The Chicago Blackhawks are going to start either Michal Kempny or Ville Pokka on defense tonight when they visit the high-flying Winnipeg Jets
There was probably some concern among the Chicago Blackhawks’ coaching staff when Jordan Oesterle was slotted in to replace the injured Cody Franson on defense. That’s probably nothing compared to whatever worry coach Joel Quenneville will have tonight, though.
The Blackhawks, due to an injury to Jan Rutta on the blue line, must now turn to either Michal Kempny or Ville Pokka, the latter of whom was called up yesterday from Rockford. This is ahead of a game against the Winnipeg Jets, who having shown an adept scoring touch as a team in addition to a bruising style.
Admittedly, the Jets will have their own blue-line issues with the absence of former Blackhawk Dustin Byfuglien, but that’s not the Blackhawks’ problem. What is their issue is they’ll either be turning to a guy the staff clearly doesn’t trust in Kempny or a guy who has never played an NHL regular-season game in Pokka to fill a D spot in a key game.
The Blackhawks are obviously chasing points, and two against a current top-three Central Division team, on the road no less, would obviously be huge. So it’s important for them to get their defensive pairings in as good a spot as they can be. What will that mean tonight?
There are a couple options
The Blackhawks can obviously turn to either Kempny or Pokka. They’re not going to bench Oesterle after he’s looked entirely fine in his two games back, and no one else is getting bench (though Brent Seabrook could probably always use a nap).
Da Windy City
The options here, then, are to pull Connor Murphy back to his correct side and slot in Kempny to fill that hole, or leave Murphy where he is and draw in Pokka.
This is actually an interesting debate, because Murphy has been quite solid playing on his off side of late. He’s turned in some solid possession outings and been on the ice for very few goals against despite playing alongside the aforementioned Seabrook, who still looks ready to keel over.
It would seem, on its face, like drawing Murphy back to his proper handedness would be the easy move, especially since Kempny actually has NHL experience. But with how quickly Q pushed Murphy to the doghouse earlier this season, will he want to screw with Murphy’s current success over what could be a one-game issue?
Yes, as the Chicago Sun-Times’ Mark Lazerus reports, with Franson on injured reserve being retroactive to last Saturday, he could be back as soon as this Sunday against Minnesota.
Q might be willing to take a gamble, then, and keep Murphy on his off side, thus putting Pokka into the lineup. But dropping a youngster like Pokka into his first real NHL game and having it be on the road against a tough opponent like Winnipeg is pretty ballsy in itself.
Compound that with Duncan Keith already performing babysitting duties for Oesterle, as well as Rutta’s defensive assignments needing to be picked up, and placing Pokka in the lineup might be too much for this blue line to bear against the Jets.
What should Q do?
I think Murphy is enough of an NHL defenseman that he can handle the switch back to his natural side, and then head back to his off side when needed, without major consequence. While he is in a groove, I don’t think pulling him from it will be his undoing.
Kempny should get another crack in this lineup given his experience edge and his penchant for being a puck-moving defenseman who can also skate the puck out of trouble. This is going to be required against the Jets from the back end, as they’ll be very aggressive with opposing defensemen.
Pokka just may not be up to this task. If he was dropped into one of the last three games, I’m not sure I would have batted an eyelash. He may have even stood out, as Oesterle did against Arizona. But playing in Winnipeg as a debut is a pretty nasty straw to draw.
I could see Q going either way, but I think it’s in his best interest to go with Kempny and then see how long it will take Franson and/or Rutta to recover. If the Kempny experiment is an abject failure, then the Pokka options can be reconsidered.