The Chicago Blackhawks' defense has been lacking of late, and yet on Thursday night, the team shipped off 22-year-old defenseman Adam Clendening to the Vancouver Canucks for teenage prospect Gustav Forsling. The deal was both surprising and expected -- we knew a trade was likely given the crowd in Rockford, we just didn't know who would get dealt or when it would happen.
Now Clendening is likely on a plane to British Columbia, and the Blackhawks' need for support on the blue line -- both this year and in the future -- remains. That might make it seem like a questionable decision to give up on one of the guys who could potentially address the situation, but there are some reasons the team felt comfortable making the deal. Spoiler: it sounds a lot like the Jeremy Morin situation.
Five's a crowd
As much as the Blackhawks need help on the blue line right now, that need becomes even greater in the near future. Johnny Oduya and Michal Rozsival are set to hit free agency in the summer, and while that pair hasn't played well this season, those minutes will need to be replaced all the same.
Even if we assume that Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and David Rundblad (yes, Rundblad) already have spots locked up, that still leaves the final pairing wide open with limited cap space.
That could mean digging into affordable free agent options, or it could mean turning to the guys in Rockford. While we don't need to teach you about Joel Quenneville's relative disinterest in developing young talent, he may not have a choice next season depending on where the salary cap falls.
Quenneville will surely do his best to convince Stan Bowman to seek out affordable veterans, and I wouldn't be surprised if one of the spots is ultimately filled by an experienced guy willing to take a Brad Richards-like discount. If that's the case, then the Blackhawks' previously dire blue line situation suddenly has five holes filled and just one spot remaining (plus the seventh guy, although Tim Erixon can tell you that's not much of a role).
So you're talking about one, maybe two spots that rookies will fill next season, and five guys who could still realistically fill them: Erixon, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Stephen Johns, Klas Dahlbeck and Ville Pokka. Even if a couple of these guys show up and fail to impress, like we've seen with Clendening, Morin and many others before them, alternatives are still very much available.
The Morin parallel
Clendening didn't have an extended period of underwhelming play at the NHL level like Morin, but his departure comes for fairly similar reasons. From the crowded depth chart to the looming waiver status issues, both guys were in a similar position and neither found a way to stick in Chicago.
One thing that's become clear, and it's something we discussed before, is that the Blackhawks can't offer the same opportunities as teams elsewhere on the win spectrum. Some might call it impatience, or an unwillingness to develop young players, but it's more akin to the way the New York Yankees focus on their elite guys and use the rest as trade fodder. When you have championship aspirations, there will be players who qualify as NHL talent but don't meet your threshold for earning playing time.
That means the 'Hawks focus on developing the guys who they believe can become high-level contributors on a Cup-winning team, and ship out the guys who prove otherwise. It's not that team realized it was wrong about Clendening or Morin or Brandon Pirri or Dylan Olsen -- it's just that a prospect's odds of reaching a certain ceiling become increasingly low as time passes, and the team has decided it's best to bail on guys who don't immediately stand out. You might disagree with that philosophy, but it's apparent the team buys into it.
And just because there will never be a youth movement under Q and Bowman doesn't mean young guys don't play. Rundblad and TVR both have gotten steady playing time this season, and Teuvo Teravainen and Joakim Nordstrom are emerging as lineup mainstays. The very best players tend to "sink or swim" fairly quickly in this league, and the 'Hawks have firmly focused on those guys over second-tier depth. I'd question the strategy, but it's an awful lot easier to find bargains like Richards and unearthed "gems" like van Riemsdyk than it is to acquire legitimate star-level players. The Blackhawks seem to recognize the fungible nature of most mid-level players.
Balancing the pipeline
There's also something to be said for bringing better balance to the Blackhawks' prospect corps. Having a ton of talent that's near NHL ready is great, but as the team has shown, it's only as valuable as the kinds of roles you're able to fill with it.
So instead of having a superfluous NHL-ready guy who doesn't have huge upside and falls near the back of the depth chart, the team pushes the buck down the line by adding Gustav Forsling, an 18-year-old who seems to be pretty well regarded in hockey circles. The move hardly hurts the team now, and eases the effort to maintain a pipeline of talent down the road.
To me, this comes off as the Blackhawks trying to get ahead with their situation, and further commit to the young guys who they believe could help in the future. The team still has a ton of near-ready talent in Rockford, and gets to add Forsling to an intriguing second wave that includes Dillon Fournier and Michael Paliotta. Clendening, as intriguing as he was, fell down the depth chart pretty clearly over the first half of the season. Whether he deserved it is a different question, but the Blackhawks haven't come to regret many of the times they've given up on young talent in recent history.
Clendening could be the first, but the process still makes sense. The Blackhawks had a ton of young talent on the blue line before, and they still do now. Forsling could end up being the best of the bunch, too, and those are the gambles you take when you're picking at the bottom of the first round every year.