With the first game of the 2021-22 NHL season just two days away, it’s time to start examining the players who’ll be taking the ice for the Blackhawks this season. Next up, it’s the defensemen.
The Blackhawks have been one of the worst defensive teams in the league in terms of quality chances against for years now, and while that wasn’t all on the defensemen, it isn’t surprising the main offseason focus was on trying to upgrade the blue line. In this quest, the Blackhawks made some major changes in a series of events that left the defensive group with a completely different identity than years past.
Duncan Keith was traded to the Edmonton Oilers in July — not necessarily in a move to improve the Blackhawks but per the player’s request to play closer to his family. Combined with Brent Seabrook’s confirmation in March that he was done playing professional hockey, the Keith trade signaled an official end to an era, as they were the last remaining defensemen from the Stanley Cup winning teams.
Needing to fill the void left by these departures, the Blackhawks then made several ensuing trades — including jettisoning one-year “wonder” Nikita Zadorov and top defense prospect Adam Boqvist — and signings for players that can hopefully correct the defensive issues that have plagued the team for so long.
Here are the defensemen trying to accomplish that daunting task (in alphabetical order):
Calvin de Haan
Stats last season: 44 games, 10 points (1 G, 9 A), 14 PIM, 58 shots, 1.7 SH%, 18:37 ATOI
Since de Haan joined the Blackhawks three seasons ago, he has been a consistently solid top-four defensemen, even if injuries — he reportedly played on a fractured leg some of last season — and playing with inexperienced young players have hampered his full impact. This can be seen in his shot suppression numbers at 5-on-5, where his on-ice shares of shots-for (49.56) and expected goals (47.85) were the best among Blackhawks defenders.
In the last preseason game, de Haan skated with Seth Jones — a partner whose mobility could balance out de Haan’s stay-at-home tendencies — although de Haan’s also had success with Connor Murphy on a shutdown pairing (with a 53.44 percent share of expected goals). Either way, playing with a more established defensive core should allow him to showcase his strong defensive capabilities in his own end even more.
Stats last season: 29 games, 12 P (1 G, 11 A), 0 PIM, 33 shots, 4 SH%, 17:24 (PHI) / 13:22 (MTL) ATOI
Gustafsson is a name Blackhawks fans probably didn’t think (or hope) they’d ever hear linked to the team again, but it was reported on Sunday and confirmed by the team on Monday that the Swede would be returning to Chicago. Injuries during training camp seemed to have forced the Blackhawks to look for a bottom-pairing or No. 7 defenseman who can act as placeholder, and they went with a devil they knew.
The good news is that Gustafsson can likely contribute in an offensively optimized role at 5-on-5 while manning the second power play unit. He may not reach the 60 points he had three seasons ago, but a 35-point pace is possible. The bad news is that he’s not improved defensively in the years since he left the Blackhawks so he’ll need to be sheltered. Honestly, these two conditions often go hand-in-hand, and with the added depth at the top of the blueline, they should be easy to manage. For as long as they need, anyway, which ultimately might not be past when the injured players are healed.
Stats last season: 33 games, 4 points (4 A), 6 PIM, 23 shots, 13:36 ATOI
Acquired from the Edmonton Oilers in the Keith trade, Caleb Jones is a younger defender who has shown promise to be at least a serviceable bottom pairing player, albeit in limited samples. The 24-year old’s skating ability and decent defensive foundation are good building blocks to see if he can lock down a consistent role in the NHL. Ideally, Caleb Jones would be in a bottom pairing role to gain experience while facing lower-quality opponents, but his skill set might mean he could play up if given the right partner and growth.
Before his wrist injury that will sideline him for approximately six weeks, Caleb Jones was having a great training camp, flashing more offensive skills than he has before and more than holding his own defensively. Hopefully there won’t be a setback with him missing time.
Stats last season: 56 games, 28 points (5 G, 23 A), 26 PIM, 141 shots, 3.5 SH%, 25:14 ATOI
The biggest addition to the Blackhawks blue line this season is Seth Jones, who joined the team after a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets that sent Adam Boqvist and a couple of first-round picks the other way. Seth Jones then signed an eight-year extension. With the quality of assets given up and the length of his contract, it’s obvious the Blackhawks expect Seth Jones to fill the No. 1 D role that has been lacking since Keith started to decline with age.
Seth Jones does have all the trapping of a top-pairing defenseman: he’s a highly athletic, strong-skating defensemen that put up near elite two-way numbers a few seasons ago. However, after a rough year or two with Columbus, the shine has worn off of him for many while others believe his issues were due to the system implemented by the Blue Jackets and thus fixable. And there is definite potential for him to regain his previous glory, though we’ll have to wait and see if that potential is reached.
For the best results, Seth Jones should be paired with a partner who with defense-first mentality, allowing Seth Jones to really tap into his play-driving offensive prowess. The Blackhawks have at least a couple of good options to fit that bill.
Chicago gets Seth Jones, whose value depends on who you ask. His last season was Not Good, but he was a legitimate No. 1 D before that and still has potential to return to that level. pic.twitter.com/jTpfj2x6B4— dom at the athletic (@domluszczyszyn) July 23, 2021
Stats last season: 21 games, 9 points (4 G, 5 A), 4 PIM, 26 shots, 15.4 SH%, 16:16 ATOI
Kalynuk didn’t become a Blackhawks regular until the final 20-ish games of the last season, but he was impressive in his small sample. He is a smooth-skating offensive defenseman that pushed pace while being responsible with and without the puck. Kalynuk showed he could be a capable offensive defenseman: he was second among defensemen in points per 60 (0.99), expected goals per 60 (0.2), and entries with a scoring chances per 60 (1.53) at 5-on-5. Kalynuk seemed destined for a lower-pairing role to contribute offensively while also quarterbacking the second power play unit.
Unfortunately, Kalynuk was injured at practice during training camp and is expected to miss 2-4 weeks, so we’ll have to wait to see if he can replicate his performance from last season over a larger sample.
Stats last season: 13 games, 3 points (1 G, 2 A), 9 PIM, 15 shots, 6.7 SH%, 19:11 ATOI
Signed as a free agent, McCabe has the ability to be a dependable, shutdown top-four defensemen. He spent the last eight seasons with the Buffalo Sabres — who drafted him in the second round of the 2012 NHL Draft (44th overall) — and developed into a strong defense-first type of player. McCabe also brings an element of useful physicality to the back-end and should be able to contribute to the penalty kill. He’ll either ride shotgun with Seth Jones on the top pair — a pairing that looked rough in the preseason — or stay reunited with old friend Connor Murphy — which could be a duo who’d receive heavy defensive assignments.
Jake McCabe, signed 4x$4M by CHI, is an excellent top four defensive defenceman who put up absurd results this season before getting injuries. I don't think he's as elite as those 13 games make him look, but definitely did very well in a tough situation. #Blackhawks pic.twitter.com/E5HvMqmrkc— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 28, 2021
The only question mark for McCabe is if he’s fully recovered and rehabbed after having a knee injury that limited him to only 13 games in the 2020-21 season. At the time of his trade, he stated that he had “zero concerns” about his rehab, and there’s been no noticeable issue with his skating so far during the preseason.
Hopefully, the Blackhawks will be getting the effective player he’s been in recent years.
Stats last season: 50 games, 15 points (3 G, 12 A), 14 PIM, 78 shots, 3.9 SH%, 22:09 ATOI
Arguably the Blackhawks most dependable defensemen for the past few years, Murphy is still extremely important to the defensive group despite some big name additions. Last season, Murphy was one of the best defensive defensemen in the league in terms of expected and real goals above replacement (6.8 xGAR and 7.6 GAR, respectively) while getting heavy defensive zone deployment (only 29.19 offensive zone start percentage) often against a high quality of competition. He also was the top defender on the penalty kill and at 5-on-5 in terms of ice time.
Murphy is likely still going to get No. 2 minutes — despite not partnering with the de facto No. 1 d-man in Seth Jones due to them both being right-handed — and still be tasked with the heaviest defensive assignments. Murphy has proven he’s effective no matter his partner, but his ideal pairings are with McCabe or de Haan so they can form a shutdown line to match against the highest quality of competition when needed.
Stats last season: 13 games, 1 points (1 G), 14 PIM, 58 shots, 1.7 SH%, 18:37 ATOI
Stillman came to the Blackhawks in April, so his time with the team was limited, but he definitely made an impression — he was rewarded with a 3-year contract extension worth $4.05 million. The 23-year-old is known for the defensive side of his game, but he has the tools to become a more complete two-way player thanks to above average puck handling and transition skills. Stillman ended up getting more and more ice time and defensive zone deployment as the season progressed, suggesting he was gaining the coaching staff’s trust. He also brings a physical edge to his play that has been lacking from the Blackhawks in recent years but should fit into this revamped blueline quite well.
Due to the top-four being fairly set, Stillman will likely start in a lower pairing role, possibly rotating with Caleb Jones or Kalynuk when they are healthy. It’s hard to predict how he’ll turn out long-term, but he seems like he could be useful for now.
Stats last season: 39 games, 7 points (3 G, 4 A), 14 PIM, 23 shots, 13 SH%, 15:02 ATOI
Mitchell struggled much of last year with the Blackhawks despite obvious flashes of skill and high hockey IQ, something that is not uncommon for NCAA players trying to transition straight into the NHL. His individual points per 60 rate (0.65) at 5-on-5 were solid for the Blackhawks, but disappointing considering his offensive success in college. Mitchell is still considered one of the most well-rounded of the Blackhawks defensive prospects, even if it seems he needs more seasoning before thinking about becoming a NHL regular.
Mitchell was almost certainly bound for Rockford where he could focus on adapting to professional hockey in a more developmental setting, but he may have to stay with the big club for a bit thanks to the aforementioned injuries to C. Jones and Kalynuk. While with the Blackhawks, he needs to be sheltered while he gains his footing — Mitchell’s potential is still there, so they’ll need to be careful about rushing him into tough assignments too often.
What’s the defense gonna look like?
The top-four are almost certainly locked in terms of time on ice and usage, but the pairings are still a work in progress. McCabe and Seth Jones spent two preseason games together and looked so disjointed that it was almost painful to watch. The final preseason game saw McCabe with Murphy and de Haan with Seth Jones, which seemed to work out well for all parties involved. However, conclusions can hardly be drawn from such a small sample during a time when games are meaningless, so there could be a lot of juggling while the new guys work out where they’re best suited. That arrangement was how things looked at Monday’s practice.
To start the season, the bottom pairing is likely to be Stillman and a rotation of Gustafsson or Mitchell. So it should look something like this for Wednesday’s season opener:
de Haan — Seth Jones
McCabe — Murphy
Stillman — Gustafsson/Mitchell
When Caleb Jones and Kalynuk return, things will get interesting as they (and Stillman) are young defenders with a diversity of skills that could benefit the Blackhawks in different ways. Unless Gustafsson surprises unexpectedly, he’ll be moved out of the spot he was keeping warm, likely via waivers, or just kept as a backup eighth defenseman. And Mitchell can be assigned to the IceHogs where he can play top-four minutes developing further.
Ultimately, on paper, this is the best group of blueliners the Blackhawks have rolled out in a few years, so they should be improved defensively — at least in theory.
Only time will tell if that translates to reality, but the potential is definitely there.