GLENDALE, Ariz. — The top priority for the Chicago Blackhawks this offseason was reworking a defense group that was exposed by the Nashville Predators in a first-round playoff sweep in April.
It wasn’t an easy task. Chicago had little money to spend to under the salary cap, veteran Brent Seabrook is under contract for seven more years at a whopping cap hit of $6.875 million, and the prospect pool is underwhelming, diminished by years of trade-deadline moves to bolster the Hawks for Stanley Cup runs.
The Blackhawks traded veteran Niklas Hjalmarsson, 30, to the Arizona Coyotes for defenseman Connor Murphy, 24, (and minor-league forward Laurent Dauphin) on June 23, in an attempt get younger.
They signed free-agent Jan Rutta, 27, to a one, year, $925,000 contract. They also signed Jordan Oesterle, 25, to a two-year, $1.3 million contract, and free agent Cody Franson, 30, to a one-year, $1 million contract to add to a group that already included Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Gustav Forsling and Michal Kempny.
Keith continues to play at an elite level, and Rutta has been a find out of the Czech League with two goals and five points in eight games. Other than that, coach Joel Quenneville said, it has been a work in progress.
“We’ve got eight guys and we feel they’ve all been fine for us,” Quenneville said on Saturday before the Hawks faced the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena. “Everybody’s got a chance to play now, so we have some decisions to make on a game-to-game basis on the six that are going.”
Quenneville’s positive spin comes at a time when his young defensemen need confidence. It’s early, and he’s still searching for six regulars, but the numbers do not suggest a feel-good story.
Chicago’s possession-related numbers are near the bottom of the league. Eight games into the season, the Hawks are 26th in Corsi For percentage at 46.58. Each of their defenseman is under 50 percent in Corsi. Forsling (46.51), Seabrook (46.01), Murphy (45.10), Kempny (44.39) and Franson (42.59) are below 47.
Thy are defending far too much.
“It’s been a learning process, trying to get a feel for the style of playing and defending,” Murphy said. “There has been the odd game where it has been tough to figure out certain things, but it’s been more fun to work hard, try to keep playing and see the improvements.
“It’s obviously a fast-paced offensive team here. We want to check hard and we stress getting possession so we can go play offense. That’s something a little different from what I’m used to, with the way we defend and check as five here.”
The Hawks didn’t save much money by acquiring Murphy ($3.85 million cap hit) in place of Hjalmarsson ($4.1 million cap hit), and with that salary, the idea was for Murphy to fill a top-four role. That hasn’t happened consistently. Murphy has been a healthy scratch for two of Chicago’s eight games this season.
“It wasn’t so much about playing really bad,” Murphy said. “We have eight good defensemen here right now and they’re trying to get a feel for different guys and what they can bring to the table.
“It sucks every time you don’t play, but it’s a new organization with some changes on the blue line, so you understand where they’re coming from. It just pushes you to do what you can do every night and show that you can do it every night to stay in the lineup and earn more ice time.”
Quenneville sounded an encouraging tone with Murphy.
“I think he’s getting comfortable with our team game and the quickness [in] transition from defense to offense,” Quenneville said. “I like that he’s looking for some direct plays now, and I think that defensively, getting that gap is something that he’s improving on. That’s kind of the couple things that we can add to his game.
“He adds that physicality to our back end, which is good. Around the net, he’s hard to play against in that area as well. Offensively, I think there’s something there. Defensively, being predictable and consistent, he’s getting better.”
Quenneville has put a brave face on the Hjalmarsson trade despite reports that he was unhappy with it at the NHL Draft this summer in Chicago. Hjalmarsson was a Quenneville favorite.
“He was a very dependable, reliable defenseman that played hard, played in a lot of tough situations, through injuries, was always a warrior-type guy, good penalty killer,” Quenneville said. “He did everything he could to keep the puck out of the net and he was hard to play against.”
Quenneville has watched his Stanley Cup-caliber roster slowly erode through departures, cap-induced trades and poor cap management by general manager Stan Bowman. The Blackhawks have done well in filling in pieces at the forward position, but the blue line has suffered for years.
With the Hawks embracing a youth movement on the blue line, the first half of this season will likely amount to an experiment, as Quenneville determines whether he has six players good enough to help the Hawks meet their lofty spring expectations.
“I don’t think anybody has hurt their case at all,” Quenneville said. “That’s what makes it challenging. We’ve got eight guys that we feel can play and can play against anybody, and that’s a good situation to be in.”