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Blackhawks 2022-23 season preview: Defensemen

The Chicago defense will be a mix of new and old faces.

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St Louis Blues v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

With the first game of the 2022-23 NHL season just one day away, it’s time to start examining the players who’ll be taking the ice for the Blackhawks this season. Up next are the defensemen.

Unlike last summer that saw the departure of franchise cornerstones from the Cup-winning teams in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, the blue line in Chicago has only undergone minor changes this offseason. The top two in Seth Jones and Connor Murphy remain while Jake McCabe and Caleb Jones are also still around. However, the exodus of Calvin de Haan (not re-signed in the offseason) and Riley Stillman (traded to the Vancouver Canucks last weekend) means there were some open spots still to flesh out the defense.

While the Blackhawks were primarily looking for placeholder options, the team is also dealing with some injury issues on the back end, allowing for more opportunity to prospects that may be NHL ready — at least to start the season.

Here are the potential starting and regular defensemen for Chicago (in alphabetical order):

Jack Johnson

Stats last season: 74 games, 9 points (1 G, 8 A), 42 PIM, 57 shots, 1.8 SH%, 16:45 ATOI

Johnson is a veteran of 16 NHL seasons who has been on a steady decline over the last handful of seasons. In his prime, he was a capable two-way defenseman who combined a physical style of play both in the offensive and defensive end of the ice. However, we are not talking about prime Johnson — in fact, it’s been many, many years since Johnson was anywhere near his prime. He performed so poorly while in Pittsburgh that the team elected to buy him out just two years into a five-year deal. As Dave described him: “Nice guy. Not so good at hockey anymore.”

Luck would be on his side, though, as he was able to turn a PTO with the Colorado Avalanche last summer into an NHL contract. The Avalanche proved that good teams can make even mediocre players work if needed (like the 2015 Blackhawks did with three defenders), and Johnson suited up for 74 game while playing as their No. 6 defender. He was pushed out of that role for the start of the playoffs — Bowen Byram returned from injury, Josh Manson was acquired at the TDL — but a sternum injury to Sam Girard meant that Johnson drew back into the lineup for the rest of the postseason. And that’s the story of how Johnson won the Stanley Cup with the Avalanche in 2022.

For the Blackhawks, Johnson is a placeholder for the season like a few other defenders, but it’s not really known what place Johnson will be used. Again, he’s not an effective player unless a part of a Cup-caliber roster, but he played mostly in the top-four during the preseason for Chicago. That’d be concerning for any other season, but it’s mostly shrug-worthy in this moment.

Caleb Jones

Stats last season: 51 games, 15 points (5 G, 10 A), 19 PIM, 57 shots, 8.8 SH%, 16:43 ATOI

C. Jones is one of those players who seems to have the tools — decent size, skating ability, and some defensive awareness — to be a solid defensemen in the NHL, but he was quite inconsistent throughout the previous season with the Blackhawks. He was markedly when facing lower quality of competition towards the end of the season.

There were areas in which C. Jones excelled, both defensively and offensively. He did well defending the blue line: his carry-in percentage, chances against rate, and targeted entry denials were all in the top 20th percentile of the league He also had above average transition ability with solid pass entries and entries resulting in a chance rates.

However, Jones definitely has issues to work through if he wants to ever graduate from a bottom-pairing defensemen. He needs to clean up his giveaways while exiting the zone (pass exit rate was only in the 23rd percentile) and improve his general on-ice awareness that often led to blown coverages.

C. Jones played in only one preseason game before his shoulder was injured during a collision with the side boards. He’s listed as day-to-day, but is opening the season on injured reserve. During Monday’s practice, he was in a no-contact jersey, so his first game likely won’t be happening soon.

Seth Jones

Stats last season: 62 games, 51 points (5 G, 46 A), 28 PIM, 192 shots, 2.6 SH%, 26:12 ATOI

Prior to being traded to the Blackhawks in the summer of 2021, S. Jones had been on a downward trend for a couple of years, so it was a bit concerning when the Blackhawks gave up so much for him. However, his performance last year in Chicago was easily his best in years. Even if issues remain surrounding S. Jones’ contract and trade — as well as whether he should even be on a team that is in the beginning stages of a rebuild — there’s no denying that he played like a top-pairing defensemen last season.

S. Jones has always been a highly athletic, strong-skating defensemen who made the most of being unleashed to do whatever he wanted last season and played like a well-balanced, two-way defenseman again. Not only did he contribute to about 53 percent of goals that were scored when he was on the ice, he also had the highest xEVD (5.1) among Blackhawks defensemen. His offense did take a hit — thanks mostly to a shot percentage of 2.6 — but his improvement in terms of defensive results was impressive.

Jake McCabe

Stats last season: 62 games, 11 points (5 G, 6 A), 19 PIM, 66 shots, 7.6 SH%, 20:18 ATOI

McCabe was signed by the Blackhawks as a free agent in the summer of 2021 to hopefully be a dependable, shutdown top-four defensemen. In three seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, McCabe put up some of the best defensive goals above replacement (EVD) results among defensemen in the league during those seasons, including a 5.6 EVD in the 2019-20 season that was good for 10th best and his 7.2 xEVD was good for second place. McCabe was known for his effective physicality and shot-suppression ability, which the Blackhawks hoped would solidify a top-three with S. Jones and Connor Murphy.

Unfortunately for both McCabe and the Blackhawks, last season was a major step back for the defenseman. It’s not hyperbolic to say it was his worst performance of McCabe’s career. He suffered a knee injury just 13 games into the 2020-21 season, and though he was on the Blackhawks opening night roster in 2022, it looked like McCabe was not fully recovered. He was too often behind the play or out of position — something uncharacteristic of him in previous seasons — and he negatively impacted pretty much every partner he had last season.

McCabe may still be able to turn his tenure in Chicago around, but he was dealt another blow to his health this offseason when he had to undergo cervical spinel surgery. He didn’t play at all during the preseason, but has been practicing in a full-contact jersey and Richardson said he may be ready to play when the Blackhawks have their first stretch of home games. It’s just unknown what type of player McCabe will be after two major surgeries in a two-year span, though.

Ian Mitchell

Stats last season: 8 games, 1 points (0 G, 1 A), 0 PIM, 2 shots, 0 SH%, 10:46 ATOI

Mitchell is still one of the Blackhawks top defensive prospects, though it does feel like his time is running out to make the team as a regular. The former 2017 second-rounder spent three seasons at the University of Denver, performing as a top defender in the NCAA. He finished his junior season with 32 points (10 G, 22 A) in 36 games. He was also named AHCA First Team All-American.

However, the right-handed defensemen struggled in his first NHL season after college. He played 39 games during the pandemic-shortened 2021 season, tallying just seven points (3 G, 4 A) in that span and having his ice time decrease as the season progressed. Some of that wasn’t on Mitchell: the Blackhawks, in general, were terrible that season and players were definitely not utilized well. But Mitchell also didn’t transition as well to the NHL as the Blackhawks hoped.

The Blackhawks added multiple defenseman prior to last season, so Mitchell was regulated to the AHL — although it might have been a blessing in disguise. He ended up being stellar as the No. 1 defensemen in Rockford, earning the IceHogs’ Defensemen of the Year award while playing in all situations. He really polished his offensive game last season — producing 35 points (11 G, 24 A) in 57 regular season games — and was especially adept at quarterbacking the power play.

In addition to the offense, he’s really worked on his defensive positioning and how he takes on opposing players one-on-one. His smart stick and skating ability was especially useful in puck retrievals and defensive zone exits — especially on the penalty kill.

Mitchell arguably deserved to be recalled to the NHL at some point last year over some others that played with the Blackhawks last season, but maybe he’ll get the chance this year to see if he can make last transition up to the NHL. But we won’t find out until November, the earliest he’s expected to return to the ice after suffering from a left wrist injury prior to training camp.

Connor Murphy

Stats last season: 57 games, 10 points (4 G, 6 A), 47 PIM, 71 shots, 5.6 SH%, 21:45 ATOI

Murphy has arguably been the Blackhawks most dependable defensemen over the last several seasons, which is especially impressive considering he’s played much of that time in one of the worst defensive systems. Although he’s not the best or quickest skater, Murphy has always been smart enough to compensate, using strong positioning and his long reach to block shots and passes. The Blackhawks were overall terrible at shot suppression last season, but the team’s best moments came whenever Murphy was on the ice. As a result, his EVD was in the 91st percentile last season.

Despite his results being solid last season, there was an obvious decline in certain areas for Murphy that impacted his overall performance. His turnover rate increased — especially when attempting to exit the zone — and his numbers for defending the blue line hit an all-time low. Additionally, the penalty kill was objectively better when Murphy wasn’t on it. Some of that decline probably was the result of Murphy’s incompatibility with some teammates.

Murphy has missed all of the preseason due to chronic back soreness, but said after Monday’s practice that his back feels good. Richardson said he is hopeful Murphy will be ready for opening night. Murphy’s injury history has to be a concern to the Blackhawks at this point, though, and it’s something to watch as the season progresses.

Alec Regula

Stats last season: 15 games, 1 points (1 G, 0 A), 12 PIM, 18 shots, 5.6 SH%, 17:52 ATOI

Acquired in a 2019 trade with the Red Wings, Regula has taken solid strides in his development to be one of the top defensive prospects in the Chicago system. He spent the 2019-20 season with the London Knights in the OHL where he improved his offensive games to produce at over a point-per-game rate (60 points in 56 games). Regula then made the transition to the AHL, where he played 57 games and produced 30 points in a predominantly second-pairing role with the Rockford IceHogs. He impressed enough to get a 15-game stint with the Blackhawks, tied for the most of any defensive prospect last season.

Despite being 6-foot-4 and 208-pounds, the young defenseman isn’t overly physical and instead relies on his skating, long reach, and high hockey IQ to defend. His main issues are that he can be inconsistent defensively — especially when it comes to gap control — but that’s something the 21-year-old can work on as he gains more professional experience. And although the sample was small in the NHL, it seemed Regula found his stride right away, albeit in a bottom-pairing role.

To get the best out of Regula, the Blackhawks should put him into situations that’ll capitalize on his offensive instincts — especially on the power play:

Filip Roos

Stats last season: N/A

If there’s one thing the Blackhawks have been good at the last several years, it’s finding young players in Europe who can play in the NHL. Roos is a 6-4, smooth skating defenseman with above average puck handling ability who knows how to use his wingspan to his advantage on the defensive side of the game.

He transitioned to the SHL last year at 22, and while his point totals were low — just 6 points (1 G, 4 A) in 50 games with Skellefteå AIK — he was eventually playing top-pair minutes by the end of the season. Prior to last year, he spent two seasons in the lower Swedish league (HockeyAllsvenskan), where he produced 40 points (7 G, 33 A) in 98 games.

Roos being on the opening roster may seem like a surprise to many, but as The Athletic’s Scott Powers explains, it’s largely due to the NHL-SHL agreement:

He is still technically under contract in the SHL. His SHL club, Skellefteå, allowed him to sign with the Blackhawks with the assumption he’d be in the NHL. If the Blackhawks want to send Roos to the AHL, they’d have to get Skellefteå’s permission. Skellefteå could have Roos return to Sweden.

At 23 and new to North American ice, Roos is likely going to a learning curve transitioning to the NHL, but his experience in another high-quality professional men’s league will be helpful.

Jarred Tinordi

Stats last season: 62 games, 11 points (5 G, 6 A), 19 PIM, 66 shots, 7.6 SH%, 13:03 ATOI

There’s not really a lot to say about Tinordi other than he’s a journeyman defensemen who typically fills in for briefs stints as a 7D while putting up poor results. The Blackhawks claimed him off of waivers from the New York Rangers on Monday.

Originally drafted in the first-round (22nd overall) by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Tinordi has played just over 100 games throughout his 9 NHL seasons, never surpassing 30 games in any single season. At 6-6, 229 pounds, he’s got a physical presence that has just never translated effectively.

The Blackhawks needed bodies to fill out their roster this season and Tinordi is the definition of “a body”. If he stays with the Blackhawks, he’ll likely be mostly used as a 7D as he had been in the past or he’ll be sent to the AHL to be a veteran presence on the blue line.

Alex Vlasic

Stats last season: 62 games, 11 points (5 G, 6 A), 19 PIM, 66 shots, 7.6 SH%, 13:03 ATOI

Selected by the Blackhawks in the second round (43rd overall) of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, Vlasic had a quiet but impressive NCAA career with the Boston University Terriers. Vlasic finished his junior season with eight points (1 G, 7 A) in 32 games while generally playing top-pair minutes, was known as one of the best defensive defensemen in his school’s conference, and earned Hockey East All-Star honors.

Vlasic signed his ELC with the Blackhawks in March 2022 once his junior season was complete, and played in 15 NHL games to finish out the 2021-22 season in Chicago. During that audition, Vlasic was praised for his calm, poised approach to the defensive side of the game, which translated smoothly to professional hockey. As in previous years, Vlasic was not overly physical despite his size (6-6, 199 pounds at the time), but he does know how to use his large frame well for positioning and to retrieve the puck or knock loose ones away, depending on the situation. The fact that he reportedly put on an additional 20 pounds of muscle could help as well.

Although skating was his main concern during his draft year, Vlasic has improved dramatically in this regard — and looked right at home in the NHL.

How long Vlasic will be with the Blackhawks this season is unknown. Yes, he did well with them in a small sample last year, but he also only turned 21 in June and there’s no rush when it comes to a top prospect. Still, it’ll be interesting to see if Vlasic can play well enough to force the Blackhawks to keep him up with the big club.

What’s the defense gonna look like?

Trying to determine what the defensive pairings will look like this season is somewhat difficult due to its nature as a throw-away season where the Blackhawks are racing to the bottom of the bottom of the standings.

But here’s what the lines looked like at Tuesday’s practice:

Johnson being on the top pairing is pretty terrible, but it’s just game one so there’s a chance it’ll change. It’d be nice to see Vlasic in that position since S. Jones seemed to have an instant connection with the youngster last season, but he apparently injured (not serious) his foot blocking a shot at practice. Tinordi being in the top-four is also a head scratcher, but again, there’s not a lot to work with here considering the injuries.

Personally, the following pairs are closer to SCH preference:

Vlasic — S. Jones

Roos — Murphy

Johnson — Regula

As stated above, it’s be great to see if the chemistry between Vlasic and S. Jones continues. Roos is the newcomer, but he also played top-pair minutes in the SHL so he could possibly handle being a partner to Murphy. Johnson shouldn’t be playing as anything more than the No. 6, but sentiments like that will be a common theme for the entire 2022-23 Blackhawks experience.

Stats from NaturalStatTrick.com, All Three Zones Project, and Evolving-Hockey.com.