Before Friday’s game against the Blue Jackets, veteran defenseman Brian Campbell was expected to be a healthy scratch, with Trevor van Riemsdyk most likely taking his place in the lineup. Campbell had not been bad for the Blackhawks, but at the time, coach Joel Quenneville said that he didn’t “want to see the same guys sitting out for extended periods of time.”
Even though Campbell ended up not being scratched and played in the game, I thought it was interesting that the Hawks were even considering it. Here was one of the top defensemen from the Florida Panthers (and available from free agency), who hasn’t missed a game in over five years, and the Blackhawks were close to making him a healthy scratch.
On a team like the New York Rangers or New Jersey Devils, Campbell would probably be the second- or third-best defenseman on the team and be far from a healthy scratch. In the last five seasons Campbell has played in with the Florida Panthers, he’s averaged a 38-point pace over 82 games, tallying 175 total points in 376 games.
And even though his point totals have been slightly decreasing over the past few years, he still managed to put up 31 points last season for the Panthers, tied for the 46th-most in the league. He was also one of the Panthers best defenseman with a 53 percent Corsi For, third-best on the team and second-best out of all the defensemen.
It’s not a secret that the Blackhawks were entering this season with a plethora of NHL defensemen on the roster but there were many who thought the Blackhawks might have overdid it a bit. During free agency, the Blackhawks already had very little cap space and instead of using it to acquire a forward, they signed Campbell to a one-year, $1.5 million contract with bonuses. Include that with the Michal Kempny signing and the Blackhawks were quickly overrun with NHL-caliber defensemen who deserved playing time.
Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson are all definitive top-four defensemen while Kempny was expected to make an immediate impact for Chicago after they signed him from the KHL. Campbell and TVR are both solid defensemen and top prospect Gustav Forsling unexpectedly cracked the roster.
Combine those seven defensemen with Michal Roszival and you have quite the logjam coupled with a bit of a forward depth problem. The Hawks’ forward group isn’t bad, but some called for the cap space that was spent on Campbell to be used to add a forward instead.
However, the reason the Blackhawks made all of those moves to shore up their defensive depth showed itself recently. Over the weekend, it was announced that van Riemsdyk will miss the next five-to-six weeks with an upper-body injury. He left Friday’s game against the Blue Jackets early after crashing into the Blackhawks’ net and will be out of the lineup for a long time.
And then on Monday, Forsling got crunched along the boards and suffered a minor injury. He’s now day-to-day, but it’s another temporary hole in the lineup that can be somewhat easily filled.
As we saw in the 2015 playoff run, defensive depth is important to any team. Without it, you get a fear of playing your third pairing and an over-reliance on your top-four. As most of you probably remember, during that playoff run the Blackhawks’ top-four group of defensemen were the backbone of the team, with Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and Johnny Oduya rounding out the group. However, the third pairing was a complete disaster with neither of Kimmo Timonen, David Rundblad or van Riemsdyk being able to handle playoff hockey.
They left the third-pairing completely vulnerable and weren’t trusted to be on the ice. Because of this, Keith was famously forced to average over 30 minutes a game during the Blackhawks’ playoff run and push his endurance to the test to cover for the third-pairing.
Even though the situation is a bit different now, the Blackhawks didn’t want the same thing happening again. Oduya is no longer on the team but the defensive depth is stronger than ever. TVR is a solid defenseman but the Blackhawks will be able to do more than survive his long-term injury as they have plenty of defensemen ready to cover for him like Campbell, Kempny, Forsling and more. A lot of things can happen over the course of a season and I’m sure the last thing Chicago wanted was another extremely vulnerable third pairing, especially given their forwards. The Hawks came prepared this season and the advantages of their defensive depth acquired during the offseason are revealing themselves.