Jeremy Colliton made it clear at the start of training camp that he doesn’t own the Blackhawks’ new defensemen — “It’s not like I put my name on them,” he joked.
But the remade unit is certainly catered to his liking, with the hope Colliton’s much-debated defensive system will finally click with the right personnel.
“The size and mobility of our back end [will] allow us to be more aggressive in the ‘D’ zone, which we’d like to be to get out [successfully],” Colliton said. “That’s been a focus for us.
“We want to be aggressive and physical, get stops when we can, get going the other way, and use that mobility on the back end — once we do get it back — to create something in transition. We have enough speed back there that we should be able to create some good situations in transition.”
Through the first three days of camp, the defensive pairings have been stable: Seth Jones with Jake McCabe, Connor Murphy with Riley Stillman, Calvin de Haan with Wyatt Kalynuk and Caleb Jones as the seventh defenseman.
Colliton sees Seth Jones and Murphy — both right-side defensemen — as the anchors of the unit, the two “big, strong, great-skating, physical defensemen who are going to ... play a lot of minutes.”
The question is which of the Hawks’ three left-side defensemen — McCabe, de Haan and Stillman — will pair with each of them come opening night. The process of determining that is just starting, despite the lack of experimentation so far.
“McCabe, he’s very reliable — he’s going to play on the left side with one or the other,” Colliton said. “I don’t think we’re stuck on anything yet, but we want him to get some chemistry and we’ll see how it goes in exhibitions ... We want to give it a bit for them to get used to each other, and then we’ll just reevaluate after a few games.”
No matter how the pairings shape up, however, the Hawks should be stouter defensively than they’ve been the past few years. It’d be difficult to not be, after all: the Hawks ranked either 30th or 31st in both shots on goal and scoring chances allowed at even strength each of the last three seasons.
All seven of the aforementioned defensemen are 6-1 or taller, and the core three — Seth Jones, Murphy and McCabe — are all 204 pounds or heavier. The Hawks believe that added across-the-board size, something they didn’t have as much when Adam Boqvist, Ian Mitchell and Nicolas Beaudin were playing heavily last season, will make a difference.
“When you aren’t as big back there, it’s tough,” Colliton said. “You’ve got to be more patient and you spend a little more time in [the defensive zone] because you don’t want to [attempt a breakout] when you’re exposed.
“[Now], the first guy’s going to make a stop and then the second, third guy can be more aggressive about joining, winning a loose puck or just getting things under control. Because you know even if it’s not perfect, you’re going to knock the guy off balance or create a loose puck. And then we’re out. That’s something we’re excited about.”
The full training camp also gives Colliton more time to explain precisely to the defensemen how he wants them to operate.
Stillman, who was thrust abruptly into the fire last season, said the film sessions and practices this September have given him “a better feel for how we want to play.” And he sees his teammates getting more comfortable, too.
“It’s going to be a lot better this year,” he said. “We’re just that much further ahead than we were last year. The different look on the back end ... is going to allow us to make that next step.”