Unlike at the forward position, where there were a few spots up for grabs on the 3rd and 4th lines, the Blackhawks will enter the 2013-14 season with the same exact blueline that helped them win the Stanley Cup back in June.
And it could be argued that that defense, arguably the best and deepest in the NHL, is what makes the Hawks Stanley Cup favorites again this year.
I'll just do a quick fly-by of each defenseman.
Duncan Keith - Coming off a solid season and playoff, Keith will once again chew up big minutes for the Hawks in all situations. Personally, I'm not expecting any more Norris trophies for the rest of Keith's career, especially not against the likes of purely offensive Erik Karlsson and PK Subban. Instead, expect Keith to throw up 45-50 points and see a lot of time on both special teams units. Not big surprises here.
Brent Seabrook - Seabs had a rough go last season, by most accounts. He was slow coming out of the gate and never seemed able to find his legs. He made a habit of uncharacteristic errors and awkward positioning in his own end, until finally lighting the burners and turning in an absolutely terrific performance in their run to the Stanley Cup. Together with Keith, Seabrook will form the cornerstone of the Hawks defense. He'll see a ton of minutes and will be expected to bring the tough, physical play he's provided in past years. It will be interesting to see if Seabrook can pick up where he left off in the playoffs or if he has a difficult time getting going again like last season. My money is on the former.
Niklas Hjalmarsson - After last year's rock star campaign, establishing himself as a premier NHL defenseman and getting some new paper to go with it, Hjalmarsson enters this season with a ton of mojo. Consistency and reliability would be the best two words to describe Hjalmarsson last year and they're probably what we should expect of him this year. Also expect to see Hjalmarsson's offensive numbers pick up a bit. Last year he seemed much more confident skating with the puck and handling the puck in general. This should lead to him making some more plays and probably more pucks going in with his help.
Johnny Oduya - Another steady contributor to the Hawks blueline last year, Oduya adds a good mix of skating ability, positional awareness in the defensive zone and an underrated offensive game. He'll eat up a lot of minutes for Quenneville and help with the transitional game from the second pairing. I think we can expect a strong season from Oduya, whose game meshes so well with the Hawks' style.
Nick Leddy - Coming off a contract extension, the Hawks will look for Leddy to make a big jump this year. The offensive defenseman has made great strides in his career thus far and his development has been fun to watch. He'll likely see mostly third pairing minutes but we might see him be given an increased role on the power play, probably quarterbacking the first unit, which is his strong suit. I'm expecting a huge year for Leddy offensively.
Michal Rozsival - It was surprising to some that Rozsival re-signed with the Hawks in the summer. As a UFA coming off a Cup win, it looked like he was destined for a lucrative contract with a team seeking an experienced veteran. Instead Rozsival re-upped with the Hawks and will be arguably the best sixth defenseman in the NHL. He'll be a reliable presence that can ease some of the minutes off the top two pairs. However, coming off a short summer and with a full season ahead, I wouldn't expect to see Rozsival in every game.
Sheldon Brookbank - Brookbank will once again start the year as the Hawks' seventh defenseman (which is what he should be). He'll see some action when injuries hit or when Rozsival needs a break and he'll give you exactly what you got out of him last year: some steady play, some gaffs, a lot of chirping and probably a few fights. I wouldn't even expect Brookbank to last the year with the Hawks. I definitely see him expendable in a trade to free up cap space and a roster spot somewhere down the line.
Michael Kostka - Fortunately, I was able to see Kostka play quite a few times last year. From what I saw then (and the very limited I have seen this preseason) he's a reliable guy that is capable of playing quality minutes when needed. Personally, I'd have him higher than Brookbank on the depth chart. He's a much better skater with a strong two-way game and a lot of potential. I would expect Kostka to see a fair bit of action this season, both due to injuries and the naturally rotating door that will inevitably be the sixth defenseman spot.
Ryan Stanton - the last player to be cut from the roster, was claimed off waivers by the Vancouver Canucks yesterday, so that deals a minor blow to the Hawks depth in the system. Despite that, they still have a couple more options in Rockford if needed.
Theo Peckham is the most experienced, with 160 NHL games under his belt. Peckham brings size and a very rugged game.
Adam Clendening had a very strong camp and could probably be called on if one or more of the Hawks' better skating, offensive defensemen go down for an extended period of time.
Dylan Olsen also had a reasonably strong showing in camp and has some NHL experience to boot. Olsen has shown a lot of improvement since last year and is probably ready to see some more NHL action, even if only temporarily.
Also, don't overlook Klas Dahlbeck, who looked very good in the preseason and has demonstrated the ability to play a very safe, reliable game.