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As training camp nears end, Jeremy Colliton hopes Blackhawks finally understand his defense

“It looks much better structurally. Guys are getting on the same page,” the coach said Monday.

The Blackhawks’ defensive scheme, a man-defense hybrid, was a struggle last season.
AP Photos

Jeremy Colliton preached throughout the winter, spring and summer that fall training camp would be the time the Blackhawks finally started playing defense the way he wanted.

There’s no question Colliton’s schemes were initially disastrous last season. A hybrid between man and zone — but leaning more towards man — the system’s newfangled complexity backfired at first.

So now that camp is entering its final days, are the Hawks now where Colliton envisioned all along?

“Yeah, I think it looks much better structurally,” the coach said Monday. “Guys are getting on the same page. We’re trying to do it almost every day.”

And do the Hawks themselves feel the same?

“You definitely see guys getting the hang of it,” Connor Murphy said. “It’s more about trying to make it become second nature, and that way, in the regular season, we won’t have to review too much.”

Well, that’s good news.

Still, the Hawks visibly aren’t perfect in their own end yet, although summer addition Olli Maatta has made a clear impact (and once in the lineup, Calvin de Haan likely will too).

Mixed with the sluggishness and rustiness of the preseason, the team’s defensive zone looked scrambled and uncomfortably spacious for long stretches of Saturday’s preseason contest against the Bruins. Fortunately, Colliton saw it more as a passing issue than a positional issue.

“We were sloppy with the puck and we gave them momentum unnecessarily,” he said. “In [the] zone, quite good, quite structured. Most of their chances came in transition, which we need to clean up, too, of course. But I think that’s very much in our control.”

Indeed, more is being asked of the Hawks’ defensemen than ever when it comes to exiting the zone with possession, another team weakness last season (that I wrote about last week). But the first priority is keeping the puck out of the net — a prerequisite to gaining possession and exiting the zone.

Colliton’s idea is that defensemen should roughly follow their assigned man around the offensive zone, but also help cover others’ men when in dangerous scoring zones. It has been nicknamed the “man and a half” defense, and that describes it as intuitively as any phrase could.

The daily reps in practice, and experimental flexibility of games that don’t count, has helped the ‘D’ unit get a better sense of what all that entails. Constant communication, active sticks and skating mobility are key.

“You have to have good footwork, because you’ll be going up against guys that are quick and shifty,” Murphy said. “If you’re even going up against a DeBrincat or a Kane, you know those guys are going to try to challenge you when they get you in a one-on-one, so you have to make sure you’re responsible with your stick and that you’re defending hard.”

Brent Seabrook’s effectiveness so far, albeit merely in the preseason, is a fantastic indicator of the overall defense’s renewed comfort level.

Maatta, paired with Seabrook the past two games, said the duo’s strategy has been trial by fire: “You get into your own end and then you talk about it, you figure it out that way,” Maatta said.

And that emphasis on talking about everything is one that Colliton has been happy to watch develop.

“It’s reps, [it’s] getting comfortable with the reads we’re all supposed to make,” he said. “If one guy makes the read and the other four expect him to do something else, then you’re going to get into trouble. That’s why this time has been really good.”