Luxuries are what have separated the Blackhawks from pretty much everybody else the last handful of years. Luxuries like having the Swedish House Mafia pairing of Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson take on the opposition’s top line, which left two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to dominate second lines. Luxuries like a skilled, puck-moving blue liner named Nick Leddy on the bottom pair.
Despite the 'Hawks playing the league’s stingiest defense for the season’s first two months, cause for concern was bubbling beneath the surface. It's boiled over during the team’s recent skid.
The Swedish House Mafia pairing is no more, thanks to Oduya’s predictable regression. Michal Rozsival continues to be trotted out in all situations by coach Joel Quenneville despite doing absolutely nothing to justify the ice time. After Trevor van Riemsdyk’s injury, the sixth spot on the blue line devolved into a mix of David Rundblad, some kids from the farm and a dash of Tim Erixon.
While the lack of a backcheck from the forwards isn’t anything that’ll continue into the spring, the heartburn caused by the back end is worth consulting a doctor about. Oduya is not a top-four defender anymore, and Rozsival is no longer a top-six defender. Goodbye, luxury.
Here’s a look at Chicago’s in-house options for bolstering the blue line, and whether or not a trade is feasible:
On the roster
Quenneville shook up the defensive pairings before the All-Star break, which combined Hjalmarsson with Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith with Rundblad, and Oduya with Rozsival.
The best part of this shuffling was that it yanked Oduya from the top assignment to the third pairing. With Hjalmarsson, Oduya carries a 50.0 CF%. Separate the two, and Oduya dips to 46.9 while Hjalmarsson rises to 56.2. Opponents’ top lines are having considerably more success against Oduya this year. Hello, biggest reason behind Chicago surrendering roughly two more shot attempts per game than last year.
Keep Oduya away from opponents’ top line, and his regression isn’t as amplified. That’s at least been the case thus far.
(H. Darr Beiser-USA TODAY Sports)
Rozsival, however, can’t be hidden. He could (and should) be stashed in a luxury suite upstairs, but we all know Quenneville letting Jeremy Morin marry one of his daughters is more likely.
Rozsival is the the 2015 Michal Handzus award winner, a dubious distinction given to the well-past-his-prime, slow, liability that Quenneville just refuses to scratch. There’s surer skating from nervous boys on a first date at Millennium Park. Had Rozsival not been given a two-year deal with a no-trade clause after the 2013 Cup, Leddy probably still has a locker stall at the United Center and this article isn’t being written.
Oduya sheltered on the third pairing suffices, but Oduya paired there with Rozsival has an uncanny ability to make you want to stick your fingers in a burning toaster.
Until Quenneville mixed things up a few games before the All-Star break, Rozsival formed the third pairing with Rundblad. Rozsival’s often incompetent play coupled with Rundblad’s mistakes in his own zone was at times a dangerous combination.
That said … let’s think back to Oduya’s first days as a Blackhawk. He arrived as an acquisition with little notoriety, and he struggled the second half of the 2011-12 season and through that damn playoff series against the Coyotes.
Then he became a crucial part of a Cup-winning team and another that was one bounce away from likely repeating. Like with the Oduya trade, there was next to no fanfare when Stan Bowman acquired Rundblad last year, and he didn’t really do anything to generate any in limited playing time.
Fast forward to this season, and spurts of the potential that made Rundblad a first-round pick in 2009 have been seen, as his playing time increased after van Riemsdyk’s injury. He has a helluva shot, makes a solid first pass, and he’s shown a knack for jumping into the play, which provides an element Roszival does not.
This isn’t to say Rundblad is going to make an Oduya type of leap, but he was a high pick, is still young and moves better than Chicago’s other options. Flashes have been there this season, and he’s the most viable defenseman outside of Chicago’s top four. His presence is worth continuing to evaluate.
Problem is, seeing what the 'Hawks truly have in Rundblad would require Quenneville to slash Rozsival’s ice time.
In the organization
Sure, van Riemsdyk was just fine in the 18 games he played before his kneecap exploded, and yes, young TVR has a bright future.
Neither of these things means he’s going to solve Chicago’s backend problem when he returns.
His return should provide an upgrade, assuming he comes back healthy. But banking on a guy coming off knee surgery who has only played 18 NHL games to help win a third Cup in six years doesn’t exactly sound like the greatest idea. Plus, how much of a boost will his return really provide, when it will lead to Quenneville scratching Rundblad instead of Oduya or Rozsival? Because that will almost certainly happen.
Erixon? Maybe it’s a good thing Queneville doesn’t seem to know Erixon is on his roster, but it seems unlikely we'll found out either way. Carrying on.
Adam Clenden—JUST KIDDING. Hope it's nice in the Pacific NW.
Did Klas Dahlbeck look overwhelmed in his brief stint with the big club this year? No. Would seeing if he can provide a boost on the third pairing be worthwhile? Probably. Will we see him in an Indianhead sweater again before next season? Only on Google.
So the blue line could use an upgrade, but can the Blackhawks afford said upgrade?
It’d take some maneuvering, but with the 'Hawks in such a good position to make another Cup run this year, uncertainty over next year’s salary cap and plenty of solid prospects for others to pluck from, the bet here is that a veteran d-man with an expiring contract is acquired, despite what Stan Bowman recently said.
Chicago has about $1 million in available cap space available assuming that that Joakim Nordstrom gets demoted when Kris Versteeg returns. Want a Cody Franson, Marc Methot or Jeff Petry? They each have cap hits north of three million. Keith Yandle is at $5.25 million; he’s not coming.
Andrej Sekera will be an unrestricted free agent after the season and has a cap hit of $2.75. The Hurricanes’ lefty would be a fantastic addition.
Assuming any deal takes Erixon off the roster, Bowman and Co. have roughly $1.5-1.6M to fiddle around with. Even if another GM agrees to eat some of whatever salary he’s shedding, a player has to come off this roster for a new, better-than-middling player to come on it. It might be smart if that player were the struggling Andrew Shaw, whom the Hawks might not be able to afford after next season anyway, but that might be too big a move.
There's no shortage of options when you're talking about $1.5 million in space, but there aren't a ton of sure-things when that's what the 'Hawks are looking for.
Up front, the 'Hawks remain as the deep as any team in the league, and Teuvo’s emergence is adding further depth (well, it would be if he got more ice time, but we’ll save that gripe for another day). Chicago’s top four defensemen are one move away from still being as good as anybody’s, and a plenty capable goalie mans the blue crease behind them.
Every team has flaws. Having to look to the bottom few roster slots to find one is a good problem. Seeing as St. Louis still employs nuclear turd Barret Jackman and regularly pairs him with Ian Cole, the Blues also have question marks on their third pairing. So do the Predators.
But again, it’s luxuries like Leddy on the third pair that have helped separate the 'Hawks in recent years. This time around, that luxury has to be acquired before the Mar. 2 trade deadline.