Analysis

Chicago Blackhawks’ Defense: Constructing Top 7 From Current Roster

By Colin Likas
EVERETT, WA - APRIL 13: Defenseman Henri Jokiharju (16) of the Portland Winterhawks skates the puck out of the defensive zone during the first period in Game 5 of the second round of the Western Hockey League playoffs between the Everett Silvertips and Portland Winterhawks on Friday, April 13, 2018 at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, WA. The Everett Silvertips won the game by a final score of 4-0. (Photo by Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
EVERETT, WA - APRIL 13: Defenseman Henri Jokiharju (16) of the Portland Winterhawks skates the puck out of the defensive zone during the first period in Game 5 of the second round of the Western Hockey League playoffs between the Everett Silvertips and Portland Winterhawks on Friday, April 13, 2018 at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, WA. The Everett Silvertips won the game by a final score of 4-0. (Photo by Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /
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Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook

These two are obvious inclusions, unless Bowman somehow finds a taker for Seabrook’s contract (and there’s no indication he’s trying to do so simply to please exasperated fans).

Keith, even in a slower and more injury-prone state, is still the Blackhawks’ No. 1 defenseman. Though he went through a major goal scoring drought in 2017-18, it’s not as though him coming up with a career high in goals would’ve saved that team.

Keith, for the foreseeable future, will be asked to take on the toughest assignments from a purely defensive perspective. Perhaps Seabrook will join him, or perhaps he’ll be buried in a lower pairing to keep his minutes down and against lesser foes.

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We saw both of those ideas last season from Coach Q, and the “limited minutes” one did lead to some good games out of Seabs. Q’s ability to do this will be entirely dependent on the performances of other blueliners.

Seabrook can still provide some defensive help in certain situations, and we know his penchant for chipping in on the offensive end. So he isn’t useless. And he’s cracking the starting six unless he gets traded.

Connor Murphy

I’m not sure whether or not Bowman, Q and Co. have given up on Murphy already. But given the length and amount of his contract (four more years at $3.85 million per), I find it unlikely he gets moved. And in that case, he’s going to make the roster.

Of course, I could see Q going right back to scratching Murphy. But hopefully he’ll make some strides in training camp that Q can approve of, because he wasn’t playing super poorly down the stretch last season. (That’s the bar we’re trying to clear with this defense.)

Until the Blackhawks can prove they have six other guys who are out and out better than Murphy right now, at the NHL level, he’ll get an opening-night nod.

Erik Gustafsson

After being banished to the AHL for some time despite the Blackhawks’ defense crumbling, Gustafsson came back last season and was entirely fine. Again, low bar to clear with this group.

Gustafsson is probably a second-pairing blueliner for the Blackhawks on opening night. He was trusted with much more ice time in his second stint with the big club (18:33 versus 15:27 in 2015-16), and he plays an offensively up-tempo style that Q would find useful.

The problem comes with finding a partner for Gustafsson. He’s a left-side defenseman, and while the next guy I’m going to mention could play well of Gustafsson’s tendencies, he too is a left-side guy. Let’s come back to this.

Brandon Manning

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Few seem impressed with the Blackhawks adding this former Philadelphia Flyer, even after a career-best offensive campaign. But he’s been signed, and it’s noted that Q loves his style. So he’s playing.

Manning has been described as a stay-at-home defenseman. If he’s comfortable playing on his off side, he could always suit up alongside Gustafsson. I’m not sure this would be any better than Seabrook or Murphy, but we’re playing with a limited number of options here.

Blake Hillman, Gustav Forsling, Henri Jokiharju, Luc Snuggerud

I’ll be upfront: I don’t think Jan Rutta and Jordan Oesterle are going to be on the opening night roster. I think there are enough promising youngsters rolling through that those two become expendable. It’d be a shame to lose both for nothing, but perhaps the Blackhawks could find a workaround for that.

Anyway, back to the active roster. Hillman saw time at the end of the 2017-18 season and was thrown in the deep end, starting 53.1 percent of his shifts in the defensive end. His Corsi-for was well below water, but you know the Blackhawks are going to give him another chance to snag a roster spot.

Forsling is an offensive dynamo whose defensive aspects have been the major reason for him being held back. That, and Forsling gets so excited about being in the offensive end that he gets stuck there. But Q definitely likes him, and he may have an NHL home in his future.

Jokiharju was the Blackhawks’ top pick in the 2017 draft, and he posted a very successful year with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks (79 points in 75 games). The WHL is not the AHL, but Alex DeBrincat coming out so hot from the OHL has to have the Blackhawks wondering if Jokiharju can do something similar on the back end.

I put Snuggerud in here because I think the Blackhawks were legitimately considering rostering him to start the 2017-18 year. Then he suffered an injury right before the preseason ended and was out multiple months.

Snuggerud netted 17 points in 40 AHL games with the Rockford IceHogs last year after an impressive 2017 prospects tournament. Another strong camp campaign could get him into the NHL.

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