Blackhawks getting the band back together with Oduya’s return
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Yes, Johnny Oduya helped lead the Blackhawks to two Stanley Cups while skating alongside fellow Swede Niklas Hjalmarsson as one of the top shutdown pairings in the league.
But just because Oduya is back in Chicago, and just because he’s going to be back alongside Hjalmarsson, doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.
“Hammer’s probably the top defensive player in the league,” Oduya said. “Any chance you get to play with someone like that, that’s a good thing. [But] you need to produce the results, too. I don’t think you want to live on whatever you think you’ve done before. All of us want to move forward. You want to get better.”
On paper, the Hawks look better on the back end with Tuesday night’s acquisition of Oduya from the Dallas Stars, in exchange for minor-leaguer Mark McNeill and a conditional fourth-round pick. Joel Quenneville has been tinkering with the pairings for much of the season, trying to find the right combinations. With Oduya back, Quenneville plans to stick with what worked.
As soon as Oduya is up to speed after an ankle injury that cost him 15 games, and Hjalmarsson returns from his upper-body injury, the Swedish duo will be back as the Hawks’ shutdown unit. That will also allow for the reunion of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook on the top pairing, freed from the burden of having to face the opponent’s top line each night.
So up front, the Hawks are loaded with young talent, with rookies such as Nick Schmaltz, Ryan Hartman and Tanner Kero playing major roles. But on the back end, it’s 2015 all over again and a little 2010 thrown in, thanks to Brian Campbell. The Hawks can only hope the results are the same.
Familiarity should ease the transition for Oduya. Even with all of the Hawks’ roster turnover the past couple of seasons, there are still 10 former teammates of Oduya’s in the room. And his knowledge of the Hawks’ system and style of play means he won’t need much hand-holding in the early going.
“He knows what’s expected from him, and he’s been here,” said Marcus Kruger, a close friend of Oduya’s. “He’s been successful before. We’re really excited.”
General manager Stan Bowman said Oduya’s penalty-killing prowess was a big reason the Hawks wanted to reacquire him, and cited his legendary fitness level as a big reason why he’s not concerned about the ankle injury or his age (35). Bowman said Stars GM Jim Nill also allowed the Hawks doctor to speak with Dallas’ doctor to get the full report on Oduya’s ankle before making the deal.
“I feel good,” Oduya said. “I haven’t played much lately. We’re going to see [how I do] at a practice [Thursday] and then move forward from that. I’m really excited. It’s time to put everything on the line.”
Quenneville expects him and Hjalmarsson to pick up right where they left off, which would be ideal, considering the last game they played together was Game 6 of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.
Oduya’s arrival also further crowds a crowded blue line. The third pairing is likely going to be Campbell and Trevor van Riemsdyk (Michal Kempny, as a left-handed shot, might be the odd-man out). Quenneville said he’ll face some “tough decisions,” but van Riemsdyk said the Hawks defensive corps welcomed the competition.
“It’s just going to bring out the best in everyone,” van Riemsdyk said. “He’s an awesome guy and a great player. It’s exciting to get him back.”
Follow me on Twitter@MarkLazerus.