While the Chicago Blackhawks are currently a top Stanley Cup contender and currently lead the Central Division, it doesn't mean they don't have holes to fill. A top line left wing addition has been discussed heavily, but could a vaunted number four defenseman be the answer Chicago is actually looking for?
There are plenty of options to ponder, even if a defenseman addition seems to be the primary focus at the trade deadline around the league. The question in a possible defensive corp upgrade is whether the Blackhawks will prefer to ride with one of their current options on the roster, call someone up from their AHL affiliate in the Rockford Icehogs, or make a major or minor acquisition before the trade deadline to fill the void. A variety of options sit in front of general manager Stan Bowman and company.
By waving 37-year-old defenseman Rob Scuderi the Hawks freed up additional salary cap space, something teams don't typically do with veterans, regardless of play, it seems a move may be imminent on any front.
Let's take a look at possibilities the Blackhawks may consider:
(Keep in mind that most of these outside options are likely rentals)
Keith Yandle, New York Rangers
The 29-year-old was actually dealt just last season for a first-round pick from Arizona. However, with New York's inconsistency even as they sit in second place in the Metropolitan Division with 70 points, many have speculated that the talented puck mover may be on his way out. After all, Yandle has a cap hit of $2.625 million, but is set to hit unrestricted free agency after the season is over, so he could be looking for a significant raise.
Yandle currently carries a solid Corsi of 52.8 percent while primarily and proverbially bumslaying on the third defensive pair with the Rangers deep defense. A reliable puck moving type of defenseman like Yandle next to someone like Niklas Hjalmarrson who could work as a defensive free safety would work wonders to help stabilize Chicago's defense.
Given the predicted buyer's market, Yandle could likely be had for a second-round pick and another player like Ryan Hartman or Andrew Shaw, instead of the first-round pick and bounty the Rangers gave up for him in 2015.
Dan Hamhuis, Vancouver Canucks
This option might already be out of the bag according to Pensburgh and a Vancouver paper, but it's still worth looking into given what Hamhuis can provide.
Before the game against the Minnesota Wild, Hamhuis had missed the last two months after receiving a puck to the face. Even before his injury, he was struggling a bit, as he has just a CF 49.4 percent on the season. However, Hamhuis plays on Vancouver's top pair and draws the top assignment night after night with a non playoff team. In Chicago, he would have less responsibility and be placed in a more suitable role to compliment his partner.
The 33-year-old is more than comfortable in his own end as an excellent defenseman given the top responsibilities he's been given in his career. He can also move the puck, something any team will never have enough of. An underrated note is that Hamhuis is an exceptionable penalty killer as well, an important special teams facet in the postseason.
Hamhuis carries a $4.5 million cap hit, but should be worth it as a rental, given that Vancouver may punt on any postseason hopes in trading the veteran.
(Here's where it gets dicey)
Nick Holden, Colorado Avalanche
It's been speculated that the 28-year-old and four-year veteran could be made available by Colorado. He would almost certainly be the cheapest option available as Holden has just a $1.65 million dollar cap hit with two years left on his deal after this year.
Where the wrench comes in, is that as also reported by TSN's Bob McKenzie-the Blackhawks are almost exclusively looking for rental players. Coupled with the fact that Holden isn't actually very good, as he's been railed in possession with a 44.02 CF percent. On a bad defensive team in the Avalanche, Holden is one of the likely problems.
If the Blackhawks were to take the huge risk gamble, this option would be the most cost effective, rental option not withstanding. That might be the only positive.
Kris Russell, Calgary Flames
The Flames currently sit nine points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference, in what has amounted to a disappointing season in Alberta. Speculation via TSN's Bob McKenzie, has mounted that the club may deal Russell, in order to recoup assets on this season's failed effort.
Russell has been pegged as a decent enough defensive defenseman but it's not entirely true. Russell excels as a shot blocker as his 174 blocked shots rank second in the league. He does have good speed from end to end, but that's wasted if he can't even put it to good use when pinned in his own end. Russell would come at a cheaper price considering his meager $2.6 million cap hit.
While not recommended, for a high priced bounty, Chicago would have the option to invest in the question mark of Russell.
Continued growth of Erik Gustafsson, Viktor Svedberg, etc.
While Gustafsson has struggled of late, his presence and play earlier this season, was largely one of the primary reasons the Blackhawks had their season get back on track. His ice time has fluctuated in recent weeks because of struggles, but the 23-year-old has shown great confidence in the offensive end as a puck mover, and has made leaps and bounds defensively since his first call up.
There's clearly a lot of potential with the young defenseman. It's just a matter of whether Chicago trusts Gustafsson enough to have such a significant responsibility on the 2nd defensive pairing come playoff time. That concern stems from the given defensive work he still needs, and the "all in" opportunity at the doorstep.
While Gustafsson will likely be hovering around Joel Quenneville's doghouse for guys like Viktor Svedberg, especially after his performance in New York, one gets the sense he will start playing better while growing into the defenseman Chicago needs. Svedberg himself has been adequate in his recent call-up as he scored a goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night, but is too slow and is too often out of the right defensive position.
An opportunity for Gustafsson to really grow into the number four role may be the answer for the Blackhawks, as they would instead be able to focus on upgrading their forward group.
Rockford IceHogs call-up
Some thought may come to the fact that Chicago could promote one of it's young defenseman like Ville Pokka, however I think this is misguided.
Any younger inexperienced defenseman, like Pokka, who while playing well in the AHL, most likely wouldn't be ready for a second pair role on a Stanley Cup contender. The Blackhawks love what they have in Pokka and while he's been discussed by some as a trade chip in other deals, if they kept him he wouldn't be ready for the responsibility they're asking for. The 21-year-old definitely needs more seasoning.
Another option from Rockford would be Kyle Cumiskey, but we've been through this song and dance before. After all, the Blackhawks were barely able to play the 29-year-old in last season's Stanley Cup Final, as he was nothing more than a time stop gap. Coming off of an offseason surgery, Cumiskey would only be an emergency option to be called up come playoff time, just like last season.
Whatever deal the Blackhawks ultimately make to upgrade either the forward or defensive group, they really can't go wrong. They just have to consider that a second pair defenseman might be the final piece to their repeat puzzle. A move for any of the costly outside options like Yandle or Hamhuis, or staying pat with Gustafsson, would allow for an excellent defensive corp to work wonders on the blue line to push for a second straight Stanley Cup.
Robert Zeglinski is a staff writer and contributor for Second City Hockey and No Coast Bias. He is currently the sports editor at Aurora University. You can follow him on Twitter @ZigZags82.