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Blackhawks Flyover: Defensemen

by Brad Boron / Chicago Blackhawks
As the NHL and the Blackhawks look ahead to the NHL Draft in June and the beginning of free agency starting July 1, it’s important to look back on the season that was and analyze the possibilities for next season. After a year of growth and change for the Hawks, there is bound to be lots more for the young team.

In this three-part series, chicagoblackhawks.com will look position by position at the prospective roster and depth chart for the 2008-09 Chicago Blackhawks. Last time, we covered the Blackhawks’ forwards, and the next edition will cover goaltenders.

Contract Status of Blackhawks Defensemen, 2008 Off-Season:

Signed (7): James Wisniewski, Cameron Barker, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Sopel, Brent Seabrook, Jordan Hendry

Restricted FA (2): Steve Marr, Danny Richmond

Unrestricted FA (4): Jim Fahey, Prestin Ryan, Andrei Zyuzin

Prospects in the system: Jerramie Domish, J.C. Sawyer, Brennan Turner, Mike Brennan

At the moment: The Blackhawks control 9 defensemen, 8 of whom are under 25 years old, who could potentially contribute in 2008-09, and five positions in the rotation are most likely set in stone.

James Wisniewski

If the season were to start today, Keith, the Blackhawks’ only All-Star from last year, would head up the front line along with Seabrook; each scored 32 points while playing all 82 games last year, to go with their strong presence on the blue line.

The next line would probably include Sopel and Wisniewski, who re-signed with the Hawks this May. Wisniewski scored 7 goals and tallied 19 assists in 68 games, and Sopel contributed 19 assists of his own in 58 games.

Barker is will almost certainly make the other line, but his line mate could be any number of players; Hendry, who was recently given a two-year contract, could contribute given patience and time to grow. Hendry split time between Rockford and Chicago last year, but during his time with the Hawks he showed his ability on penalty kills that could be useful next season.

Hjalmarsson skated in 13 games for the Hawks last year and was a solid contributor.

Further down the line, Domish, who played 62 games in the AHL at Rockford last year, could contribute in an emergency.

GM Dale Tallon has made signing another a top defenseman a priority this season, and there will be a number of quality players available to help bolster this young group. Of particular need for the Hawks is another defenseman who can contribute during power play situations, both as a facilitator when the Blackhawks have the advantage, and as a penalty killer when they’re shorthanded.

The Blackhawks were tied for 17th best penalty killing in the league last year, with 81.2% of penalties killed.

The Blackhawks have leaned on their defense recently, so adding depth at defense seems like a logical move, so that an injury on the blue line doesn’t become a crisis during this promising season.

The future/prospects: Sopel earned an extension last year, and the Blackhawks have two defensemen in contract years: Wisniewski and Barker. Both have shown the skills to be great defensive players, and to contribute in the other team’s zone as well.

Draftee Brennan could earn a spot sooner or later, after signing a contract with the team in April. Brennan, who was fellow Hawks prospect Dan Bertram’s college roommate, recently was added to the Hawks’ organization after winning the NCAA Championship with Boston College.

There isn’t a ton of defensive depth in Rockford ready to make a jump to the NHL, although three players who could eventually make the jump are Sawyer, Domish and Turner. Though Sawyer and Turner have a combined 7 AHL games between them, they have the tools to eventually be an NHL player.

Of all the prospects in the system, however, Hjalmersson will probably get the first call up.

The Hawks stocked up n blue line help at the 2008 Entry Draft, nabbing 5 defensemen including Shawn Lalonde, who Tallon says has first-round-caliber skills and potential, in the third round. This new-found depth is likely years away from contributing, but it should provide organizational stability for years to come.

Analysis: The Hawks blue line is finding its identity, and as an especially young unit, an older player added to the mix couldn’t hurt. However, it’s a group that hasn’t reached its full potential, offensively or defensively. With four to five spots set, bringing in an addition seems like a logical move for management to make, and an upper-tier defenseman is not out of the question.

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