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Second City Hockey’s 2018-19 Blackhawks preview: Defense

On paper, it looks like another under-manned group of blue-liners in Chicago this season.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

As much as the complaints about the goaltending in Chicago last season was justified, the Blackhawks defense didn’t do much to help matters, too often surrendering high-quality chances. In the offseason, general manager Stan Bowman added a few faces to Chicago’s defense, but no one spectacular. In fact, it’s much of the same on defense for the Blackhawks in 2018-19, save for a first-round pick who’s going to be make his NHL debut Thursday night.

The old veterans

Duncan Keith (last season: 82 GP, 2 G, 30 A, 52.4 CF% on 60.5 OZS%)

Brent Seabrook (last season: 81 GP, 7 G, 19 A, 51.55 CF% on 55.58 OZS%)

At this point in their careers, there’s probably not much room for surprises left out of Keith, 35, and Seabrook, 33. Neither player is at the level they were during their primes, but when utilized correctly, they can still be effective NHLers. The issue is, at this point, other players were supposed to emerge to help shoulder the burden of defensive responsibility — and that hasn’t happened.

Seabrook can still be relied on for consistent minutes as a stay-at-home defenseman and appears to be an excellent pairing with the offensive-minded Erik Gustafsson. Plus, Seabrook still has that booming shot from the point, which could be handy on Chicago’s power play.

Everything about Keith’s 2017-18 season felt like an anomaly. There was the minus-29 rating that was the worst of his career and the 1.1 shooting percentage (two goals on 187 shots) that flirted with historically ineptitude. A statistical rebound feels likely. As for the rest of his game? That’s the hope for a player just five games shy of 1,000 for his career.

The question mark

Jan Rutta (last season: 57 GP, 6 G, 14 A, 49.8 CF% on 50.06 OZS%)

A thought on Rutta that applies to about half of Chicago’s defensemen: he’d probably be fine on just about any NHL roster if he was on the third pairing, playing between 13 and 15 minutes per night against opposing third and fourth-liners. But due to Chicago’s lack of defensive depth, he probably needs to contribute more than that, and it doesn’t seem like he’s capable of doing so.

Rutta seemed fine in the early stages of the 2017-18 season while on a pairing with Gustav Forsling. But the performances of each player start trending southward and never really recovered, sort of like Chicago’s entire season. Perhaps redemption awaits Rutta in his second NHL season? It is a contract year for the 27-year-old, who becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2019.

The injured

Gustav Forsling (last season: 41 GP, 3 G, 10 A, 48.95 CF% on 51.67 OZS%)

Connor Murphy (last season: 76 GP, 2 G, 12 A, 53.39 CF% on 49.71 OZS%)

Neither Forsling nor Murphy were able to make it to training camp in full health, with Murphy potentially out til December and Forsling still weeks away from returning from offseason wrist surgery. And it feels like major crossroads in the careers of each player.

Forsling has played parts of two seasons with the Blackhawks, showing brief flashes of NHL-worthy performances before regressing to the point that he was demoted to the AHL. And if the third time isn’t the charm, it could have a major impact on what the Blackhawks choose to do with the restricted free agent in the 2019 offseason — especially with a slew of young D prospects in the system.

Murphy is under contract for longer than Forsling, but there were similarly high hopes for him after he was acquired in the Niklas Hjalmarsson trade. A first-round pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, Murphy seemed like the type of player who could help carry the torch on the blue line for the aforementioned Keith and Seabrook. But Murphy’s play hasn’t reached that level yet. And if that doesn’t start to happen in his second season in Chicago and sixth in the NHL, the question will become whether it’ll ever happen.

The newcomers

Brandon Davidson (last season w/ NYI, EDM, MTL: 51 GP, 4 G, 3 A, 50.6 CF% on 49.0%)

Brandon Manning (last season w/ PHI: 65 GP, 7 G, 12 A, 50 CF% on 45.6 OZS%)

Davidson came to the Blackhawks training camp on a tryout and came out of it with a one-year contract, which is great news for him. The potential for striking gold here does not seem particularly great, although Davidson did show flashes of being a serviceable third-pairing guy at times during the preseason. But it’s hard to expect too much out of a player who was claimed on waivers and traded during the last season, then spent the entire summer without a contract offer before he arrived with the Blackhawks.

And Manning? Well, he’s been billed as a big, strong, physical defenseman while the NHL just seems to get faster and faster each season. Yes, the play below happened in preseason and may not be indicative of Manning’s full ability. But watching him get torched by Andreas Athanasiou — on the exact kind of play that players of Manning’s ilk would be susceptible — inspires little confidence about his contributions this season.

The hope

Erik Gustafsson (last season: 35 GP, 5 G, 11 A, 55.4 CF% on 57.4 OZS%)

Henri Jokiharju (last season w/ Portland Winterhawks: 63 GP, 12 G, 59 A)

Saved the optimism for the end. Jokiharju is here for obvious reasons: a first-round pick earning a roster spot at just 19 years old suggests he could be the first of several defensive prospects to flourish at the NHL level. There will be growing pains. But Jokiharju’s emergence, at a minimum, provides something new and interesting to keep an eye on during the first months of the season. If nothing else, he should provide some life to a slumbering Blackhawks power play.

Gustafsson is of similar stock to Jokiharju as an offensively-minded defenseman. What puts Gustafsson into this part of the preview are some of the underlying numbers from his last few seasons, because they’re quite impressive:

Gustafsson thrived at getting the puck out of his own end and into the opponent’s end, while also excelling at denying his opponents a clean entry into the offensive zone — all areas of the game that have been Chicago’s strongest when at its best. With a new two-year contract and an apparent stranglehold on consistent playing time, he has to be the Chicago defenseman most primed for a breakout season.