The Chicago Blackhawks were and continue to be faced with two major questions as they prepare for the coming campaign.
The first pertains to goaltender Corey Crawford and his status for the coming season, and what we know, admittedly, isn’t all that much. Crawford, who hasn’t played a meaningful game in nearly 10 months, has been working to recover from a concussion suffered last December. His timeline for a return is unknown. And while he’s been practicing with Blackhawks goaltending coach Jimmy Waite, Crawford hasn’t yet seen shots in a live practice or scrimmage. With two weeks until the season begins, that would seem to suggest Crawford won’t be manning the crease on opening night, at the very least.
The second, and maybe more difficult to figure, relates to the Blackhawks’ blueline. More specifically, who Chicago was planning to ice beyond Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
On paper, the answer is obvious enough: Jan Rutta, Erik Gustafsson, Connor Murphy and summer signing Brandon Manning appeared the best bets, while Gustav Forsling appeared a safe bet to challenge for the seventh spot on the blueline. But lo, the off-season and training camp injury bug has bitten, and it would be safe to say that the Blackhawks’ best-laid plans for their blueline, if they can be called that, have been thrown into a state of disarray.
In late-July, Chicago announced that Forsling, who played 41 games and averaged 19 minutes of ice time last season, would be sidelined for 14 weeks following wrist surgery. A safe estimate puts him out until mid-October. Then came the news Wednesday that Connor Murphy, acquired from the Arizona Coyotes ahead of last season to be Niklas Hjalmarsson’s cost-controlled replacement, is out anywhere from eight to 12 weeks with a back injury. And if that wasn’t enough, Rutta, projected as a second-pairing defender after 20 points in 57 games last season, was added to the ever-growing blueline infirmary on a day-to-day basis thanks to a groin ailment. Talk about keeping the hits coming.
With all of this, though, the questions about the Blackhawks’ blueline have grown into concerns, and much greater concerns than they were to begin.
Given the injuries the defense has sustained, the only known quantities to start the season are Keith and Seabrook. The former, of course, is a future Hall of Famer who has and continues to be the steadying presence among a group in dire need of just that. The latter, though, is arguably a veteran on the decline who is coming off of his most difficult season since rising to prominence on Chicago’s blueline. That doesn’t alter his status as the second most-proven option at the Blackhawks’ disposal, mind you.
So, what of the rest of the ‘D’ corps with Murphy and Forsling guaranteed to be sidelined come Game One of the 2018-19 campaign? In effect, the backend will see a shuffle forward. Rutta becomes the projected No. 3, Manning slides into the fourth spot and Gustafsson heads up the third pairing. That leaves two spots to be filled, and that’s where 2017 first-round pick Henri Jokiharju comes in.
Throughout training camp, and even before, Jokiharju has been considered the best bet to make the leap among the Blackhawks’ prospects. At times, he’s even skated with Keith. But it’s no simple leap for a 19-year-old rearguard to make. He’d be going from the Western League, where he excelled in a two-way role last season with 12 goals and 71 points in 63 games, to the NHL on a team that won’t be able to shelter him early. Instead, he’d be thrust into potential top-four duty early.
One of the spots seems to be Jokiharju’s to lose, however. It seems somewhat unlikely that Chicago would instead thrust one of Lucas Carlsson, Blake Hillman or Carl Dahlstrom into the full-time role, despite the latter two defensemen getting cups of coffee in the bigs last season. Jokiharju is most certainly ahead of fellow high-ranking prospect rearguards Adam Boqvist and Nicolas Beaudin, too. The most likely scenario would see both sent back to the major junior ranks to further refine their games with an eye on potentially making the leap as soon as next season.
What becomes of the seventh spot, then? There exists the opportunity for Hillman or Dahlstrom to land that gig, definitely. It would seem, though, that the best option for the Blackhawks would be to retain the services of Brandon Davidson, who is in camp on a professional tryout. Davidson, in a sense, could fill the role previously held by the since-departed Jordan Oesterle and Michal Kempny as a fill-in top-four blueliner. Is it the ideal role for Davidson? Maybe not. Probably not. But he has 114 games experience and has proven, at least in a part-time capacity, that he can be a somewhat effective NHL defenseman. There’s more evidence of that from Davidson than there is from Hillman, Dahlstrom or Jokiharju, quite frankly. There’s even an argument that could me made that Davidson offers more upside than Manning, Rutta or Gustafsson.
The simple fact remains, though, that no matter who the Blackhawks ice this season, the blueline stands to be one of the more prominent shortcomings. Keith and Seabrook will undoubtedly do their best to anchor the backend, but beyond that, the group as a whole doesn’t offer much promise of grand improvement. That’s concerning given the Blackhawks allowed the eighth-most shots against per game last season, had among the highest attempts against rates and scoring chances against rates at five-a-side and surrendered the eighth-most goals against. And add a shaky, inexperienced blueline to a Crawford-less crease and one has to wonder if last season’s 76-point campaign may not look halfway decent in hindsight by the time the coming season closes.