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Blackhawks’ defense still has long way to go

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The Chicago Blackhawks have been off to a better-than-expected start this season, especially when you consider they had Corey Crawford, arguably their most important player, for just two of their first seven games entering Sunday’s contest against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

That surprising start has been primarily due to Jonathan Toews‘ offensive resurgence, Alex DeBrincat‘s continued rise to stardom, and some good fortune in a bunch overtime/shootout games. They still have their flaws, particularly on their defense, and wow did a lot of those flaws get exposed on Sunday night against one of the league’s best teams.

The defense should have been viewed as the weak link on the roster heading into the season, and so far there has not been much to change that perception.

That is especially true after Sunday’s 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Entering Sunday’s game the Blackhawks were 26th in the NHL in goals against and 25th in terms of shots allowed per game. Neither number is anywhere close to good enough, and they are almost certain to be looking even worse after Sunday’s game that saw the Lighting set an NHL record and completely overwhelm the Blackhawks in a game that was not as close as the final score would indicate.

At times it looked like two teams playing two completely different sports.

Just consider these two numbers: 55 and 33.

What do those numbers represent?

The former is the number of shots on goal the Blackhawks surrendered to the Lightning for the entire game, while the latter is how many they gave up in the second period alone, setting an NHL record for most shots on goal in a single period. During that second period the Lightning outshot the Blackhawks by a 33-5 margin and outscored them 3-0. It was, to say the least, the difference in the game.

It also helped show just how far the Blackhawks’ defense has to go to make them a serious contender in the meatgrinder that is the NHL’s Central Division.

It is only the ninth time since the 2010 season that a team recorded 55 shots on goal in a game that did not go to overtime.

The Blackhawks have been trending in the wrong direction defensively (both from a shots and goals perspective) for several years now as that core on defense has gotten older or moved on to new teams. Once a team that dominated opponents territorially and never let them set up shop in their end, the Blackhawks are now a team that consistently bleeds shots and scoring chances against and needs its goaltenders to be great to have a chance.

There are several problems with the unit.

First, Connor Murphy has not played a singe game this season as he recovers from a back injury. He was probably one of the team’s best defenders a year ago and has been a major loss at the start of the year.

Gustav Forsling, who has shown promise over the past two years, has also not played yet this season due to a wrist injury.

When it comes to the players that are in the lineup there just isn’t enough high end talent here.

At the top you have Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, both of whom were cornerstone pieces of the Blackhawks’ mini-dynasty between 2010 and 2015, but are now on the wrong side of 33 and are a fraction of what they once were (especially Seabrook). Once you get beyond them there is just a stunning lack of quality depth as they have tried to piece together a makeshift unit of various veteran free agents like Jan Rutta, Brandon Mannning, Erik Gustafsson, and Brandon Davidson.

None of them are particularly great.

Henri Jokiharju, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, has shown a ton of promise this season and is already playing some big minutes and being given a major role at the age of 19. But he’s still 19, and he’s going to have some growing pains at times and he had a particularly tough time on Sunday matching up against the Lightning.

Jokiharju and 2018 first-round pick Adam Boqvist are going to be the future of that unit, and the return of a healthy Murphy at some point should help at least a little bit in the short-term.

But they are probably a few years and a lot of help around them from being where they need to be as a unit. Even with the strong start to the season the Blackhawks’ best hope to contend this season is going to be continued strong play from their forwards and the return of a healthy and productive Corey Crawford.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Boston Bruins at Chicago Blackhawks

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NBC’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Sunday as the Chicago Blackhawks host the Boston Bruins at 12:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BRUINS
Brad MarchandRiley NashDavid Pastrnak
Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciRick Nash
Danton HeinenTommy Wingels – Brian Gionta
Tim SchallerSean KuralyNoel Acciari

Zdeno CharaBrandon Carlo
Torey KrugNick Holden
Matt GrzelcykKevan Miller

Starting goalie: Anton Khudobin

WATCH LIVE – 12:30 p.m. ET

BLACKHAWKS
Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsPatrick Kane
Alex DeBrincatNick Schmaltz – John Hayden
Tomas JurcoArtem Anisimov – Matt Highmore
Patrick SharpDavid Kampf – TBD

Duncan KeithConnor Murphy
Erik GustafssonBrent Seabrook
Jordan OesterleJan Rutta

Starting goalie: Anton Forsberg

Should Winnipeg Jets stand pat at trade deadline?

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There are whispers that the Winnipeg Jets could stand pat at the trade deadline and get away with it.

It’s not necessarily the most popular opinion, but one that has gained a small following given how their season has shaped up to this point.

The growth of rookie forward Kyle Connor, who scored his 21st goal of the season on Sunday, has been impressive. Connor went from a mediocre training camp that saw him begin the season in the American Hockey League to play a vital role on Winnipeg’s top line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.

Jack Roslovic began the season in the AHL and was only called up recently to fill in the gaps as Winnipeg’s health began to deteriorate. Now, Roslovic, a dynamic player with speed and play-making ability, has performed so well that he likely won’t see the minors again.

The Jets are also anticipating the return of towering center Adam Lowry (out with an upper-body injury) and defenseman Jacob Trouba (out with a lower-body injury) by the time the playoffs roll around, turning into quasi-trade deadline additions.

The Jets, who have scored 13 goals in their past two games, are as good as any other team in the league when they’re firing on all cylinders. A recent adjustment to their lines — one that included putting 20-plus goal scorers Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine on the third unit — has diversified Winnipeg’s top-nine to a scary extent.

The Jets have three lines that are capable, at the moment, of putting up a lot of points on any given night. So the argument that the Jets don’t need to add someone to their top-six, or even their top-nine, has some merit.

That said, as the old sports cliche goes: there’s always room to improve. The Jets could still use some depth on the fourth line. Matt Hendricks, while a good presence in the room and a decent penalty killer, isn’t the quickest player on the ice. Joel Armia shows flashes of brilliance and then goes on long stretches where he’s mostly invisible. The return of Brandon Tanev from injury will be useful in that regard. But adding a budget center could be the shrewd move general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff needs to solidify a solid fourth-line combo.

On defense, Ben Chiarot has played admirably in place of Trouba but he may be a surplus to requirements when Trouba returns. One wonders what Cheveldayoff is thinking when it comes to Toby Enstrom, however. The diminutive defenseman had a tough outing in the physical department during the Jets last playoff appearance — their only visit since returning to Winnipeg — during the 2014-15 season. And his injury history should have the Jets thinking about at least shoring up that possibility.

The Jets could turn to Chiarot’s size and physicality in a similar scenario or could turn to the trade market for another option.

This is a good headache for any general manager. The Jets are one of the top teams in the NHL without having made a trade thus far this season.

Their goaltending has been spectacular, their power play has been lethal and their penalty kill is up near the top. Bell MTS Place has become a place teams go to die and the Jets, at the moment, would have home-ice advantage in the first round.

It makes for an interesting week leading up to Monday’s trade deadline.

Here’s a look at what the Jets could be/are considering:

Forwards

Rick Nash: A pricey rental player that would add size and scoring to the Jets top-six. But pricey is the key word here and it’s unlikely the Jets want to dig into the farm to own a guy for a couple months.

Mike Hoffman: Skilled and quick with the ability to score. He would be a good fit for the Jets, but as Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported on the weekend, Hoffman has a limited no-movement clause and Winnipeg is on the list. With term left on his deal, the price wouldn’t be cheap either.

Patrick Maroon and Mark Letestu: Two depth forwards that would bolster Winnipeg’s bottom end. Maroon isn’t the fastest guy around, and he’s not scoring 27 goals like he did last season playing with Connor McDavid. But a fresh start after not getting a contract in Edmonton might be just what Maroon needs to get his confidence up and running. Letestu, meanwhile, offers bottom-six depth up the middle. Matt Hendricks, currently occupying the fourth-line center role, didn’t play in last year’s playoffs for the Oilers. He could make way again depending on what the Jets do at the deadline. These would be cheaper options.

Ryan Hartman: It would be odd for the Chicago Blackhawks to trade a 23-year-old budding forward to a divisional rival, but stranger things have happened. Hartman had 19 goals in his rookie season last year and is playing on a very poor Blackhawks team this year. The price tag is likely high on him as well.

Mats Zuccarello: The New York Rangers announced they were holding a yard sale, and Zuccarello is a name that’s been thrown around when it comes to the Jets. Zuccarello is a good penalty killer and plays a game, not unlike Mathieu Perreault, who the Jets covet. Zuccarello also comes with an extra year on his contract. and could help the Jets beyond this season.

Defenseman:

Nick Holden: Continuing with the Rangers fire sale, Holden could be an option. He’s a left shot defenseman that could fill in for an injury to Enstrom. Holden’s possession metrics don’t jump off the page, but he’s a serviceable third-pairing guy who can play bigger minutes in a pinch.

Jan Rutta: One player the Blackhawks may be willing to part ways with is defenseman Rutta, who is on a one-year entry-level deal that’s set to expire at the end of this season. Rutta shoots right and has better possession metrics than Holden.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Minnesota Wild at Chicago Blackhawks

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Watch Live on NBCSN

PROJECTED LINES

Minnesota Wild

Forwards

Tyler EnnisEric StaalZach Parise

Jason ZuckerMikko KoivuJoel Eriksson Ek

Chris StewartCharlie CoyleMikael Granlund

Marcus FolignoMatt CullenDaniel Winnik

Defense

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon

Jonas BrodinMathew Dumba

Mike ReillyNate Prosser

Starting Goalie: Devan Dubnyk

NHL On NBCSN: Blackhawks, Wild meet in Wednesday Night Rivalry Central Division Clash

Chicago Blackhawks

Forwards

Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsVinnie Hinostroza

Ryan HartmanNick SchmaltzPatrick Kane

Patrick Sharp – David Kampf – Alex DeBrincat

Lance BoumaTommy Wingels

Defense

Duncan KeithJordan Oesterle

Gustav ForslingJan Rutta

Michal KempnyConnor Murphy

Brent Seabrook

Staring Goalie: Anton Forsberg

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Blackhawks defense drama: Brent Seabrook scratched

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On Monday, the Chicago Blackhawks put Cody Franson (fancy stats darling) on waivers. A day later, it was revealed that (frequent analytics punching bag) Brent Seabrook will be … a healthy scratch.

Wow.

There’s no denying that Seabrook, 32, has struggled recently. In some circles, he’s been a target of criticism for quite some time, with middling possession stats making for a toxic mix alongside his problematic contract.

Even so, it’s startling to see it actually happen in 2017-18, with his $6.875 million cap hit running through (gulp) 2023-24. For context, that contract runs one season beyond those of Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Patrick Kane, who all see their deals expire after 2022-23.

It’s all a lot to take in for a Blackhawks team that will need to battle to make the playoffs, and one that seems to be suffering from some stark salary cap realities.

“I want to get back to being more consistent,” Seabrook said after learning about being scratched, according to Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times. “I think I’ve had good stretches and bad stretches.”

With Franson headed to the AHL – at least for now, if a trade isn’t coming – after clearing waivers, the Blackhawks’ already-suspect defense now seems to be in disarray. Joel Quenneville might roll with a combination of Keith, Jan Rutta, Gustav Forsling, Jordan Oesterle, Michal Kempny, and Connor Murphy. (Erik Gustafsson is also available.)

Lazerus notes that Rutta, Forsling, Oesterle, Kempny, and Murphy combine for about $7.1M in cap space, barely eclipsing Seabrook’s $6.875M. That’s … not really good for anyone, really.

Now, it’s important to realize that Coach Q indicates that Seabrook may not spend much time as a healthy scratch. That’s fair, because if you can manage to put aside Seabrook’s play relative to his contract, the Blackhawks should probably use him in some fashion.

With back-to-back games (at Ottawa tonight, against the Wild in Chicago tomorrow), this could very well be a short break for Seabrook.

If this works out, it could be a wake-up call to the team as a whole, not just a fading veteran who has plenty of moments that should stand out to Blackhawks fans. He scored big goals, often in overtime, in helping the Blackhawks win three Stanley Cups.

Still, it’s one of those moments that makes sense in theory but is startling in reality.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.