The Blackhawks have achieved what was once thought impossible: they’re a realistic playoff contender, a team on the bubble that could sneak into the playoffs. What happens once they’re there depends on a few factors, and even their ability to get there requires the goaltenders to keep up this jockeying for the starter’s net, but even then, it may not be sustainable.
Chicago stumbled upon a great depth defensive pairing in Slater Koekkoek and Olli Maatta, who have put up a 55-percent Corsi For and 58.76-percent expected goal share, and have been the team’s statistically best pairing with more than 30 minutes of five-on-five time. Duncan Keith and Adam Boqvist need work (45.64 percent Corsi, 46.42 percent shot share) and Connor Murphy and Erik Gustafsson aren’t great together (49.61 percent Corsi, 49.22 percent shot share), and the Blackhawks should consider switching those pairings up to place Murphy with Boqvist as a safety blanket.
There’s currently no reason to add a forward, as our latest Number Munchers article shows. However, the Blackhawks should still be looking to replace Gustafsson with a defenseman who can play in the top four. At the same time, the Blackhawks are not from the draft lottery. Trading their first-round pick or a top-end prospect is not the right move.
Perhaps adding right-handed defensemen Sami Vatanen (expiring $4.875 million) or Alec Martinez ($4 million through 2020-21), especially given the $13,793,333 million salary cap space the Blackhawks have, according to CapFriendly, could be the right move as long as Gustafsson is traded as well.
While Gustafsson should not be quarterbacking the first power-play unit, he’s not the Blackhawks’ worst defenseman either. He’s contributed offensively, to the tune of six goals above replacement (3 expected GAR) at even strength and hasn’t been horrible in the very limited penalty kill time he’s had. He’s not a No. 1 defenseman like he’s been used by the Blackhawks the past two seasons, but he’s not as bad as he was earlier in the season.
Yet his defensive metrics remain bad. Despite the second-highest offensive zone start percentage (61.8 percent) at even strength, Gustafsson has a low Corsi, shot share, and expected goal share numbers. He’s not driving play and he’s not chipping in to help Murphy.
Unlike Boqvist, who is a rookie playing with Keith — no longer the ideal choice to play with a rookie partner — Gustafsson doesn’t have an excuse.
The Blackhawks could also look at cheaper options (in terms of trade return), as Martinez and Vatanen are likely to be some of the more sought-after defensive free agents. Left handers Andy Greene, who would have to waive his no-trade clause on his expiring $5 million deal, and Brenden Dillon (expiring $3.27 million) could both be on the market, and Murphy is realistically good enough to cover for a partner, as long as they at least try to help. That’s what makes him the ideal safety blanket for Boqvist, who is still learning, and with whom Murphy could move the puck better. That leaves Keith in need of a partner.
If the Blackhawks do look to move players at the deadline, look for it to be on the blue line, and for Gustafsson to be among the players moved.