Everything you need to know about the Blackhawks’ defense last year can be summed up in one sentence: David Rundblad played in Game 7 against St. Louis. The guy who spent the bulk of his Hawks career in a finely tailored suit and who basically fled to Switzerland just to get some playing time, played 10 minutes against the big, bad Blues in an elimination game.
So while Joel Quenneville suggested that the Hawks’ biggest flaw during the past season was the lack of depth up front, the defense was the most glaring problem — a group that was too top-heavy, too reliant on rookies, and too often had to be bailed out by Corey Crawford. The Hawks’ strongest unit in recent years had become its most glaring weakness.
The Hawks used 11 different defensemen during the season. Trevor Daley didn’t fit the Hawks’ system and made little effort to adapt (the same could be said for Quenneville’s usage of Daley). Rob Scuderi couldn’t keep up. Christian Ehrhoff was a failed experiment. Erik Gustafsson showed great promise, but lost his confidence and his aggressiveness along the way. Viktor Svedberg is 6-foot-9 but has room to grow. Rundblad will forever be Stan Bowman’s most curious infatuation. Trevor van Riemsdyk was a good No. 5 defenseman shoehorned into a No. 4 role. Basically, the Hawks’ back end was Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook, and a shrug.
But suddenly, things don’t look so bad. Two savvy moves have greatly improved the Hawks’ defensive outlook. And while the forward group still has massive holes at the top and bottom that will have to be filled by unproven prospects and journeymen, the blue line has been bolstered by two savvy signings. First, Bowman signed Czech defenseman Michal Kempny in May. At 25 and with a year of experience in the KHL, Kempny is expected to come in and play right away. Then, Bowman convinced veteran Brian Campbell to come to Chicago for a reported $2.25 million — less than half what the Florida Panthers offered to keep him. It wasn’t a tough sell job, considering Campbell desperately wanted to return to his adopted hometown of Chicago. But it was a coup nonetheless.
“Amazing pickup,” Patrick Kane told WMVP-AM on Friday. “If you look back at our team last year, maybe the one thing that could have been lacking was an extra defenseman. To bring [Campbell] in at that price … great guy, great player and I’m sure he’ll be a great fit again.”
Just like that, the Hawks have a potentially powerful second pairing in Campbell and Seabrook. Just like that, van Riemsdyk is on the third pairing, and can be put in more favorable positions as he continues to develop as an NHL defenseman. And just like that, Michal Rozsival, Gustafsson and Svedberg — not to mention emerging prospects such as Ville Pokka and Gustav Forsling — can be rotation players and injury replacements, not go-to guys.
“We wanted to upgrade our defense, and certainly Brian is a big part of that,” Bowman said. “We’re very high on Michal Kempny, as well. Everything’s new to him over here now. He has one year in the KHL and he did great his first year there, and we’re going he has a great transition to the NHL, as well. … You put all that together, and our defense is looking very, very strong. It’s a strong point of our team right now.”
It’ll have to be. Because if Quenneville was lamenting his lack of forward depth with the likes of Andrew Ladd, Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen, Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann around, wait until he sees what he’s got when he gets back from the World Cup of Hockey in October. Who will be Jonathan Toews’ wingers — Richard Panik and a rookie such as Tyler Motte or Nick Schmaltz? Is Marian Hossa better suited to a shutdown-role now? Will Ryan Hartman replace Shaw as a scrappy, do-it-all player? Can Bowman sneak in any more role-player free agents under the salary cap, or will the fourth line be composed of prospects such as Vinnie Hinostroza, Dennis Rasmussen, Tanner Kero and Kyle Baun?
The Hawks were a one-line team for most of last season, as Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin did most of the heavy lifting. They’re even thinner up front now. So there’s still plenty of work to be done, plenty of personnel to sift through. But, hey, one problem at a time. And the Hawks just addressed their biggest one.