By Brad Gardner
The Blackhawks’ blue line will be without a key contributor now that Brian Campbell will lace his skates in Sunrise, Florida this season. The seismic trade was felt most strongly on the books, where Campbell’s departure opened up over 7 million dollars in cap room. Shockwaves will also be felt on the ice as Chicago’s returning defenders and a trio of new acquisitions will try to replace one of the NHL’s better offensive-defensemen.
Chicago GM Stan Bowman put an emphasis on experience and leadership in free agency, which should help ease the transition in the dressing room. Campbell may not have worn a letter during his days in Chicago, but it was clear, even to an outside observer, that he was not shy about speaking up on the bench and was well-respected by his teammates (particularly apparent in the days when the public was not so kind to the high-priced defender). He was also the most experienced out of the team’s regular defensemen, now with 626 regular season NHL games and 90 playoff games in his career heading into this season. Only veteran Brent Sopel and part-timers like Jassen Cullimore and Nick Boynton appeared in more career NHL games than Campbell, but none of those guys played such an integral role in Chicago. That lost experience in the room should be aided by the signing of defensemen Steve Montador (562 combined regular season and playoff games) and Sean O’Donnell (1,173 regular season NHL games and 104 playoff games), who have both played for top teams facing high expectations during their respective NHL careers. Along with the defensive additions, forward Jamal Mayers also has 875 career NHL games to his credit.
As has been the case in Chicago for several years now, the onus of steadying the defensive unit will still rest on the shoulders of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook (who have both appeared in over 500 total NHL games themselves). There is no shortage of leadership in the top defensive pairing, both have worn the ‘A’ on their chest, and they both experienced firsthand the organization’s surge from weeknights of 6,000-7,000 actual attendees to the current string of sell-outs at the Madhouse. Keith and Seabrook will both be relied upon heavily at both ends of the rink again and still be deployed as often as possible against the opponent’s top line, but the addition of the veteran, defensive-minded players like Montador and O’Donnell should help limit some of the tougher, defensive zone minutes of guys like Keith, Seabrook, and Hjalmarsson.
Campbell’s more tangible contributions to the Blackhawks were in his ability to jumpstart the offense from the back end. Fans will remember the nail-biting first round series against Nashville during the 2010 playoffs, and how easily the Predator’s forecheck was able to suffocate the Chicago blueliners not named Keith and Seabrook. Campbell’s return was one of the keys to Chicago being able to turn that series around because of his ability to beat the forecheck on his own, make the smart play under pressure, and take some of the burden off the team’s top pairing. Frankly, no one player on the Blackhawks is going to completely make up for the loss of Campbell’s ability to carry the puck to open ice or move it out of the zone safely. This is an area where the hope is to see big improvements from two returning regulars in Niklas Hjalmarsson and Nick Leddy.
Now with two full NHL seasons under his belt, Hjalmarsson has developed into a dependable defensive-defenseman, but may not have yet lived up to some of the lofty expectations heaped on him in recent years from media and brass. He has not yet impacted games with his offensive game or physical play, two areas which have often been noted as having room for improvement.
Part of this, particularly last season, was a matter of circumstance: Hjalmarsson was the only Blackhawk defenseman in 2010-11 to have more defensive zone starts than offensive zone starts, so he was often getting put on the ice with his back already to the wall. With Montador and Sean O’Donnell stepping in to take over some of those defensive assignments, Hjalmarsson should see more starts in the offensive end and thus more opportunities to create offense.
Of course, that opportunity may not directly lead to more chances for the Swede, as he will have to improve his shot selection and decision-making with the puck. Campbell’s big year in 2009-10 included 131 shots on net while only missing the net on 45 attempts. Hitting the net on over 74% of his chances that year raised his three year total in Chicago to around 68.3% of his shots hitting the net of 473 total attempts. Hjalmarsson’s number in his past two seasons of regular duty is closer to 62.4%, albeit with much volume total with only a combined 202 shots and misses in two years. Many observers will probably tell you that Hjalmarsson has a better chance of finding shin pads or the end boards than the net. Even if the numbers don’t technically back that up, he still needs to find a way to get more shots and better quality shots if he is going to succeed in an increased offensive role.
Hjalmarsson’s inclusion in the group of players attending early training camp in Switzerland with HC Lugano is a sign that the brass thinks Hjalmarsson has room to improve and that they will be asking him to take a step forward this season after an inconsistent start last year.
Nick Leddy will also be asked to take another step forward, though it may not be as big a step as some fans may be expecting. Leddy is an excellent skater and has the tools to put up some offensive numbers in the NHL some day, but he is not going to completely replace Brian Campbell out of the gate. Leddy’s biggest contribution to filling the void left by Campbell will likely be in the offensive end, where his skating ability creates time and open ice and will be important in getting the team transitioned to offense.
With more than a half of an NHL season under his belt, some will likely be hoping to see a little more poise under pressure and quicker decisions with the puck, particularly against an aggressive forecheck like Nashville. Like Hjalmarsson, the 20-year-old Leddy will need to get more pucks on net this year and pick his spots better, particularly if he inherits a chunk of power play minutes. Like last season, Leddy’s role should grow over the course of the season but he stands to benefit the most from Campbell’s departure in terms of more ice time and special teams responsibilities.
Though Leddy struggled at times making plays with the puck as a rookie, that is already an area of strength for one of Stan Bowman’s other shrewd free agency signings, Sami Lepisto. Though inconsistency has followed him to all of his NHL stops to this point, the Finnish defenseman is a confident puck-mover and another solid option on the power play. At this point of the summer, Lepisto’s impact seems to be hinging on how well Leddy opens the season and what kind of production the team can get from the point on the power play. Montador is another new acquisition who could get a chance on the power play. Though he spent very little time on that unit with Buffalo, some of his previous stints with teams like Anaheim and Florida saw the veteran get second power play minutes.
There are still plenty of moving parts for Joel Quenneville within the Blackhawks’ defensive unit, much of which should be sorted out in training camp later this month. However the minutes shake out, replacing Brian Campbell will certainly come down to a group effort.
In addition to covering the Blackhawks for TheThirdManIn.com, Brad is also the Blackhawks’ correspondent at HockeysFuture.com.