Question 1: Nick Schmaltz. During the preseason and the regular-season game we saw him in, he looked great. He was seeing open lanes, making crisp passes and drove the play with his speed. The second line has looked nowhere near as good with Artem Anisimov at center.
Question 2: Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are on the roster, no question. Cody Franson has looked a little rusty, but I feel with work and time in the hawks system he becomes a big part of the defense.
Jan Rutta has cemented his spot with outstanding plan in the beginning of the season. Offensively he can chip in, and defensively he has adapted very well and sees the plays well.
Connor Murphy, I believe, is a better player than what we have seen. I think that once he finds his groove or gets comfortable with a pairing-mate he will be a good top-four guy.
Gustav Forsling seems to be a “golden boy” who will be given many chances. Similar to Trevor van Riemsdyk, this season or next Forsling be a regular. His play last game was solid as well.
Seabrook should be put with a younger guy because he can be the physical presence, he is sound defensively and positionally he generally plays well. He becomes a liability when you start talking about his speed and getting beat, so put him with a young lights with speed to help bridge the gap.
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Question 1: I’m going to go with Jan Rutta. I think we were all quietly hopeful Nick Schmaltz, another good choice for this, could take a big step this season. I don’t know that we expected it as quickly and powerfully as it came down, though. But at least we had an inkling it could be.
Rutta hadn’t played the North American game at all, and he’s looked like the Blackhawks’ second-best defenseman behind Duncan Keith. He very well could be on the top pairing with Keith at some point, although it might make more sense to spread out the two guys who have been the best on defense.
Regardless, Rutta has been a nice contributor on the offensive end while also being generally responsible in his own zone. He’s starting 40 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone while averaging almost 19 minutes of ice time a night and posting 10 blocks in six games.
I think we were expecting Rutta to need an adjustment period, like Michal Kempny last year, but he hasn’t needed such a thing, and it’s been a pleasant surprise.
Question 2: I know you have to put Brent Seabrook in here because he’s always going to be playing as long as he’s in Chicago. But I’m honestly not sure I want to see him in the Blackhawks’ defensive rotation at this point.
That being said, the Blackhawks don’t really have anyone who can appropriately and adequately replace him, despite how slow and ineffective Seabs has been. So he’s staying in my group.
Thus, here’s my six starters: Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Connor Murphy, Jan Rutta, Michal Kempny and Cody Franson. I know the Blackhawks’ specifically made a point this offseason of trying to get balanced with right-handed and left-handed shots on the blue line, but making Franson play on his off side has to be an improvement over Gustav Forsling.
I know the Blackhawks are hopeful Forsling can be a solid back-end defenseman moving forward, but I don’t think he’s ready for the task yet. He has not looked good so far this season, and I think a little more AHL seasoning is required.