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Suddenly shaky defense could present trade-deadline dilemma

By Brian Hedger

For the Sun-Times

The Blackhawks’ defense has been eye-opening recently — in a bad way.

Despite going 2-1-1 since Feb. 13, the Hawks have given up too many scoring chances and haven’t possessed the puck enough. The culmination was a 6-1 road loss outdoors Sunday against the Minnesota Wild.

“Our overall team game in those games where we’ve been blown out is not what the Hawks do to play hockey,” Andrew Shaw said. “We got away from our game. We’ve got to learn from that.”

General manager Stan Bowman is actively seeking a trade or two before the deadline Monday. Bowman has carved out enough salary-cap space for at least one deal, but he could fit in another if he can shed another contract or two.

The question is, what does he covet most — a high-end forward to play on the top line, or a veteran defenseman for a second pairing with Brent Seabrook, who’s been playing with a rotation of rookies?

Last week in New York, coach Joel Quenneville said he wanted to add a forward or two rather than supplement his seven-man defensive group, which essentially contains three rookies. He expressed confidence in that group again Tuesday but left some wiggle room.

“Defense, I still like our group,” Quenneville said. “We’ve got some young kids coming in that are getting a chance to get some good experience, and I think these kids are coming along fine. That opportunity [of a playoff role], if it was presented to them, I think they would handle it well … but we’ll see.”

One of the rookies, Erik Gustafsson, has been scratched in three of the last four games, including the game against the Wild. Gustafsson will play Thursday against the Nashville Predators at the United Center, and Quenneville wants him to be more active offensively.

Gustafsson had seven points (all assists) and a plus-11 rating in his first 14 games but has only two assists and a minus-2 rating in his last 12.

“It’s hard to sit, but you’ve just got to deal with it right now and just keep going,” said Gustafsson, 23, who signed last spring out of the Swedish League. “I just have to come back to my game and try to stay confident when I have the puck on my tape … and try to [make] more good decisions.”

That goes for all the defensemen.

“Right now, we’re a way better team when our [defensemen] are active on the back end,” Quenneville said. “It really gets our gap going, gets our possession game up, gets us deeper in their zone, and all of a sudden they have to fend off a pretty active five-man offense. When we’re not [active], it’s a big difference.”

NOTES: Before practice, Marcus Kruger (fractured left wrist) skated on his own. There is no timetable for Kruger’s return. He is expected to miss the remaining 20 games of the regular season.

“He skated really hard today,” Joel Quenneville said. “We’ll see. We know that his legs aren’t the problem. He’s still a ways away.”

Marian Hossa (lower-body injury) didn’t practice but was spotted walking without a brace and wasn’t limping. Quenneville said Hossa might return next week.

Patrick Kane and Niklas Hjalmarsson sat out practice to rest.

Follow me on Twitter @BrianHedger.