is getting underway. Not that there couldn’t be under-the-table dealings going on ahead of time, but that’s the official status of the situation.

The next question, then, is when do the Blackhawks plan on trying to shore up their defense. I see four options in the cards:

  1. As soon as Hossa goes on LTIR
  2. Somewhere between opening night and the trade deadline (end of February)
  3. At the trade deadline
  4. Not at all

Option No. 4 isn’t even an option, in my opinion. I don’t think this team’s current defense is not nearly good enough to hold up for an 82-game regular season plus any playoff action, unless Corey Crawford and Anton Forsberg/J.F. Berube go catatonic. So let’s just rule that out and discuss the other three options.

Acquiring a defenseman right after Hossa hits LTIR

This is the options that makes the most sense right now, unless the Blackhawks’ collective defense has an amazing training camp. The team is going to free up $5.275 million in space with Hossa on LTIR, and is currently over the cap by about $34,000, according to CapFriendly.

While that number will be adjusted somewhat (Cap Friendly has the Blackhawks’ roster listed with 14 forwards, five defensemen and three goaltenders), the Blackhawks should still have at least $4 million to work with, if not more.

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  • So who can the team acquire right before the season begins, as of now, to fortify the blue line?

    Cody Franson has been the popular choice. He turned 30 two days ago and is coming off a two-year deal with Buffalo in which he carried a cap hit of $3.325 million per season. Considering he tallied 17 and 19 points in those two seasons after exceeding 20 in each of his first seven, you have to imagine the Blackhawks wouldn’t need to use all their freed up space to acquire him.

    Franson is a right-handed shot who had plenty of success in Nashville (he finished 11th in Calder Trophy voting his rookie season) before bouncing to bad teams in Toronto and Buffalo. A change of scenery could be perfect for Franson, and it would immediately take a load off guys like Kempny, Forsling and Rutta.

    Another option is Francois Beauchemin. The 37-year-old was bought out of the last two years of his contract by the terrible Colorado Avalanche. He’s certainly up there in age, but has missed just one game across the last two regular seasons and was receiving Norris Trophy votes in 2016.

    His latest cap hit was $4.5 million per season, so the Blackhawks would need to talk him down a bit. Considering his next contract could be his last in the NHL, and considering he fell from 34 points in 2015-16 to 18 in 2016-17 (again, bad Avs team), it’s certainly feasible.

    There are likely other options out there as well, but these are two veteran guys who could easily learn a system on the fly and take some pressure off the bottom end of Chicago’s current defensive alignment.

    Acquiring a defenseman during the season

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    The different between option Nos. 2 and 3 is all about timing. If the Blackhawks decide they need a defenseman during the season but well before the trade deadline, they can try and sign a free agent who is still looking for a deal or try to complete a trade.

    The market won’t be nearly as lively as it will be during the actual trade deadline, and the Blackhawks could be in a solid hole as a result of playing with an uncertain defense for X amount of time ahead of making a move. So I would say this option is unlikely.

    That leaves the trade deadline option, which I rank second among the four I listed above. There could be plenty of defensemen available at this point in the season, entirely dependent on who is buying, who is selling and what everyone is looking for.

    The only issue here is, the Blackhawks’ season will be well on the road to decided by this point. Unless they’re squarely on the playoff bubble, they’ll already know exactly where they stand for the 2018 playoffs and offseason. This could entirely negate the need to add another blueliner.

    This could be good news or bad news. It’d obviously be good if the current group of defensemen stepped up and allowed Bowman to stand pat (again, I don’t believe this to be realistic). It’d be bad if the team has crumbled ahead of the deadline and one defensive add just isn’t enough to save the season.

    In my estimation, the smartest and safest move for Bowman on the blue line is to try and add someone as soon as Hossa goes on LTIR. You risk overpaying someone, sure, but you’re not risking much else. You’re making a move to bolster an obviously weak point of your lineup.

    Next: Blackhawks' Fantasy Lineup In Toews/Kane Era

    If you’ve got the means to make something better, and it can afford to get better, I say you go for it. Otherwise, the Blackhawks will be taking a massive gamble as they try to extend that championship window.