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Finding the right role for a declining Brent Seabrook

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The veteran defenseman isn’t what he used to be.

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Blackhawks and Brent Seabrook, at least for now, are stuck with each other. His massive contract runs through the 2023-24 season with a top-10 cap hit among NHL defensemen and a full no-movement clause until 2022. The team may want out of a deal that looks more regrettable with each passing day, but that will be easier said than done.

So rather than dissect whether Seabrook is worth his $6.875 million annual cap hit again (he’s not), the Blackhawks need to figure out how to best use an asset they’re already committed to. Barring the unlikely possibility of a trade that (a) satisfies both teams and (b) satisfies Seabrook enough to waive his NMC, the question now is how to put Seabrook in the best position possible to succeed.

For the first few weeks of the season, Joel Quenneville’s answer to that problem was placing Seabrook on the top pairing with Duncan Keith. They’ve played a lot together in the past, so logic dictated that their experience and chemistry could overcome their aging.

Instead, they were middling to the tune of a 50.6 percent 5-on-5 Corsi despite seeing roughly twice as many zone starts in the offensive end than the defensive end, per Natural Stat Trick. Upon being separated, Keith has seen his Corsi uptick to 53.7 percent, albeit with an ugly goal differential due to his PDO dropping from 1.010 to 0.906.

Seabrook, meanwhile, saw his Corsi drop to just 42.1 percent. His high-danger scoring chance differential is just 29.4 percent away from Keith. He’s only been on the ice for three goals, but that’s mainly because the goalies behind him have a .963 save percentage in those minutes. It’s fair to say that’s more about luck than anything else for a player whose career on-ice save percentage at even strength is .919.

However, it’s important to note here that the Blackhawks have continued using Seabrook in challenging assignments away from Keith. He’s still firmly a top-four defenseman eating minutes against opposing top-six forwards. It’s just that unlike in the past, when he’d have some relative success in that role, he’s merely keeping his head above water now.

Consider this: From 2009-10 through 2013-14, Seabrook’s 5-on-5 GF% was 54.2 percent. Since the end of that season, that number has dipped to 49.8 percent. We’re talking about a sample of more than three seasons here. Part of that might be a reflection of team-wide decline from that heyday, but the consistent piece there is Seabrook. And he’s undeniably a worse player than during his peak in his mid-20s.

The other advanced stats show this plainly, too. Seabrook is dead last among Hawks regulars in 5-on-5 Game Score at +2.35, according to Corsica. In terms of 5-on-5 expected goals differential, he’s at 45.3 percent, ahead of just four other players (Gustav Forsling, Patrick Sharp, Artem Anisimov, Ryan Hartman) on the team. He’s also tied with Richard Panik for the most penalties committed on the team. It’s difficult to find any underlying statistics that paint Seabrook in a positive light.

But, again, this is an aging player who is still being asked to do a lot. For Quenneville and the coaching staff, if the conclusion is that Seabrook can no longer cut it as a key defenseman, the subsequent question is how to ease off him in order to let him play better and rebuild some confidence.

You can see why they haven’t just tossed him in an easy role on the third pairing yet, though. Forsling, Jan Rutta, Michal Kempny, and Connor Murphy have shown flashes, but none of them have really looked like consistently good top-four defensemen yet. Without that, it’s easy for the Hawks to turn back to Seabrook, who at least has familiarity and experience in the system. In ways good and bad, they know what they’ll get from Seabrook.

This team will probably never reach its lofty goals if Seabrook is playing as their No. 2 or No. 3 defenseman, though, not based on everything else we know about the team. So the Hawks ideally would find some way to slot him into a less demanding role.

One idea would be to place Seabrook on the third pairing, let’s say with Kempny, and force Forsling and Murphy into more difficult assignments. Yes, they’re younger and haven’t looked great, but the Hawks’ short-term future depends a good deal on whether those guys can figure it out. Throwing them into the fire a bit more, while freeing up Kempny-Seabrook to face easer assignments, could theoretically kill two birds with one stone if they’re ready.

Of course, the fact that the Hawks haven’t pushed Forsling and Murphy as much is a likely sign they weren’t comfortable doing so yet. But seeing how Seabrook is playing, how much does the team really have to lose? If the defense is going to be bad with Seabrook in a big role, they might as well see what else might work.

It’s not difficult to see the Hawks’ issue here. They need a right-handed defenseman who can play on the top pairing with Keith, but now Seabrook, Rutta, and Murphy have all underwhelmed there. Cody Franson has arguably been his best partner. How you fit Franson into the lineup consistently without burying a long-term asset like Seabrook or Murphy is difficult to parse, though. The issues with this lineup go beyond what to do with Seabrook, and that complicates matters a good deal.

But the Blackhawks need to keep taking whacks at this because the status quo hasn’t been nearly good enough. Seabrook has been arguably the worst defenseman on one of the worst defenses in the NHL. He’s also a long-term piece who won’t help anyone by being sat in the press box, where his trade value will only sink further into the gutter.

Maybe the key is asking less of him. Maybe there’s just not much the Blackhawks can do to stave off the effects of aging. But the quest to find Seabrook, and a host of other defensemen, the right roles this season goes on. For all the shuffling at forward, this is Quenneville’s biggest challenge.