Eight-man rotation will keep Blackhawks’ blue line in flux
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Jan Rutta signed with the Blackhawks because he knew they needed right-handed defensemen. Cody Franson signed with the Hawks because he knew they needed some experience. Jordan Oesterle signed with the Hawks because he knew they just flat-out needed defensemen.
Well, now the Hawks have defensemen. Eight of them on the roster. Five of them who can play the right side. And it’s up to coach Joel Quenneville to decide who’s in the lineup every night.
“Their play will probably be a factor in that,” Quenneville said before the Hawks’ season opener Thursday against the Penguins. “We’d like to get everyone involved as early as possible.”
That’s easier said than done. Quenneville has carried eight defensemen in the past, with Mike Kostka and Sheldon Brookbank or Kyle Cumiskey and David Rundblad battling for playing time. It rarely lasts long because it’s hard to keep everyone happy and in a rhythm. Quenneville doesn’t like changing his lineup after a win, so if the team gets hot, a couple of guys get cold.
“Whether it’s a young guy or an old guy, everyone wants to play,” Quenneville said. “Not just the guys out of the lineup, but the guys who are playing want to play more, and they feel they’ll be better with more ice time, as well. There will be a lot of watching the pairs, how compatible they are with one another, how they’re progressing as a tandem, and [then] making a decision on who’s going to play. You can’t forecast it. Just let it evolve.”
Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are reunited on the top pairing for now, and obviously they’re in the lineup every game. Michal Kempny and Connor Murphy form the second pairing. Against the Penguins, Gustav Forsling and Rutta got the call, while Oesterle and Franson were healthy scratches. Unlike in previous eight-man rotations, there’s no obvious scratch, no Michal Rozsival-like veteran just hanging around for depth. Every game, a capable pairing will be sidelined.
“We’ve got eight defensemen, and we feel that they all can play,” Quenneville said.
Of course, the Hawks want quality more than quantity on the back end. And with four first- or second-year players battling for significant playing time, the blue line is the biggest question mark on the team by far. And it’s a big reason why expectations for the Hawks are tempered around the league.
Franson said that’s simply more motivation to succeed.
“If that’s what people are saying about us, we’ll gladly welcome that challenge,” he said.
Mike Sullivan’s name isn’t among those engraved on the Stanley Cup for the 2014-15 Hawks, but he has essentially won it three consecutive times — in 2015 as a player development coach for the Hawks and the last two seasons as the Penguins’ coach. Sullivan said his experience in Chicago — working with younger players and participating in scouting meetings — was valuable.
“It gave me an opportunity to step away from the coaching side of it and see some other sides of the business,” he said. “It was a great experience for me.”
Familiar face II
Antti Niemi, who backstopped the Hawks to the 2010 Stanley Cup, got the start for the Penguins because Matt Murray started Wednesday against the Blues. Niemi replaces another Cup winner, Marc-Andre Fleury. After two down years in Dallas, Niemi’s unlikely to get the kind of workload that Fleury did, but Sullivan said the situation hasn’t changed much.
“Just like last year, we feel like we have two solid, bona fide No. 1 goaltenders,” he said. “It’s important for us to make sure we don’t overtax either one of them to the point where we get diminishing returns.”
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.