Analysis

Chicago Blackhawks’ Defense And How It Looks So Far This Season

By Ryan Leidig
ANAHEIM, CA - APRIL 6: Gustav Forsling
ANAHEIM, CA - APRIL 6: Gustav Forsling /
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Despite a victory Friday against Buffalo, the Chicago Blackhawks sit outside the playoff picture. After a strong start and very inconsistent play, it is clear that the ‘Hawks need to make a change — but where?

When looking at the current roster and the long stretches of mediocre play, many people are asking questions about the Chicago Blackhawks. Does the offense have enough firepower to get the job done? Are the backup goalies good enough to get a few wins when Corey Crawford is out or injured? (That one doesn’t have to be answered anymore, at least.)

One area we can look at is the defense, and are the current defenders on the roster enough to get the Blackhawks to the playoffs. That’s before asking if the team make a deep run anyway. Taking a look at the current defensive pairings and how they have played over the last stretch, there are positives and negatives.

Duncan Keith

The first pairing as of late has been Duncan Keith and Cody Franson, though Franson suffered an injury against Buffalo. Keith has started the year very slow offensively while still putting up 14 assists through the first 28 games. Keith has been putting shots on goal, which is good to see as he had 16 shots through the five games before Friday.

The game against the Capitals was one of Keith’s worst outings, going minus-4, but he also had a season-high seven shots on goal. Over the five games before Friday, Keith had a rating of minus-5. Keith’s Corsi-for rating for the season was 53.2 percent heading into Friday, which is slightly higher than his last two season totals.

While going through a rough patch that is not entirely his fault, with changing pairs and inconsistent offense, Keith is still the best defenseman on the team. If the ‘Hawks want a chance to make the playoffs, they need Keith to be better and lead the defense.

Cody Franson

Franson has been a welcome addition to the defense. Though not being the fastest or most skilled player on the blue line, what he has brought is solid defense and help getting the puck to the net.

Franson had 12 shots in the last five games entering Friday, ranking third among defensemen behind Keith (16) and Gustav Forsling (13). He got his first goal against the Stars in Dallas, and had seven points through 18 games on the ice.

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  • Having good positioning and good decision-making helps negate his declining speed. Despite being a minus-2 in his last five games entering Friday, on the ice Franson has been good with the puck, making good passes and holding a 62.9 percent Corsi-for rating entering Friday. With a very modest cap hit and solid performance on the ice, Franson is showing he is worth the price.

    Brent Seabrook

    On the second pairing, you have seen Brent Seabrook and Connor Murphy. Originally I thought this pairing was going to be a disaster, but over the five-game losing streak the two combined for a plus-7 rating. Both players have helped on the scoresheet, with Seabrook adding an assist and Murphy adding three.

    Seabrook has seemed to improve from the beginning of the season once his ice time went down a bit. Watching him on the ice when he was playing regularly 20-plus minutes a night, he always seemed gassed. Though not a huge drop in minutes, averaging between 17-20 minutes as of late, he has been more effective and seems to be able to give a bit more when needed.

    With one goal and nine points entering Friday, he held a less-than-stellar 49.6 percent Corsi-for rating that has slowly been trending upward. With decreased responsibility, it seems to have helped Seabrook’s game. That said, he still has his moments error. With such a heavy contract, it would great to see more out of him, but if he can stay effective, at least he is not a complete detriment to the team.

    Connor Murphy

    Murphy has been an interesting story this year, from being healthy scratched multiple times to drawing into the lineup on his off side. Since being paired with Seabrook and put on his off side, he has improved noticeably. In the last five games before Friday, Murphy had three points and a plus-4 rating.

    Murphy brought some physicality with nine hits in those last five games, as well as 10 shots on goal. While having a 54 percent Corsi-for rating, it is good to see the continued improvement of Murphy. When the Blackhawks traded Niklas Hjalmarsson for Murphy, it was common knowledge they were not getting the same caliber player back. What they did receive was a younger, bigger and more physical presence on the back end who is showing he has an offensive upside.

    Jan Rutta

    On the third pair, you have the 26-year-old rookie Jan Rutta and 21-year-old sophomore Forsling. Rutta has been an exciting addition to the blue line, as GM Stan Bowman brought in the undrafted Czech native on a one-year contract.

    Rutta has been a surprising story, climbing the depth chart quickly. With three goals and 12 points prior to Friday, he has helped chip in offensively. Though through the last five games prior to Friday Rutta had a minus-six rating, he is still a plus-1 on the season.

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    Rutta’s Corsi-for rating looks terrible at 43.9 percent and has to improve. While being a solid addition, this is Rutta’s first year on the North American ice. There is still a learning curve, but overall he has done very well for his rookie NHL season. If he continues his current play or starts to improve, the ‘Hawks should look to lock him up for at least another season or longer depending on price and contract length.

    Gustav Forsling

    Forsling has been up and down so far in his second year but has been trending up as of late. The youngster has been looking more confident, holding onto the puck, making good passes and not being afraid to shoot the puck.

    With two goals and eight points entering Friday, he surpassed his point total from last year and tied his goal production, Forsling also held a plus-3 rating at that time. Over the last five games before Friday, he had one assist, 13 shots on goal and a minus-3 rating.

    As Forsling seems to be finding his game and becoming an offensive-minded blue-liner, we have seen him start jumping into the rush and carrying the puck more. Forsling has to get his Corsi-for rating higher as he sat with a 44.8 percent mark entering Friday, but he has shown he is growing and learning every game and continues to improve his play.

    The Blackhawks’ development of D-men has been suspect over the last couple of years, but it seems Forsling is coming around and will be a big part of the defense moving forward. One last thought on the third pairing to note is it has been getting more ice time lately — even more than Keith, who has been the ‘Hawks’ time-on-ice leader year after year.

    On the bench

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    While not seeing much time on the ice, the Blackhawks still have Michal Kempny and Jordan Oesterle waiting in the press box as well. It seems as if coach Joel Quenneville has his set pairings, as these two sit night after night.

    The issue is with them sitting is neither will improve without seeing game time. If the team continues to lose games, one has to wonder when something will change — though Franson’s injury will force Q’s hand.

    The organization has said it likes Oesterle, which is why he has not been put on waivers as the Blackhawks do not want to lose him. Kempny is in his second season with the club, both of which have seen him struggle to find a consistent lineup spot.

    Both of these players have a good speed and can move the puck well. With the current state of the blue line, there is also not a great place to put them as none of the defensemen have been awful for extended periods, as most are trending the right way and have found a degree familiarity. When these two draw into the lineup, should it be from injury or poor performance, they need to impress the staff to continue to be there, whether it be stellar defensive play or the ability to move the puck and help add offense.

    State of the blue line

    Overall, in the five games before Friday, the defense played well. With the loss of Corey Crawford after a Vezina-type start and an extremely inconsistent offense, the Blackhawks need the defense to step up and help offensively.

    Though forwards are generally looked upon for scoring, the defense needs to jump in and help as well. The ‘Hawks before Friday sat in eighth place with 2.8 goals against, but also 14th averaging three goals a game. The goals come and go in bunches, as we have seen multiple five-plus-goal games but also seen plenty of one- or two-goal losses.

    The powerplay entering Friday was nearing last in the league at 15.5 percent, sitting in 29th place, but the penalty kill was near the top at fifth with a 83.8 percent kill rate. It is safe to say the defense is not the only problem this year.

    The Blackhawks need their top players to produce, their powerplay has to improve and overall they need more consistency. Defense may not be completely to blame, but it can do more to equalize the playing field by adding some offense.

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    With more speed, crisp passes and getting more shots through from the point, it will help increase production. If the defense can continue to improve and start helping the offense a bit, there is a chance the Blackhawks make the playoffs!

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