Chicago Blackhawks’ Stan Bowman Has Made A Defensive Stand

General manager Stan Bowman now has all six current Chicago Blackhawks defensemen signed for next season.  What type of defensive stand is he trying to make?

Without the stellar play of goalie Corey Crawford, the Chicago Blackhawks defense has looked downright awful.  Yet, general manager Stan Bowman has secured the entire defensive corps for the 2018-19 season.  There are several conclusions one can draw from this puzzling strategy.

  1. With the return of Crawford next season and some maturation by the younger defensemen, the group will be fine.
  2. Bowman gives himself a fallback plan in case he doesn’t land Rasmus Dahlin in the draft or can’t sign a top-four defenseman via free agency this summer.
  3. Bowman feels the talent has been there this year, and is sending coach Joel Quenneville that message.
  4. Bowman is out of his mind.

Point one

Corey Crawford

There is no doubt Crawford has been one of the Blackhawks’ best players for the past two seasons.  He could have been the team’s Conn Smythe winner in 2015.

When a defensive group has a goalie who can stand on his head game in and game out, it has a true comfort zone to work in.  If Crawford had not gone down with an injury, it’s reasonable to think that the defense could have developed and progressed rather than implode regularly.

The assumption is that Crawford will return healthy next season to bring back that loving feeling and allow the defenders to play without reservations.

Duncan Keith

Keith has not played at his regular level of consistent excellence.  There were warning signs early in the season that he could break down.  Lacking confidence in his inexperienced group, Coach Q starting leaning heavily on Keith with loads of 26-28 minutes per game.

Even with his famous super-human aerobic abilities, Keith could not sustain his level of play with this heavy load.  And a constant revolving door of defensive partners never allowed him to develop chemistry with any one partner.

As a seasoned field technician and recognized go-to guy, I can attest that I have better chemistry with some co-workers than with others.  With some co-workers, I can never get into a rhythm where we just put our heads down and go.

I can easily imagine Keith’s frustration and how it has affected his performance.  Yes, he is a well-paid professional, but he is also human.

Keith will need a solid right-handed partner next year to rebound to his Conn Smythe form.  We’ve seen flashes of that ability when his minutes are kept at a reasonable amount.

Keith’s partner

In the past, Keith had reliable Niklas Hjalmarsson as his partner.  However, Hjalmarsson had several issues playing on his off-handed side of the ice.  Hjalmarsson had to rely on his backhand frequently to clear the defensive zone or to pinch in offensively, and that led to turnovers.

The issue of the correct stick hand has remained here in 2017-18.  Keith had partnered with lefty Jordan Oesterle for a spell, which brought some success.  Oesterle impressed many, but he’s really a solid No. 4 defenseman.

And again, Keith really needs a right-handed partner for optimal results.  Keith has been teamed with right-handers Brent Seabrook, Cody Franson, Jan Rutta and lately Connor Murphy.  Each of these defensemen has some sort of liability in his game.

If we go with the theory that the return of Crawford will allow one of these candidates to play comfortably with Keith, then which one should be given a solid chance to shine with Keith?

Seabrook is in decline. Franson will not be back next season. Unfortunately, Murphy just doesn’t have the skating ability to play top-pair minutes. Rutta was impressive until the grind of NHL-class hockey wore him out.  But he stands out as the guy with the speed, size and skill to partner with Keith.  He still needs to be more consistent in his own end.

Left out of the picture is Gustav Forsling, who improved greatly from last season, but also wore down when Coach Q put him and Rutta into the role of top shutdown pair.  He’s currently in Rockford developing his game.

The bottom four

Oesterle could be in the second pairing, but who his partner would be is a riddle. Seabrook may or may not still have enough left in him for this role.  Can  Murphy improve on his skating and cut down on major lapses in reading plays to fill this role?

If the Bowman plan is to rely on these two right-handed defenders to take care of business, it’s a pretty shaky plan.  So that brings us to the next point.

Point two

Dahlin is without a doubt the top draft prospect this year.  He is described as a generational talent at defense who can step right into the NHL next season.

But the Blackhawks currently hold only a 5.8 percent chance of landing this future star.  Adam Boqvist is another super talent, but he’s 17 and needs to mature physically to play in the NHL.

So that means Bowman should be looking to acquire at least one top-four defenseman via free agency.  Here are some of the candidates.

The New York Islanders will have to re-sign several pending free agents, including John Tavares, Brock Nelson and Jaroslav Halak.  They might not have enough room under the salary cap to sign all of Calvin DeHaan, Thomas Hickey, Ryan Pulock and Brandon Davidson to new contracts.  DeHaan and Hickey are both unrestricted free agents and either would look really good on the Blackhawks’ second pair.

The Washington Capitals will have star defenseman John Carlson as an unrestricted free agent.  He is the most desirable free agent defenseman, but I can’t see the Caps not re-signing him.

John Moore of the New Jersey Devils would be another great addition, but I don’t see the Devils not re-signing him also.

The rest of the free agent class is composed of aging defenders or mediocre talent, which can be seen here on Cap Friendly.

I like the idea of adding a solid top-four defender (two would be even better) and obtaining a better backup goalie to lock down the defensive end. Bowman would have to move at least one of the signed defensemen to make this happen.  If he can’t make any deals, he has seven defenders signed for next season.

Point three

The claim that Bowman and Quenneville don’t see eye to eye on talent has been an ongoing story.  For those who subscribe to this theory, having all the same defenders return next season would be proof that Bowman is making his stand with Quenneville as to who is right

In the past, Quenneville has shunned Bowman’s acquisitions of Nick Leddy, David Rundblad, Trevor Daley and Michal Kempny.  And his handling of this year’s defense has been questionable.

To take this train of thought even further, this would mean Quenneville would be out as coach when the season ends.  This would mean Bowman thinks so highly of his present defensive group that he would go with them again next season and fire a future Hockey Hall of Fame coach who could not get this group to play well.  I don’t think anyone can look at this group and say it is a Stanley Cup defense, including Bowman.

All general managers have hits and misses.  You can’t scrutinize every draft pick that didn’t work out and every trade that didn’t work out.  General managers and coaches don’t have to see eye to eye on every player, but they should agree on building a team’s identity.

If you ask other teams what they think about the Blackhawks, they say that this team comes at you hard with speed and skill.  So the ‘Hawks are going in the right direction identity-wise.

Quenneville is a very demanding coach.  Players with below-average skill or undisciplined personalities don’t last in his program.  This is both his strength and weakness at the same time.

He will need better talent to work with next season, but he needs to be better, too.  This team is in transition, and he will have to be a transformational leader to rebuild it into a champion again.

Point four

Bowman has made several questionable moves.  His win-now-at-any-cost method and awarding of mega-contracts has gotten him into a bind.  He’s also overseen a team that’s won three Stanley Cup championships.

In a world of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, this summer of drafting, free agent signing and trading will make or break his future with the organization.  If he’s simply banking on Crawford and the current defense to win a Stanley Cup next year, he’s out of his mind.  But if he’s laying the groundwork for significant roster tweaks, then we will say that there’s a method to the madness.

Fans may lose their minds over transactions that don’t agree with their agendas.  The general manager job is not as easy as some would like to think it is.  If it were an easy job, I might be on the phone right now with some agents working out deals.

Trades don’t just happen because we think they’re good — they happen because a multitude of actions occur within and between organizations.

Conclusion

There is no sympathy around the league for the Chicago Blackhawks.  They’ve had their successful run at everyone else’s expense.  I’m going with the hybrid answer of Points One and Two together.

The ‘Hawks have had to force young players into the NHL before they’re ready because of the salary cap and, yes, some mismanagement of contracts.  They’ve been compelled to trade away young players in a win-now system.  But Bowman needs to be careful not to shift wildly toward the other extreme and bet big with a low hand.

Yes, the return of Crawford will vastly improve the defense.  Adding at least one top-four defender and counting on key young defenders (Rutta and Oesterle) to improve will have far reaching effects.  They could even (gasp) get back into the playoffs with a decent defense.