A couple weeks ago, we looked ahead at next season with the forward group of the Chicago Blackhawks.
It took some time for the dust – and emotions – to settle from the end of a playoff-less regular season to dig into the realities of the Blackhawks’ blue line for next year.
Let’s dig in.
First the reality: Chicago’s defensemen underperformed and underwhelmed throughout the 2017-18 season, making the importance of a healthy Corey Crawford more painfully obvious.
In his end of season comments, general manager Stan Bowman noted that the Blackhawks will have cap space to play with this summer, and the potential of the Hawks adding a top four-caliber defenseman is very possible.
Which is… intriguing.
Not because the Hawks don’t need a defenseman. But because the Hawks’ NHL roster and system are already loaded with defensemen under contract for next season.
Cody Franson, Viktor Svedberg, Adam Clendening and Michal Rozsival are all unrestricted free agents this summer. Chicago does not have a restricted free agent on the blue line in 2018.
Chicago has five NHL veterans signed into next season:
- Duncan Keith – $5,538,462 (thru 2022-23)
- Brent Seabrook – $6.875M (thru 2023-24)
- Connor Murphy – $3.85M (thru 2021-22)
- Erik Gustafsson – $1.2M (thru 2019-20)
- Jordan Oesterle – $650,000 (thru 2018-19)
During the 2017-18 season, three defenseman made their NHL debut for Chicago: Jan Rutta, Blake Hillman, Carl Dahlstrom. Their contracts are as follows:
- Jan Rutta – $2.3M (thru 2018-19)
- Blake Hillman – $925,000 (thru 2018-19)
- Carl Dahlstrom – $750,833 (thru 2018-19)
The Hawks also have one more year of Gustav Forsling at $872,500 as well.
By our math, that’s nine defensemen who have, at some point, played in Chicago already with a contract for next season.
There could be a couple more youngsters added to the group next season.
Coach Joel Quenneville told Scott Powers of The Athletic that there’s a possibility that top prospect Henri Jokiharju could be in the mix for an NHL roster spot next season. Jokiharju, who turns 19 on June 17, was the Hawks first round pick (#29 overall) in the 2017 NHL Draft. He had 71 points in 63 games for Portland in the WHL last year.
On Thursday, Chicago announced the team has signed former Notre Dame defenseman Dennis Gilbert to a three-year, entry-level contract. Gilbert, 21, was a third round pick (#91 overall) by Chicago in the 2015 NHL Draft. Listed at 6-2 and 200 pounds, Gilbert had ten points and a team-leading 88 blocked shots in 39 games for the Big Ten champion Fighting Irish. He plays with a nasty streak and is physical – two things the Hawks needed this season – but will likely need some professional work before he’s ready for the NHL.
The Hawks have also signed Joni Tuulola ($767,500 cap hit thru 2019-20) and have Luc Snuggerud ($767,500 cap hit thru 2019-20) and Robin Norell ($717,500 cap hit thru 2018-19) under contract moving forward.
So if we begin considering Rockford’s roster, there isn’t much room for an addition anywhere in the system as it stands today.
But, circling back to the beginning of our conversation, the guys we saw last year weren’t good enough.
As we begin looking forward, it’s worth considering the mix of righties and lefties as well as the money their owed as well.
- Right-handed shots
- Left-handed shots
We included Ian Mitchell and Lucas Carlsson, Chicago’s other top defensive prospects, on this list as they might not be very far away from being in the mix as well.
Ulf Samuelsson joined the Hawks coaching staff to work with the defensemen last summer. Bowman indicated that any changes made to the coaches before the 2018-19 campaign would be the responsibility of coach Joel Quenneville. So we’ll see if the performance of the defensemen this season impacts Samuelsson’s status with the team. It’s worth noting, however, that Ulf’s son, Henrik, re-signed with Rockford for next season.
Chicago needs a second puck-moving defenseman to compliment their NHL roster. If the organization feels comfortable with Jokiharju in that role, it would be a strong statement; the last time the Hawks put a teenager in a top-four role regularly was Nick Leddy (and that was because of a Brian Campbell injury in 2010).
There will be free agents to consider, some with more obvious appeal than others. John Carlson would be lovely, but expensive. Mike Green is older. Calvin de Haan (26), John Moore (27) and Luca Sbisa (28) are also younger unrestricted free agents of note.
With two picks in the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft – including their own lottery pick – the Hawks will be a team to watch before and during the draft. Chicago hasn’t picked in the top ten was Patrick Kane in 2007; the following year Chicago selected Kyle Beach at 11th overall.
With the young group of forwards developing, it’s time for the Blackhawks to address the blue line. How – and when – they do it will be the storyline of the summer in Chicago.