Someday soon, there is going to be an NHL season. It may only be 48 games or so, but count me among the optimists that think a deal is not too far off.
Which means that within the next few weeks, we could be seeing the Chicago Blackhawks take the ice for the first time since their extremely disappointing playoff exit at the hands of the Phoenix Coyotes back at the end of April.
One of the biggest issues for the Blackhawks in that series, and one that we saw throughout the season, was obviously the blue line. The Hawks had a hard time handling the outstanding forecheck of the Coyotes, and looked lost in their own zone countless times throughout that series.
The glaring issues on the blue line were present even before Brian Campbell left, and became even more obvious throughout the 2011-2012 season. The front office has attempted to patch it up, with a combination of trade acquisitions and free agents, but there isn't much confidence that what Stan Bowman has done to this point will change things much.
Along with adding Johnny Oduya prior to last year's trade deadline, the Hawks will enter the season with free agent signings Sheldon Brookbank and Michal Rozsival lining up on defense in some form or fashion. Regardless of whether or not this will be an improved unit, the biggest question facing the defensive corps for the Blackhawks is simply how they'll line up.
Of course, at the top of the depth chart are going to be the usual names. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will return to log way too many minutes once again. With Shea Weber and Ryan Suter now split up, they have a chance to regain the label of "league's best defensive pairing".
Beyond the two top dogs is where things get extremely foggy. The Hawks have six guys available for four spots. While a trade can be expected once the lockout ends, even if it's just to dump a contract and free up some space, let's just assume that Stan Bowman will sit on his hands like he does so well. How do things shape up then?
I'd be extremely surprised to see anyone other than Nick Leddy and Johnny Oduya lining up together on the second pairing. Despite the two each being tossed around like rag dolls when the Hawks faced a team with a decent forecheck, the pair actually played pretty well together, and the addition of Oduya helped to settle Leddy down from his rookie struggles.
Assuming that those two wind up together on the second pairing, the Hawks will have Niklas Hjalmarsson, Steve Montador, Brookbank, and Rozsival to throw on the third pairing. If he's somehow still on the team, Hjalmarsson will easily be on that unit. But that's an awful lot of money to pay a third pairing d-man, especially if the salary cap is coming down.
If Hjammer is, inexplicably, still on the team by the time January rolls around and the season begins, Montador, Brookbank, and Rozsival will fight for playing time. Montador and Rozsival will likely be the first two for the sixth spot, and could join up on the third pairing if Hjalmarsson is traded. If Montador also finds his way out of Chicago, then Brookbank or Dylan Olsen get time next to Roszival.
How the Hawks plan to use Brookbank is a real question. He's probably better suited for a role as a seventh defenseman, playing only in emergency or glove-dropping situations. But the Hawks have said they brought him into play a decent-sized role, which is actually a completely terrifying thought.
When the season does begin, the situation on the blue line is going to be an interesting one to watch, if not an ugly one. The Blackhawks have plenty of defensemen to play around with, but whether or not they can put them into the roles in which they will be the most effective will be the true question for this team to answer.