Blackhawks juggling overcrowded defensive corps as they begin final road trip

The last-place Hawks are bringing nine defensemen to face the Flames, Canucks and Kraken. Alex Vlasic and Wyatt Kaiser have begun spending time alongside Seth Jones, while Nikita Zaitsev has somehow cemented a role above Andreas Englund.

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Nikita Zaitsev defends against the Canucks.

Nikita Zaitsev has managed to become a staple in the Blackhawks’ lineup despite an overabundance of defensemen.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Blackhawks left Chicago on Monday for their final multigame road trip of the season with nine healthy defensemen, giving coach Luke Richardson an unenviable task.

Jarred Tinordi has recovered from his hip injury and is cleared to resume playing, while prospect Alex Vlasic will remain with the Hawks for these three games — against the Flames, Canucks and Kraken — before returning to Rockford next week.

With those two defensemen plus Seth Jones, Caleb Jones, Connor Murphy, Nikita Zaitsev, Andreas Englund, Wyatt Kaiser and Ian Mitchell all hanging around, three will need to be scratched Tuesday in Calgary.

Over the last couple weeks, playing time has been hard to find for Mitchell — who has dressed only once since his disastrous outing March 20 in Colorado — and Englund, who has dressed only twice since returning from a hamstring injury March 22.

“It’s a tough rotation to keep everybody happy,” Richardson said. “I talked to Englund and asked him to be patient. If we can get him in as much as we can, [not only] for us to look at [him] but also for him to get looked at by the world, we’re trying to be fair.”

It seems unlikely that Englund, a pending unrestricted free agent, and Mitchell, a pending restricted free agent, will be brought back.

If that proves correct, it’ll represent a huge fall for Mitchell, who arrived in 2021 with high expectations. His offensive abilities don’t appear dynamic enough to make up for the defensive shortcomings caused by his lack of size and strength.

The other pending free-agent defensemen are Tinordi (unrestricted) and Caleb Jones (restricted), and they seem much more likely to be brought back. Richardson has raved about Tinordi’s leadership, grittiness and work ethic, in particular.

The other question mark is Zaitsev. He technically has another year under contract for $4.5 million, but he could be bought out rather easily. A buyout would create a $2.8 million salary-cap hit next season and $833,000 hit in 2024-25.

Zaitsev’s analytics have been as terrible as suggested by the fact the Hawks received payment for taking him off the Senators’ hands (a second-round pick). His five-on-five scoring-chance ratio is 29.2% since his Hawks debut March 4. In that same span, Englund ranks second-best among team defensemen at 46.8%, trailing only Caleb Jones at 49.2%.

But Richardson has, for some reason, made Zaitsev a third-pairing staple. He hasn’t scratched him once. Zaitsev’s right-handedness is one factor in his favor; Richardson also likes his mentorship of Kaiser.

Nonetheless, on Saturday against the Devils, Richardson began rotating Kaiser and Vlasic up to the first pairing next to Seth Jones, which should provide the youngsters significantly more fruitful experience. Caleb Jones was bumped next to Murphy on the second pairing.

The Hawks reviewed a clip Monday in which Vlasic and Seth Jones struggled to defend a Devils rush. Richardson wanted Vlasic to see that if he had shifted over toward Seth quicker and yelled out that he was doing so, the Hawks’ backchecking forward could’ve rotated over to cover the open Devil, allowing the Hawks to snuff out the chance.

“We’d like [Vlasic] to get more assertive verbally, and that’ll get him more engaged physically,” Richardson said. “He’s going to be a big part of the future. We need him to get comfortable doing that.”

Of course, the most notable man of all heading on this road trip is forward Jonathan Toews, who evidently recovered well enough from his much-anticipated return Saturday. He told Richardson on Monday he was “feeling good.”

The Hawks enter the trip in sole possession of last place in the NHL with 54 points. The Blue Jackets’ overtime win Sunday moved them into a 30th-place tie with the Ducks at 56 points.

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