Defense first? Not if the Blackhawks are looking for immediate help
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BUFFALO, N.Y. — In a perfect world, the Blackhawks would use their rare top-10 draft pick to select a player who can address their biggest need: an unreliable defense. After all, that defense is largely responsible for them drafting so high in the first place.
But this isn’t a perfect world, and it’s not the NFL or NBA, either. Very few draftees are ready for the NHL, and hardly any defensemen. So while the Hawks would love to grab one of the four elite defensemen who will be on the board once the Buffalo Sabres take Rasmus Dahlin first overall — Evan Bouchard, Noah Dobson, Quinn Hughes or Adam Boqvist — it’s unlikely any of them will be an immediate solution to their biggest problem.
A high-scoring forward, such as Oliver Wahlstrom or Brady Tkachuk, is more likely (though still a long shot) to be able to step in right away.
“If you ask anyone involved in hockey, defense is a hard position,” said Hughes, the Michigan blue-liner who might be the most NHL-ready of the quartet after faring well at the world championships in Denmark. “Whenever you mess up, it’s easy to blame the defenseman. . . . You don’t see it a lot, but it’s definitely possible [to jump straight to the NHL]. That’s my goal, for sure.”
Recent history is not on Hughes’ side. Of the 12 players drafted last June who played in the NHL, only one — the New York Islanders’ Sebastian Aho — was a defenseman. And he was taken 139th overall, so nobody saw him coming.
Of the 23 players drafted in 2016 who have played in the NHL, only six are defensemen, and that includes Blake Hillman, who had a cup of coffee with the Hawks at the end of last season. And of the 20 players drafted in 2015 who have played at least 80 NHL games, only five are defensemen.
In other words, it’s easier to score goals in the NHL than to prevent them. At least, as an 18- or 19-year-old. Heck, Boqvist himself said he is “two or three years” away from the NHL. Not exactly the quick fix the Hawks need.
“I think you need to be a little bit stronger [as a defenseman],” Boqvist said. “You need to take away the forward behind the net and win battles in the corner.”
Beyond the physical maturation process, part of the issue is that most elite defensemen these days are offensive-minded. They all want to be a dynamic offensive weapon, often at the expense of their defensive play. That’s fine in junior hockey, but it doesn’t fly in the NHL.
On top of that, it usually takes a defenseman more time than a forward to adapt to a new system. Just ask about every veteran blue-liner the Hawks have acquired in recent seasons.
That makes a prospect such as Jett Woo out of the Western Hockey League — the 11th-ranked North American defenseman, according to NHL Central Scouting — an intriguing one. He’s a rarity among 18-year-olds: a defensive defenseman. He won’t go in the top 10, but he could be a nice pickup later in the first or second round. While everyone else seems to want to be Erik Karlsson, Woo wants to be Shea Weber.
“When I was younger, I would be more happy and take pride in stopping a guy on a breakaway than trying to get the breakaway or trying to score,” Woo said. “I found myself enjoying that more.”
For most other defensemen, it takes time — and lots of games and repetitions — to drill that mentality into their heads. The game has changed, with defensemen becoming a bigger part of the offense and joining the rush more and more. But a blue-liner’s primary job still is to stop the other guys from scoring.
“It’s more and more offensive, [and] everyone likes to play in the offensive zone,” said Bouchard, an offensive stud in the Ontario Hockey League (87 points in 67 games) and the second-rated defenseman behind Dahlin. “But you really need those defensive defensemen, as well, to keep the puck out of your net.”