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Blackhawks 2021 season preview: Defensemen

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This year’s defense may be better. They have to be.

Montreal Canadiens v Chicago Blackhawks
Connor Murphy and Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks with Andrew Shaw formerly of the Montreal Canadiens
Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

With the first game of the 2021 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. Up next, it’s the defensemen.

It’s become common knowledge that the Blackhawks were among the worst defensive teams last season. At 5-on-5 play, they were dead last in Shots Against Per 60 (SA/60) at 34.82, dead last in Expected Goals Against Per 60 (xGA/60) at 2.64 and dead last in High Danger Chances Against Per 60 (HDCA/60) at 12.91 (all according to Natural Stat Trick).

The main reason the Blackhawks finished an even 147-147 in goals scored/allowed at 5-on-5 play was their superior goaltending (eighth in the league with .925 save percentage at five-on-five). That goaltending may not be as reliable this season, although that’s more of an unknown based on the unproven nature of Chicago’s goaltender candidates for the season.

Here are the defensemen who’ll be looking to make it easier on this year’s goaltending trio (in alphabetical order):

Adam Boqvist

Stats last season: 41 games played (GP), four goals (G), nine assists (A), 13 points (P), 6 PIM, 50 shots (S), eight shooting percentage (S%), 16:13 ATOI

Boqvist didn’t start last season with the Blackhawks. He was with the IceHogs in the AHL with the belief that he needed a year of transition between the OHL’s London Knights and the Blackhawks’ roster. Then injuries — like, a lot of injuries — happened.

Calvin de Haan and Brent Seabrook went down for the season in December. Erik Gustafsson was in trade rumors that become reality. The Blackhawks needed another defenseman who could produce points, and there was Boqvist.

Boqvist finished the season with five goals above replacement and .9 wins above replacement, both second on the blue line (according to Evolving Hockey). That’s largely because of his offensive impact and his ability to draw penalties and not take bad ones. Those are the abilities he’ll bring into this season, as he continues to work on his defense.

Calvin de Haan

Stats last season: 29 GP, 1 G, 5 A, 6 P, 10 PIM, 42 S, 2.4 S%, 19:55 ATOI

De Haan finished his regular season in December but came back for the postseason in August. He played the third-most average time on ice on the penalty kill for Blackhawks’ defensemen last season (after Connor Murphy and Duncan Keith) and was used as a dependable — albeit not outwardly mobile — defensive defenseman.

He’ll likely start with a more mobile defensive partner this season, which could do wonders for de Haan’s possession this season.

Duncan Keith

Stats last season: 61 GP, 3 G, 24 A, 27 P, 18 PIM, 111 S, 2.7 S%, 24:23 ATOI

Keith is now 37 years old and isn’t the same No. 1 defenseman that he was at earlier stages of his career. That’s why this season could see him hand over those responsibilities to the player who’ll likely start the season as his defensive partner: Connor Murphy.

That pairing worked well in the regular season and finished with a 51.76 CF%, 50.94 xGF% and 43.24 oZS%. It was duo that coach Jeremy Colliton often turned to close out the final few minutes of games the Blackhawks were leading in the 2020 postseason.

Ian Mitchell

Stats last season: 36 (NCAA) GP, 10 G, 22 A, 32 P, 16 PIM

This will be Mitchell’s rookie season after graduating from the University of Denver. The 21-year-old defenseman (he’ll be 22 on Jan. 18) scored 32 points, including 10 goals, in his last season in the NCAA and held a leadership position with Denver in his last two seasons.

Mitchell looks like a mobile defenseman who can move the puck well while playing better defense than other offensive-minded defensemen like Boqvist. He’s good at keeping the puck and taking it back but could be making mistakes defensively this season. Pairing him with someone safer (namely de Haan or Nikita Zadorov) will be for the best.

Connor Murphy

Stats last season: 58 GP, 5 G, 14 A, 19 P, 27 PIM, 117 S, 4.3 S%, 21:15 ATOI

Murphy elevates the play of whatever defenseman he’s paired with — an excellent trait. While he won’t factor in on the Hawks’ power play, he should see ample time on the penalty kill as the team’s most reliable defenseman in his own zone. Murphy finished the season tied for the most ATOI on the penalty kill and second in most time overall and should be on the top D pairing to start the season.

Brent Seabrook

Stats last season: 32 GP, 3 G, 1 A, 4 P, 8 PIM, 40 S, 7.5 S%, 18:09 ATOI

Seabrook has had three surgeries since he last appeared in the Blackhawks game, which was over one calendar year ago. He’s also missed all of training camp thus far and it’s unclear what his role will be this season whenever he is healthy.

Seabrook wasn’t great last season. But when taking into account his defensive responsibilities, including a 41.54 oZS% at five-on-five and 1:31 ATOI on the penalty kill, he wasn’t as bad as would be thought. It’s just that he cannot no longer be relied upon for crucial defensive situations, and his best attribute remains his still powerful slapshot. If he returns healthy at any point this season, he’ll likely be in a role geared towards those offensive situations.

Nikita Zadorov

Stats last season: 64 GP, 4 G, 9 A, 13 P, 65 PIM, 65 S, 6.2 S%, 17:46 ATOI

Zadorov was acquired for Brandon Saad in October and will likely take on a defensive responsibility role with a younger defensive partner this season. He’s played alongside both Samuel Girard and Cale Makar in the past with Colorado, so this won’t be new to him.

Zadorov was excellent on a bad penalty kill last season so he could do well within Chicago’s penalty kill system. That was one of the very few things the Blackhawks did well last season and Zadorov could add to that.

What’s the defense gonna look like?

That’s the question, isn’t it?

Like with the goaltenders, the regular season may be where players earn their spots instead of in the preseason. There’s going to be ample time in this 56-game schedule to experiment and find which defensemen (and defensive pairings) work.

To start the season, the Blackhawks will likely start with a “puck-moving defenseman” and “stay-at-home defenseman” on each pairing (quotes used because the top pairing doesn’t fit cleanly in either role). It could look something like this for Wednesday’s season opener

Keith — Murphy

Mitchell — Zadorov

de Haan — Boqvist

This year’s defense could be better with new additions like Zadorov and Mitchell and (hopefully) full seasons from others like de Haan, Boqvist and Murphy. After being among the league’s worst last season, there should be nowhere to go but up.

The Blackhawks themselves seem to recognize this:

Next year’s top four (and potentially years after that) could be formed by the way the next 56 games unfold.

Stats from NaturalStatTrick.com, Evolving-Hockey.com, Eliteprospects.com and HockeyViz.com