With opening night less than a week away, the Blackhawks are down to some tough decisions with their roster. We talked at length about the options on Tuesday night’s Shoutcast, but there are some real questions. I’m going to break down some of the upcoming roster decisions or at least try to lay them out in a logical manor. This doesn’t mean Joel Quenneville decide to use the logical method. Next, we look at maybe the most volatile of positions, the defense.
The Blackhawks defense became a huge point of contention the day Niklas Hjalmarsson was traded to the desert earlier this summer. As far as roster spots go, there are either slam dunks or complete question marks. Nothing in between. I will start with the top end slam dunks. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabook and Connor Murphy are all going to unequivocally be every day players for this year’s Blackhawks team.
Keith is 34 years old, and logs an inhumane amount of time on ice. He also began to have knee issues last season, and missed some time as a result. Joel Quenneville is, no doubt, going to ride his horse right into the ground, and get as many miles as he can on the way. Duncan Keith, though, is still playing at a top 10 defenseman level, so we’ll just have to take each coming season one at a time. Until he really drops off, fans can just blissfully and ignorantly believe it’ll last forever.
Brent Seabrook gets a bum rap for all he does and just keeps dragging marginal partners around on his back, like Master-Blaster from Mad Max, season after season. Sure, he makes a hefty salary, and sure he’s not 25 any more, but the guy is an anchor (not in a bad way) in helping to bring along young players. Losing Hjalmarsson was most likely a bigger loss, but Seabrook is not that far behind. Until he cannot perform as one of the top 3 defensemen on this team, he needs to be embraced. He is also not going anywhere until there is a defined replacement, and right now there isn’t anyone even close. So, get the thought of trading him out of your head right now.
Connor Murphy might be the second best defender on this team in the very near future but, at the moment, he is the third. When real games are played and he’s not lost in the rotation of bums, he will probably show us more than he has thus far. Murphy has been adequate when in the lineup, but the Blackhawks will certainly need more from him. That said, asking him to be Niklas Hjalmarsson is just unfair. Fans need to set open minded expectations for Murphy. He is only 24, and has already logged a full seasons worth of games more than Hjalmarsson did at the same age. Murphy has also been used differently, in Arizona. His defensive zone starts, last season, were higher than Nik Hjalmarrson’s ever have been at 58.5%. As a result, and not unexpectedly, his possession numbers were lower as well. I have an open mind, and I’m going to give him at least a full season, before I cast judgement. I suggest you join in.
The next wave of players are not just one notch below the top three but, probably, two notches. This is not to say that they will be awful, because there is a lot to look forward to. So, walk with me down the middle of the road…
The first player, based on experience, is Michal Kempny. I swung and missed, like Adam Dunn at the plate, on Kempny last season. I had high hopes for him to be the next Brent Seabrook type player, and he turned into the next Michal Rozsival. His possession metrics were actually good, on paper, but he was also heavily shielded from defensive zone starts. This season, the Blackhawks have another fellow countryman on the team to help him out and, more importantly, they ditched Joel Quenneville’s little buddy Mike Kitchen. Ulf Samuelsson stepping in should help Michal Kempny’s confidence. He may never reach the levels of top pair, but he can be a useful bottom 3 defender.
Speaking of Kempny’s fellow countryman, Jan Rutta will be an NHL rookie at the spry age of 27. Already, he has surprised many, with his strength, size, and composure. Rutta, at least in the preseason, has been more of what I expected from Kempny last season. If he continues to play the way he has, he will be the 4th best defenseman on this team before long. He has Seabrook size, and has a smart confidence in his game that is very comforting. This might be a real Stan Bowman find.
Gustav Forsling is an enigma, plain and simple. He has all the tools to become a top 4 offensive defenseman, but his brain needs some catching up. Much like last season, we have all watched him make some very nice noticeable plays, but then had a terrible play, like in the Bruins game, where he looks like a completely lost puppy. While I think that he should start in the NHL, the best thing for him might be some AHL time, once again. He needs to really tighten his game up. On the powerplay, he is an extremely useful player, but even strength he has been hit-or-miss. I have ragged on Alex Debrincat a lot, but if you look at the numbers, it’s Forsling that has been the bust so far. SO FAR. This is a 20 year old kid, too. I love that the media and fanbase have not piled on him yet. Give him time to grow, and I think the end result will be much better for everyone.
A lot of people are forgetting that Cody Franson is with the team on a Professional Tryout but, unless something drastic happens, Franson is going to get a contract offer once the season begins. With question marks in Kempny and Forsling, the Franson situation is that much more important. He’s a big veteran guy that can play in all situations as a bottom pair defenseman. He’s a better, older, version of Trevor van Reimsdyk. The Blackhawks will be better with him than without, so get used to seeing number 11 out there this season.
Not many people know about Jordan Oesterle. We have heard that he is a puck moving defenseman, and he has certainly gotten some playing time this preseason. I have not really noticed him do anything extremely special but, maybe, that is what we shold ask from him. Don’t be noticeable. If Quenneville goes with Keith, Murphy, Seabrook, Rutta, Kempny, Franson and Forsling, Jordan Oesterle will end up in Rockford. If they decide to let Forsling percolate in Rockford for a while, then Oesterle is your 7th defenseman. Otherwise, there just isn’t any room for an 8th defenseman.
Michal Rozsival is still technically on the team, but he failed his physical and probably shouldn’t be in the Blackhawks plans any longer, anyway. Erik Gustafsson is a decent depth player, but there are several better options in the organization.
The last player that really intrigues me is Luc Snuggerud. He had a really nice Traverse City tournament and was having a solid training camp, until he was injured against the Redwings last week. I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see him get some NHL time this season, just so the Hawks know what they have. Once he’s healthy, we should expect to see him get a boat load of time in Rockford, though.