Everyone knows the saying,“Defense wins championships.”
As Chicago Blackhawks fans, we are used to an elite defense. In their first Stanley Cup win of the Salary Cup era, the Hawks defense featured players like Dustin Byfuglien (who is currently rolling in the playoffs), Brian Campbell, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook.
In their second championship-winning season, players like Nick Leddy, Johnny Oduya, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook, anchored one of the best defenses in the NHL, which lead the Blackhawks to the best start in NHL history and the Presidents Trophy. In their final championship run, the Hawks relied on the same players, minus Nick Leddy.
The common denominator here? All championship runs had Hjalmarsson, Keith, and Seabrook leading the charge. This offseason, Niklas Hjalmarsson was traded to the Arizona Coyotes for Laurent Dauphin and Connor Murphy (who will be graded below). Meanwhile, both Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook experienced huge drop-offs, both in defensive play and point production.
It’s tough to for a team to play good defense when all their core players are traded/declining and newcomers don’t take the next step in their development. If I was to give the defense an overall grade, the Blackhawks would earn a D+ due to their subpar quality of play this entire season.
Anyway, let’s get into the individual grades.
Quite frankly, Duncan Keith’s statistics over-exaggerated how bad his 2017-2018 season actually was. Before getting into how he declined this season, I’m going to take some time to show some good signs of Keith’s performance this season.
Duncan Keith, who has been playing with the Blackhawks his entire career (13 seasons), played all 82 games, even at the ripe age of 34 years old. He even led the Blackhawks in average time on ice with almost 24 minutes per game. This shows just how durable Duncan Keith is and could indicate how this season was simply an anomaly.
No Blackhawks fan could have gone an entire game without hearing about Duncan Keith’s historically bad shooting percentage. Through the entire season, Keith scored just two goals on 187 shots with a shooting percentage of 1.1%, an NHL record. Although this number is certainly bad compared against any standards, one of the biggest problems was the Hawks lack of physicality.
For nearly the entire dynasty era, the Blackhawks have had people who would wreak havoc in front of the net, setting screens for opposing goaltenders and battling defensemen from the front of the net. First, it was Dustin Byfuglien playing the agitator role. When he went to the Atlanta Thrashers (now the Winnipeg Jets), that role was given to the Andrew Shaw. After he was traded, that role fell to Ryan Hartman, and even he couldn’t do that properly.
My point is, though Keith’s goal scoring numbers were rough, they can at least somewhat be attributed to a lack of physicality in front of the net.
His defense, itself, was average this year, though he sported a -29 plus/minus. Personally, I feel like Duncan Keith’s play didn’t deviate too much from his normal self and his severe lack of production is a result of his teammates.
I could condense Seabrook’s entire season into one word: SLOW. I mean Seabrook, in the first place, isn’t the fastest person on the team. Unlike his defensive counterpart Duncan Keith, Seabrook relies more on his size and physicality than his speed and skill.
However, this year he lost all physicality and whatever little speed he had. He was often beat to loose pucks, often putting his team in odd-man rush situations and ending whatever offensive momentum they had.
With seven goals and 19 assists, Brent Seabrook’s point production continued to decline, falling 13 points from last year and 23 points since 2016. There weren’t really many positives about Seabrook’s play this year except for the fact that he played in all but one game. Durable yes, productive, no.
Jordan Oesterle was one of those defensemen for the Hawks which showed flashes of potential during the season but didn’t just didn’t perform consistently year-round. He had times where he got involved in the offensive attack, in fact, scoring seven points (three goals and four assists) in a six-game span.
Because of his offense-oriented mindset, Coach Quenneville even partnered Oesterle with Duncan Keith in an attempt to get Keith’ offensive game going. Hopefully, Oesterle picks up bits and pieces of the future Hall of Famer’s game. Oesterle, for his offensive presence and 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) gets relatively high marks from me.
Jan Rutta is one of the few Blackhawks I’m excited to see this coming season. Rutta’s statistics aren’t good, but they are sure as hell solid, considering he spent a major portion of the season on the injured reserve. During the 2017/2018 season, he tallied six goals and 14 assists.
The Blackhawks like their defenseman skillful and speedy, making Rutta a great fit for their defense. Rutta’s willingness to contribute to the Hawks offensive attack can create mismatches on defense. In fact, his offensive presence reminds of someone like Nick Leddy who often brought the puck down the ice into the offensive zone himself.
I can’t give high marks for missing one-third of the season, but he definitely gets “extra credit” for being such an asset on the ice when he actually skated with the team.
Gustav Forsling was one of those Blackhawks who didn’t actually spend much time in the NHL– he spent half his time with the Rockford IceHogs. Forsling was ok, putting up three goals and ten assists. However, Forsling was not developed enough to get a consistent role on an NHL team.
Despite having only one year left in his contract, I’m sure if he truly improves after gaining experience in the AHL with the IceHogs, the Blackhawks would love to keep him on a team-friendly contract, considering he is only 22 years old. Personally, I would love to see him in a Blackhawks uniform– maybe more if he gains the skill set to be in the top two lines.
This year, though, he just wasn’t ready for the NHL.
Connor Murphy was acquired from the Arizona Coyotes along with Laurent Dauphin in exchange for Niklas Hjalmarsson. Let’s just say… I liked Hjalmarsson a lot more. A common thread for a lot of the defensemen above is that they like to get involved in our offense.
However, we needed more defensemen like Hjalmarsson whose focus is on defense. During his time in Chicago, Hjalmarsson was known for his shot-blocking and physical presence. Connor Murphy, like “Hammer,” has the physical presence and was third on the Blackhawks in shots blocked with 101. However, when watching him, he wasn’t a monster in the shooting lanes like Hjalmarsson was. And he wasn’t nearly as effective defensively.
In Erik Gustafsson’s second year with the Blackhawks, he made nearly no improvements to when he played with the team in the 2015/2016 season. This year, he had nearly identical statistics. He played with Brent Seabrook, and that didn’t really work out well for either of the two linemates. He has upside on offense, but not much else as a defenseman.
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