Blackhawks’ new-look defense is deeper, but better?
By Adam L. Jahns firstname.lastname@example.org July 17, 2011 9:16PM
Chicago Blackhawk defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson checks Vancouver Canucks winger Jannik Hansen to the ice in the second period of game six of the first round at the United Center. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
Updated: October 27, 2011 12:30AM
It might have been one of the last times Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brian Campbell worked together.
So in some ways, it was strange when the Blackhawks’ second defensive pairing the last two seasons met for a workout before the team’s annual convention.
“It’s a bit weird,” Hjalmarsson said. “You always think he’s going to show up to camp when camp starts. But he’s going to be in Florida instead.”
From a player’s perspective, life without Campbell officially began this past weekend. Instead of being with “Soupy,” there was Steve Montador, Sean O’Donnell and Rostislav Olesz, the winger acquired from the Panthers for Campbell, meeting the media, signing autographs and answering questions from fans at the convention.
“I loved playing with Soupy,” Hjalmarsson said. “He’s a great guy on the ice and off the ice. It’s tough to find players like him on the ice. He’s always so confident with the puck and always calms the game a bit. It’s always tough to replace.”
General manager Stan Bowman’s goal wasn’t to replace the style of player the Hawks had in Campbell, especially with puck-movers in Duncan Keith and Nick Leddy coming back. It was to improve the team’s depth with Campbell’s $7.1 million cap hit off the books.
With Montador, O’Donnell and Sami Lepisto joining Hjalmarsson, Keith, Leddy, Brent Seabrook and John Scott, the Hawks’ blue line is significantly deeper, especially compared with last season, when injuries and their lack of experience hurt. Now the Hawks have a bevy of seasoned players with a wide range of skills.
“I sat by Soupy in the locker room for three years, and we got along pretty good,” Keith said. “But at the end of the day, decisions have to be made for whatever is going to happen to make the team better. We’re better now, as tough as it is to lose Soupy. The extra guys we were allowed to bring in and sign is a good thing.”
There’s no guarantee that the new mix will work, and Bowman’s decision not to sign edgy puck-mover Chris Campoli might come back to haunt him. But another transition period should be expected as Leddy continues to develop and everyone plays in new pairings.
The hope is that is doesn’t last long. In the Hawks’ puck-possession system, everything begins with the defensemen.
“You can never really have too many defensemen who are experienced,” Keith said. “The whole game really starts in your own end and how you’re able to get out of the zone. Being a defensemen myself, maybe I’m biased, but being good defensively and especially having defensemen who know what they’re doing can help win hockey games.”
The Hawks’ brass promises it will be a more physical unit, too, with Montador and O’Donnell.
“I don’t think you can ever have enough of it,” Seabrook said. “Anytime you can make them think twice or make it tough on them physically or whatever it may be, it’s going to help you out.”
With that in mind, the Hawks’ D-men are excited about their potential.
“This could compete with any team in the league as far as defense,” said O’Donnell, 39. “You have the top high-end talent, and then you also have quite a bit of depth. It needs to translate on the ice, but on paper, I’m excited that this team is as good any in the league.”