Analysis

Chicago Blackhawks’ Defensive Outlook Still A Major Concern

By Tim Martens
CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 08: Brent Seabrook
CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 08: Brent Seabrook /
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The Chicago Blackhawks have a lot of ways they could improve offensively next season, but it seems like there isn’t a lot to be optimistic about moving forward on defense.

After an exciting trade deadline period, general manager Stan Bowman and the Chicago Blackhawks will enter the home stretch of the season without the assistance of Ryan Hartman, Tommy Wingels and Michal Kempny.

While talent did leave the Blackhawks, the team will be looking to improve this offseason with more cap room than it has had in a long time and eight draft picks in July, including two first-round picks.

While there is some reason to have optimism with the young players who make up the Blackhawks’ current roster, as well with talent in Rockford and in college coming up to play the rest of the season and a number of prospects who will be added to the organization in the draft, there is still a lot of work and progress that will need to be made in Chicago to change the franchise from a non-playoff team to a Stanley Cup contender.

The area in particular that worries me is the same that worried many entering this season: the blue line. And while all of this optimism over the potential offseason moves has some ‘Hawks fans truly believing that the team will be able to compete again this time next year, the defense is an area that improving upon is much easier said than done.

Current roster

The Blackhawks’ current blue line is an incredible mix of young with experienced and affordable with overpaid. The Blackhawks’ blue line separates pretty easily in cost and term with Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith and Connor Murphy making up just over $16 million in contracts and all being signed through at least 2021-22.

After that, Jan Rutta, Carl Dahlstrom, Erik Gustafsson, Jordan Oesterle and Gustav Forsling all make less than $1 million a year. Rutta is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, Gustafsson is a restricted free agent and Dahlstrom, Oesterle and Forsling have deals through the end of next year.

There are prospects in the works like Luc Snuggerud and last year’s first-round pick, Henri Jokiharju, but the ‘Hawks can’t be relying on them as answers for the 2018-19 team.

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The current roster is absolutely in tatters right now. Keith and Seabrook are the only two veteran defensemen, and both have struggled this season.

Age and a large amount of games and minutes played in their careers can’t give ‘Hawks fans a lot of confidence moving forward.

Separate from them, Murphy, Rutta, Gustafsson, Oesterle and Forsling have all been in and out of the lineup this entire season and have yet to cement their place as reliable players for the future of the franchise.

Clearly some moves are going to have to be made to fix up this blue line. The Blackhawks cannot rely on a hodgepodge of young and mostly ineffective defensemen to make up four of their starting positions next season. On top of that, they can’t even rely on Seabrook and Keith to anchor the defense for many more years. The team absolutely needs some help to come in from the outside.

What is out there?

With the shape of the Blackhawks currently, it is clear they will need to look into free agency to try and fix some of the holes on defense. This is a little more complicated with not knowing what the salary cap number will be in 2018-19, as well as additional moves the team may make to clear cap space and what kind of contracts the free agents in the summer will demand. But we can still look at which players may be available on the blue line.

The top defenseman available this summer will likely be John Carlson, but I wouldn’t hold my breath and think the Blackhawks have any shot of coming up with the money it would take to sign him. After Carlson, a few defensemen in their mid- to late-20s who could be interesting include John Moore, Thomas Hickey, Brandon Manning, Luca Sbisa, Andrej Sustr and Kevin Connauton.

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After that, there are some more veteran names in Mike Green, Dan Hamhuis, Nick Holden, Roman Polak, Jack Johnson and Alexei Emelin. But even if the Blackhawks like one of these options and can actually afford to bring him in, this group is a mix of older, slower and underperforming defensemen who could find a way to be reliable, but not culture-changing.

Are any of these names jumping off the page as a clear answer to the Blackhawks’ defensive woes? If the ‘Hawks are able to afford one of these players, I still have a lot of doubt they will fix a lot of the problems the team currently faces.

In reality, the only way you will see a new defenseman coming in who you believe will alleviate some of the blue line issues is if the Blackhawks make some type of trade this offseason. Whether this is trading off some of the defensive prospects the ‘Hawks have, like Murphy, or the ‘Hawks using their draft picks as trade currency, the Blackhawks will likely only find a long-term answer for the defense via a trade. Outside of this, free agency and youth call-ups are going to be patchwork to a rotted blue line.

What happens?

Looking at the makeup of the Blackhawks’ defensive roster and what is available in free agency, I think it is pretty unlikely that fans will see major improvement on the blue line next season. While the forward group could have a bounceback year (with some veterans having a resurgence and young players coming into their own), and a return of Corey Crawford could add consistency and talent to the goaltending department, the defense will likely still be a weak point in Chicago.

The fact is the Blackhawks relied on a few players for quite a long time on defense (Seabrook, Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya) and had a mix of poor foresight on re-filling the defensive talent, overpayment on a certain veteran defenseman and minimal success in their young defensive prospects. What it spells is a big question mark that looks like it will follow the team all the way into the 2018-19 campaign.

Of course, there are plenty of moves that could be made by Bowman and the Blackhawks this offseason that could re-shape the look of the defense, but many of them are hard to see happening or hard to predict.

These would include finding a trade partner for Seabrook and having the defenseman waive his no-trade clause, trading away Murphy and a draft pick to bring in an affordable and talented defenseman, or trading away a talented forward like Brandon Saad (one of the only veteran forwards without a no-trade clause) to bring in some defensive help.

Without some type of deal like this, one thing seems very clear to me: The Blackhawks’ current roster and the defensemen that will be available in the free agent pool will not be a winning combination for the franchise.

Next: Reader Mailbag On Trade Deadline

It is fine to have optimism for the offensive youth and the draft picks the Blackhawks will have in 2018, but the defensive issues are a long way from being fixed. Barring a miraculous win in the lottery that would have the ‘Hawks landing Rasmus Dahlin, or a talented veteran signing for an affordable deal in free agency, it is highly unlikely the 2018-19 Blackhawks defense will be considered any type of strong point.

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