Blackhawks Year End Reviews: The Defense


With the Blackhawks season coming to a merciful end just over a week ago, it is time to look at just how Blackhawks players individually performed (or, more accurately, did NOT perform) during this disappointing season.

My first task is to break down the Blackhawks defensive corps, which was a chore. The first thing most people were concerned about coming into this season was the inexperience of the defense, and those concerns were proven to be valid as this season went on. The easy thing to do would be pile on these players and write them off. There were positives and faint glimmers of hope that can easily be overshadowed by the dark cloud of doom and gloom.

That said, despite what General Manager Stan Bowman has fed the media and fans, the Blackhawks will need to upgrade the defense in the offseason, somehow. Rolling out the same exact defense and expecting a different result is, as the cliché goes, the definition of insanity.

The good news is that Bowman will have cap space to play with and can clear up even more with some minor moves. There is potential to turn this rickety old ship around with a trip to the dry dock this summer to look under the hood and pull the right strings. Coming from me, you might all be surprised, but I see light at the end of the tunnel and this team; without a painful tear down.

Let’s jump into this murky pool and work our way up from the filthy silt to fresh air:

Michael Kempny (D+) – Maybe one of the most enigmatic, misunderstood and maligned defenseman the Blackhawks have had in quite a while. He has the size, the speed and the raw talent, but seemed to get into the black hole of Joel Quenneville’s doghouse early in his Hawks career. As we all know very well, that dark place is somewhere that players rarely return from.

Kempny was no different.

When he played, his numbers were better than average. One goal, six assists and a plus 13 (one of the few plus players) in 31 games is a respectable stat line. Kempny had a respectable 53.9% even strength Corsi and 52.6% Fenwick. All signs point to this guy deserving more of a chance.

I really had high hopes for this Czech defender, but once he was banished to “Pay-No-Mindland” his Blackhawks career was ostensibly over. He had stretches of solid play, once he was actually allowed to dress, but then would be excommunicated to the Joel Quenneville Shrimp Cocktail suite for weeks at a time. I hope he continues to grow in Washington, or some other city, and make the way he was handled in Chicago look even worse.

Gustav Forsling (C-) – With Ville Pokka finally jettison this year, Gustav Forsling is looking more and more like he is taking that title on. Of course he is younger and quicker that Pokka, but he seems to be stuck in that frustrating purgatory between the NHL and AHL. He has some really impressive talent but he has yet to really figure out the NHL game. He is still really young, though, and he has time to develop.

The problem is that Stan Bowman keeps retaining these other middling defenders like Rutta and Gustafsson which keep Forsling in the AHL. My fear with Forsling is that next year will be another lost year because he is probably at least 7th on the organizational depth chart, not counting Carl Dahlstrom, Blake Hillman, Dennis Gilbert, Henri Jokiharju or any of the other young prospects or pending draft choices.

Forsling played 41 games before the Blackhawks finally had enough and sent him down to Rockford for some seasoning. Both his Corsi (49.1%) and Fenwick (45.7%) numbers were the worst on the team for any regular defenseman. His three goals and ten assists were certainly commendable, but the possession number really need to improve.

His development and possession metrics could have been hindered a bit by the fact that Joel Quenneville did not shelter him excessively as far as zone starts, which were fairly even.

It is crucial that Forsling has a good summer and forces the Blackhawks hand or he may very well end up the next defenseman that ends up as an extra player in future trade.

Connor Murphy (C) – If it were not for Brent Seabrook, Connor Murphy would probably hold the infamous irrational hatred award. Murphy is a young, big, third or fourth defenseman. His biggest crime, though, is not being Niklas Hjalmarsson.

Niklas Hjalmarsson is not even Niklas Hjalmarsson anymore, but Murphy will unfortunately always be held to that unattainable standard.

As the season began, it is no big secret that the young defenseman struggled to adjust. Once Quenneville started playing mad-scientist and moved Murphy over to the right side (which he had never played) something clicked in his lizard brain, and he turned a corner. He still isn’t (and probably never will be) Hjalmarsson but, then again, who is? Stop comparing him to the player he was traded for, and life will be much easier.

Jordan Oesterle (C) – Of all the surprises in 2017-18, on the defensive side of the house, Jordan Oesterle might be the biggest of them all. When he was signed last summer, the impression was that he was a depth tweener that could be shuttled between Rockford and Chicago. He boasted a grand total of 25 NHL games over three seasons with an organization that had mostly been a mess in their own end. Oesterle’s numbers were comparable to Erik Gustafsson in Rockford, while the defenseman was with Oklahoma City and Bakersfield.

He started the season sitting in the press box for a majority of the first couple of months and seemed to be that elusive “never seen nor heard from 8th defenseman.”  The fact that he eventually dressed and played significant minutes for 55 regular season games of pretty remarkable. Playing with Duncan Keith a vast majority of the season probably helped his numbers a bit, as well. Those numbers are not as gaudy as you might recall, but 5G-10A-15P is decent.

Certainly more than most might have expected from Oesterle.

As the season wore on, we began to see the true holes in his game. Like a lot of the other average sized, mediocre, puck moving defenseman in the organization Oesterle was an adventure in his own end of the ice, and this became more evident as the book got out on him.

As far as possession metrics go, he was only better than Brent Seabrook, Jan Rutta and Gustav Forsling on defense. Oesterle’s 52.4% Corsi and 51.1% Fenwick at 5v5 look alright on the surface, but the entire Blackhawks team had really good shot metrics overall.

Again, much of that was the fact that he played with the best defenseman in the organization for most of the year. Oesterle is another fine tweener defenseman, but the Blackhawks still need to add some meat to the middle of their depth chart if they want to turn things around next season.

Brent Seabrook (C+) – We go from one of the misunderstood players to (possibly) the most irrationally hated Blackhawks player. Brent Seabrook is a warrior; a leader; a long time under rated player in this league because of the flash of his old partner Duncan Keith.

And he makes too much money.

Fans need to get used to the fact that Brent Seabrook will not be going anywhere unless he retires or is bought out through some kind of compliance/amnesty buyout. Learn to forget his salary cap hit. Get one of those “Men In Black” flashy doohickeys.

Blackhawks Year End Reviews: The Defense
As a bottom three defender, he is a great asset. If you match him up against opponents’ top players, you are going to need a Costco sized case of Excedrin.

His overall numbers were just “OK” and he clearly has lost a step; or five.

Seabrook is still one of the few defenseman on the Blackhawks that can get a cannon of a shot through to the net, especially on the power play, though. It is really unfortunate that the coaching staff will need to work around him but this is the hand their general manager has dealt them.

Carl Dahlstrom (C+) – Dahlstrom is an interesting case, and his long trip to the NHL has been well documented by Chris Block of The Third Man In. He was forgotten about and virtually cast away, but has fought back and played some significant NHL minutes this year. That was all after having an excellent AHL season and being selected as an AHL All-Star.

My notes on him in prospect camp over the past few years were as follows:

  • 2013 – Looks bigger than his size, and big shoulder pads make him look very broad shouldered. Lumbering. More slow and smooth. Would get walked at the pro level.
  • 2015 – Tall, has size and some bulk. Not overly quick. Seems like an adventure in his own end when pressured.
  • 2016 – Moves like Frankenstein. Has great size, but struggles to keep up. Looks like a younger Rozsival with equivalent speed.

His footwork has definitely improved over the years, and his size is something the Blackhawks have lacked on the back end. With new confidence to jump into the play, he has turned himself into a pretty surprising borderline NHL player. At 6’3” and 240 lbs he is never going to be a speedster, especially next to players like Gustav Forsling and Duncan Keith.

Those players are carrying at least 50 lbs less meat around, though.

As far as his numbers go, Dahlstrom only registered three assists and a -3 in his 11 games. His Corsi (52.9%) was right in the middle of the pack and his Fenwick (49.8%) was in the bottom third. Part of this can be attributed to his usage. Joel Quenneville gave him a healthy 53.4% of defensive zone starts which was the most of Blackhawks defensemen.

Going forward, with the crowded clown car of mediocre defensemen, I really cannot see where he fits in, but Dahlstrom’s size and the proof that he can hang against NHL players might make him an enticing trade piece. Personally, I would like to see them clear out some of the carbon copy smaller guys and develop some of the bigger guys.

Erik Gustafsson (C+) – Nobody, including me, thought that we would be seeing Erik Gustafsson logging 35 games with the Blackhawks this year, but that is exactly what transpired. Gustafsson was the “forgotten guy” after not playing a single game for the Blackhawks and spending all of 2016-17 in Rockford. During that season with the Icehogs he had pretty solid offensive numbers (5G-25A-30P), but had a horrid -27 hung around his neck.

When the season began, he was probably looked at as an 8th or 9th option, but a solid start to his 2017-18 season (3G-14A-17P in 25 games) and a mediocre Blackhawks defense forced management’s hand. Gustafsson was recalled on January 9th never to return to Rockford.

He never went back to Rockford because of his impressive offensive numbers. In only 35 games, the 26-year-old Swedish defenseman put up 16 points (5G-11A). His 5v5 Corsi was 5th best on the team (55.4%) and his Fenwick was 2nd best, after Cody Franson, at 54.9%. This might lead you to believe that Quenneville was sheltering him with offensive zone starts but, shockingly, his zone starts were relatively even (57.4% offensive).

This unexpected jump in production eventually led to a two-year extension for Gustafsson. Like so many of the others in this group, I’m not entirely sure where he fits into this cast of misfits, but it will be a crowded group. He would be fine as a 5th/6th/7th guy but, as a top four defenseman, the Blackhawks may be in trouble.

Cody Franson (B-) – I told everyone in the interwebz that Cody Franson would surprise them with what he could provide, and he did; for a little while. He came into camp on a PTO and clearly had an “under the table” deal with Stan Bowman, once the Marian Hossa LTIR room kicked in. If you watch hockey and do not just judge players from a stat line with no context, you probably would have had a good idea of what Franson could bring.

He is a big commanding veteran presence that has a booming shot from the point. He knows his limitations and adjusts for them. Joel Quenneville was clearly aware of Franson’s limitations too. He gave Franson a team high 65.8% offensive zone starts. As a result, the 30-year-old defender had the team best 5v5 Corsi (59.9%) and Fenwick (60.2%).

On the offensive side of the ice, in his 23 games, Franson had 1G-7A-8P and half of his points were on the power play. These are all respectable numbers for a guy that came in on a try out and only made $1M this season.

As the season went on and the Blackhawks continued to take on water, Franson was sent to Rockford to mentor that group and allow some of the younger kids at the NHL level to get some long looks. Frustrating, for certain, but Franson went to Rockford like a good soldier and was eventually voted the Icehogs best defenseman.

Overall, he played within his means and did what was asked from him. His examples of how to be a pro will probably reflect on those young Rockford kids for years to come, which was well worth his $1M price tag.

Jan Rutta (B-) – While Michal Kempny might have left a bad taste in your mouths regarding Czech defensemen, Jan Rutta might bring you back to the other side of the tracks.  Kempny played in that World Cup of Money that the NHL held two years ago, and played a lot. Unlike Kempny, Rutta came in as a relatively unknown player.

Rutta is slightly bigger and came in a year older. Right away he showed that he can fit in the NHL. He was more reliable than his countryman, and showed an added offensive element. As a result, the Blackhawks coaching staff appeared to take a real liking to this rookie defenseman. So much so that Bowman signed him to a pretty large raise after only 57 games in North America.

In Rutta’s 57 games, he amassed six goals and 20 points, which is good for 3rd overall with Blackhawks defenseman. It is easy to see why the Blackhawks would want to keep him, but it is certainly curious as to why Bowman overpaid for Rutta.  His possession number certainly left a lot to be desired, and I cannot imagine that teams were breaking his door down.

It remains to be seen whether he will just be another face in the sea of average defenders next season, or if he will be worth the large raise.

Duncan Keith (B+) – There has been much angst regarding Keith this season. A lot of “dat Keith stinkz”, and questions about whether he has dropped off significantly.

Honestly, Blackhawks fans should not be worried, just yet. If you look at the cast of no-name partners he has dragged up and down the ice all year, he should get a free pass. One player, no matter who he is, can only cover for his partners so much before it starts to affect his own production.

Much like Jonathan Toews, it also might be time the Blackhawks stopped leaning on Duncan Keith so much and let him settle into a more relaxed role. Clearly, Keith is a freak of nature and can handle a physical beating, but if the organization expects him to be the mentor to all of the young defensemen coming through the system then they need to lighten the load. Otherwise, he will burn out, and it will come quickly. Keith’s ice time and zone starts have shifted in that direction (lowest since 06-07) but when he is the designated babysitter, the shift needs to probably happen a little more succinct.

The first thing they need to do is get him off the power play. Keith is not a necessity on the power play, and is not all that helpful there anyway. Some of the reason their power play was rancid was that when they put Keith out there, he just was not effective. He cannot get his shots through to the net, and has turned into more of a liability than anything. When Jordan Oesterle or Cody Franson are more effective, it is time to make a personnel change for good.

As far as his stats are concerned, of course they dipped. Dragging around unproven wild cards for most of the season will take a toll. His 2 goals and 32 points were still good enough for 6th on the team in scoring, though. His Corsi was right in the middle of the pack (52.4 %) and his Fenwick was in the bottom 3rd of the team (50.4%) at 5v5.

Honestly, anyone that suggests they trade Duncan Keith and his absurdly affordable contract better be ready for a full tear down and rebuild, because that would be the Blackhawks’ only choice. Even on the decline, as slow as it is, Duncan Keith is still far and away the best defenseman on this team.

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