The first step in solving a problem is identifying what the problem is.
For the Chicago Blackhawks blue line, they’ve had the same problem since the end of their Stanley Cup-winning 2014-15 season:
They still haven’t replaced the defensive pairing of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya.
It’s true that Hjalmarsson was on the team for the two seasons that followed and Oduya was re-acquired last spring for one more run with the Hawks. But Oduya was 35 at the time of that deal, and couldn’t re-create the performance he had in his first stint with Chicago. Hjalmarsson is six years younger than Oduya, but with some incredibly difficult miles logged during the Hawks three Cup runs, he struggled at times as well.
The takeaway from the above paragraph is that neither Oduya nor Hjalmarsson played at the same level they did in their two Cup runs as linemates, and that missing piece has been a major factor in the Blackhawks’ early playoff exits in the last two seasons.
It’s not necessarily who Oduya and Hjalmarsson were: it’s the role they handled. For two Cup-winning runs (and a third run that ended in the Western Conference Final), they were the top shutdown pairing for the Blackhawks.
Wait, this team has Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Isn’t that the top shutdown pairing?
No, it’s not. The word “shutdown” is the operative term here. During those seasons, Oduya and Hjalmarsson were the players that coach Joel Quenneville relied on to shut down the opponent’s top scoring threat: the Vladimir Tarasenko and Steven Stamkos types.
With Quenneville able to rely on Hjalmarsson and Oduya to eat up those incredibly difficult minutes, it freed up Keith and Seabrook to do what they do best: drive the Blackhawks offense from the blue line. Keith has made a career out of getting involved with Chicago’s offensive attack.
And a Seabrook stretch pass remains a lethal weapon when deployed properly.
h/t: The Athletic
But when you look at the Blackhawks D corps right now, it’s hard to find players that Quenneville can rely on to handle the shutdown role. Right now, the best option would probably be Keith and Seabrook. But putting those two on the ice in such a defensive role prevents them from doing what has made the Hawks so good in the not-that-distant past.
What are the options?
It seems like there are only two possible outcomes here.
1) Rely on Keith and Seabrook to be the top shutdown pairing. Barring the third outcome that I’ll detail below, this feels like the most likely conclusion in my eyes. Quenneville has shown absolute faith in the Keith/Seabrook pairing for the last decade, and there’s reason to assume that’s going to change now. If the calendar gets to April and the Blackhawks blue line situation remains largely unchanged, it will probably be those two facing the Filip Forsbergs and Tyler Seguins of the world. And there’s no guarantee that both Keith and Seabrook, each in their 13th (THIRTEENTH!!) NHL season, are capable of being a shutdown pairing. But this option could work if Keith and Seabrook hold up under those intense minutes and the Hawks can find other defensemen to drive the play forward as well as Keith and Seabrook have in their Hawks careers.
2) Find a new shutdown pairing during the season. This feels like the most vital season-long project for Quenneville and his coaching staff, including recently-hired assistant Ulf Samuelsson, who’s been handling the defense this season. Drawing any definitive conclusions after the Hawks have played just nine of their 82 games this season feels like a fool’s errand. But I can’t be the only one who’s been intrigued by the impressive play of Jan Rutta in the early stages of the season. With Rutta being a right-handed shot, the ideal compliment for him would be a left-handed defenseman, making Michal Kempny and Gustav Forsling the top candidates. Forsling feels like too much of an offensively-minded player to be a realistic pick here. So perhaps Kempny will become that player to compliment Rutta on a potential shutdown pairing. Or maybe Connor Murphy fulfills the promise he had as a first-round pick in the 2011 NHL Draft and surpasses Rutta on the depth chart for right-handed defensemen on the top shutdown pairing.
They’ve got 73 games to figure it out.