ANAHEIM, Calif. — For all the Blackhawks’ problems this season, and there have been many, the biggest one has been the blue line.
You can envision Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad having bounce-back offensive seasons next year. You can measure the difference a healthy Corey Crawford and his .929 save percentage should make. You can imagine a better power play as Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz continue to take on larger roles.
But there’s no defense for this defense.
The blue line has been a flashing red warning light all season, never more glaring than during the Hawks’ three-game California road trip, during which they gave up 16 goals. Nobody was perfect in Sunday’s 6-3 loss to the Ducks — quite a comedown from their stirring comeback victory over the Kings a day earlier — but the defensive effort, in particular, was alarming.
There was Duncan Keith standing idly by as Rickard Rakell moved to the front of the net for a power-play goal in the first period. There was Jordan Oesterle offering a half-hearted stick check as Corey Perry performed a spin-o-rama on the doorstep to beat Anton Forsberg to make it 2-0 four minutes later.
Those passive plays — Keith didn’t really react, Oesterle didn’t really move — summed up the Hawks’ defensive woes. Nobody takes the body. Nobody clears opponents from the crease. And while Crawford might be able to stop some of those chances on a regular basis, neither Anton Forsberg, J-F Berube nor Jeff Glass has been able to.
“That’s the position we’re [in],” coach Joel Quenneville said when asked about the lack of physicality on the back end. “We were watching them in the D-zone, and we weren’t going to people quick enough. Too much time, too much space and poor sticks.”
It goes beyond the inability to clear the slot and the crease, though. Brent Seabrook made a pass to nobody in the defensive zone during a power play, leading directly to a scoring chance for the Ducks. Keith had two turnovers that led directly to goals against the Kings. Erik Gustafsson and Carl Dahlstrom flailed their way to three quick goals against Thursday in San Jose.
Every Hawks defenseman has struggled at times. But over the last five weeks, as the bottom has fallen out, it seems every Hawks defenseman has struggled at the same time. The Hawks simply have never recovered from the offseason departures of Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brian Campbell and Trevor van Riemsdyk.
“Obviously, me and [Seabrook] have been here the longest, so we definitely shoulder a lot of the blame in that,” Keith said. “I have to be better. It’s been tough, and it’s been a challenging year, obviously, so far. Especially the last couple months.”
Repairing the blue line has to be a big part of the Hawks’ offseason plans. They’ll have millions in cap space to play with for the first time in ages, and they need to spend it on defensemen.
As for the rest of the game and this season, the Hawks at least showed some fight, and not just Jonathan Toews brawling with longtime nemesis Ryan Kesler. After falling behind 4-0, Tomas Jurco and Schmaltz cut the deficit to 4-2. But Oesterle failed to clear a rebound from the goalmouth and Jakob Silfverberg backhanded it in for the dagger. Corey Perry added a second goal, too, getting behind Oesterle and Seabrook for a stuff-in from the corner, rendering Schmaltz’s 20th goal with 2:28 left mere window dressing.
Just two more defensive lapses in a game — and a season — full of them.
“We have some good stretches where we play pretty good, but then [there’s] a little breakdown or something that’s in the back of the net,” Keith said. “It seems like every little mistake we make is costing us.”
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.