Editorials

Chicago Blackhawks’ 2019-20 Defensive Pairing Predictions

By Steve Dishon
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - FEBRUARY 18: Erik Gustafsson #56 of the Chicago Blackhawks awaits a face-off against the Ottawa Senators at the United Center on February 18, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Senators 8-7. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - FEBRUARY 18: Erik Gustafsson #56 of the Chicago Blackhawks awaits a face-off against the Ottawa Senators at the United Center on February 18, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Senators 8-7. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /
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What will the Chicago Blackhawks’ defensive pairings look like after the major overhaul this offseason?

Whenever the topic of the Chicago Blackhawks’ defense comes up, the first complaint is always the albatross that is Brent Seabrook‘s contract. Yes, it’s bad. We all get it.

We all know, though, that he is in the lineup this year. No way, with an NMC and an exorbitant salary, is he getting moved any time soon.

Where do the ‘Hawks put Seabrook then? Where do the new guys fit in? What happens if Adam Boqvist makes this team? Let’s dig in and take a look.

Defensive Pairings

1st Pairing: Duncan KeithErik Gustafsson

Let the eye-rolling begin. Yes, these two are not the strongest “defensive” defenseman. Many Blackhawks’ fans and critics would even go as far as saying Erik Gustafsson doesn’t belong on any defensive pairing.

However, both Keith and Gustafsson are the only Blackhawks’ defensemen with at least 40 games played from last year who had a Corsi rating above 50. Keith had exactly 50, while Gustafsson had 50.8.

Also, Gustafsson has had a Corsi rating over 50 in each of his three NHL seasons. Keith and Gus had a positive Relative Corsi in regards to their teammates as well. Gustafsson was better here with a 2.1 positive correlation.

Why are we talking about offensive measurement for defensemen? Simply put, defensive statistics are a bit sketchy at best.

Plus-Minus is too dependent on the other four players on the ice at the same time. Takeaways and giveaways are misleading and largely dependent on time on ice and puck possession.

For instance, Brent Burns, who many would consider one of the top defensemen in the league, had 118 giveaways last season. In comparison, Keith had 73 and Gustafsson had 77. Both played over 22 minutes on the ice each night and possessed the puck a lot, both exiting and entering the zones.

Sometimes, the “eye test” is best — Where are they on the ice? How did they play the man? Did they clear the crease? However, the “eye test” isn’t quantifiable. Therefore, I prefer to focus on possession numbers.

The key, for me, here is that both Keith and Gustafsson have strong possession numbers. Not only that, but both posted nice scoring totals as well.

In 5-on-5 situations, Gustafsson was 4th in the league with 35 points. He had 60 points overall which placed him 6th in the NHL.

Gustafsson was also crucial to the success of the Blackhawks’ powerplay last year. He tallied 18 points in man-advantage situations, as the quarterback of the first powerplay unit.

Keith was also extremely effective in 5-on-5 situations, as he ranked 7th in the NHL with 33 points this season.

Both Keith and Gustafsson struggled at times in open ice recognition. They were often seen gawking on 2-on-1 breakaways and failed to cover the crease when the puck dropped below the goal line.

More often than not, they controlled the action with puck possession and offensive pressure. It’s easy to play defense if you are in your offensive zone.

With the added strength of forwards Andrew Shaw and Zach Smith, the ‘Hawks are instantly a better defensive-minded team. These players will support the offensive game of our offensive-minded defensemen.

One final point — Gustafsson is in the final year of his contract. If he puts up 60-70 points again, it is unlikely that the ‘Hawks would have enough cap space available to keep him, Alex DeBrincat, and Dylan Strome. In this scenario, Gustafsson is definitely the odd man out.

Keeping Gustafsson in a high profile role this season will improve his trade value throughout the year.

2nd Pairing: Calvin de HaanConnor Murphy

Calvin de Haan and Connor Murphy will be the Blackhawks’ shutdown line. Murphy was as close to shutdown as the ‘Hawks had last year, but he couldn’t do it all by himself. This year, he will get some help in the form of de Haan.

The ‘Hawks acquired de Haan from the Carolina Hurricanes this offseason. He is a true defensive defenseman. He only posted 14 points, but did have a Corsi of 55.5. He is sound and not a defenseman who will push the pace.

Last season, de Haan actually had more takeaways than giveaways, 59 TK and 55 GV.  Another stat that shows the strength of his defensive game is the decrease in shot blocks.

The previous two seasons when he played a near-complete schedule of games, de Haan had 198 and 190 blocks. He was clearly backpedaling and not controlling the game.

When de Haan left the New York Islanders and went to the Carolina Hurricanes, his game shined while he was surrounded with more capable players in a better system.

The offseason additions to the Blackhawks’ forward group and the returning veterans ensure that de Haan will be able to play his defensive game. He will be able to control the blue line and keep that Corsi strong.

Connor Murphy’s numbers aren’t as strong, but he didn’t have the support around him that de Haan did last season. Murphy’s Corsi rating was 48.2 and his Relative Corsi was -.4.

While that looks bad, it is not as bad as it seems. Murphy typically played against the other teams’ top lines.

Furthermore, his zone starts were woefully lopsided. He started 61.2 percent of the time in the defensive zone.

With that in mind, having a -.4 Relative Corsi is impressive. Murphy is a strong skater and will benefit playing alongside the consistent, reliable de Haan.

3rd Pairing: Olli Maatta-Brent Seabrook

Olli Maatta and Brent Seabrook will make up the third defensive pairing. It is so difficult to place a player making over $6 million per year in Seabrook on the third line.

However, based on recent performance, it’s the best place for him. Hopefully, limiting ice time and pairing Seabrook with a more defensive-minded Maatta will bring him more success.

Last season, Seabrook had a Corsi rating of 47 and the worst Relative Corsi on the team at -3.5. Seabrook had 180 blocks and 124 hits.

On the surface, those numbers look strong and he looks active. However, having to block 180 shots means that the Blackhawks are not possessing the puck when he is on the ice.

This is a trend that has developed over the past two seasons; a negative plus-minus coupled with a dwindling Relative Corsi and increasing defensive stats like blocks and hits. It is a disturbing trend and one that Maatta can hopefully help stem.

Olli Maatta comes to the Blackhawks having had his worst statistical year to date. He has a lot to prove, but based on his previous years in Pittsburgh, he does have the potential. At this point, it’s just a matter of him tapping into it and staying at that level.

Last year, Maatta posted an abysmal Corsi of 46.4, following a year when he had a 51.6 Corsi. As bad as those numbers were, the Penguins clearly saw the potential there as he started on the ice nearly 60% of the time in the defensive zone. Not only that, in 2017-2018, Maatta netted 29 points and played a more offensive game.

He is 24-years-old and has a lot of room to grow. If he can regain his confidence and continue playing a stay at home defensive game, his offensive game may naturally grow from this.

Hopefully, playing fewer minutes per game will help Seabrook. He will also be playing a mentor role for Maatta, which should help him realize his true potential.

Let’s hope both can bounce back this season and make this Blackhawks’ defensive group one of the better units in the NHL.

7th Defenseman/Players on the Bubble

Slater Koekkoek and Carl Dahlstrom are the two defensemen who will step in due to injury, healthy scratch, or much-needed rest for our elder defenseman. There is a relatively small sample size for both Koekkoek and Dahlstrom though.

Koekkoek was the more successful of the two. He played in 22 games with the Blackhawks last season. He posted a 51.8 Corsi and a very healthy 3.5 Relative Corsi.

He doesn’t move the puck as well as other defensemen, but plays a very solid game, protecting the net, working the corners, and maintaining strong position.

Koekkoek should be the first of the two to pick up minutes when players go down or get held out.

Dahlstrom doesn’t have numbers that support much ice time. In 38 games, he has a Corsi of 46.6 and a relative Corsi of -2.1. In his defense, he started in the defensive zone 62.2 percent of the time.

I believe he is here because he played under Coach Colliton in Rockford and knows his system. He has earned Colliton’s confidence. Dahlstrom should be the second man up, behind Koekkoek.

Adam Boqvist

There is no guarantee that Adam Boqvist will crack the NHL roster this year, but all indications coming out of camp are saying he is ready and has made serious strides since last year.

If Adam Boqvist joins the team, what does that mean for the rest of the D corps? I would assume with the money involved that there would have to be a trade.

I doubt, at this point, that Stan Bowman would trade either Calvin de Haan or Olli Maatta since he acquired them specifically for their defensive abilities.

Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook still have No-Movement Clauses and are simply too expensive at their ages. The players who are most likely to be moved are Connor Murphy and Erik Gustafsson.

Murphy makes the most sense because he would save $3.85 mil in cap space. That would go a long way, when coupled with either the Crawford ($6 mil) or Lehner ($5 mil) money, to sign DeBrincat and Strome next year.

Gustafsson would not add as much cap relief, but could attract some suitors based on his offensive production. At $1.2 million per year, with only one year left on his contract, moving him would not be that hard.

Murphy, too, wouldn’t pose much of a problem, as he is still relatively young with a lot of NHL experience. Either way, I don’t see Gustafsson on this team next year.

Having said all that, there is no way of actually knowing who will land on which defensive pairing yet. It takes time to build chemistry and Coach Colliton has his work cut out for him.

The one thing I think we can all agree on is that the defensive unit will be much improved, regardless of who plays on which pairing.

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