By Jay Zawaski-
(CBS) Wednesday night brought us a new NHL season and a new quest to win the Stanley Cup for 30 teams. Once again, the Blackhawks are the fashionable choice to win the Stanley Cup. Bovada.lv has the Hawks at 13/2 favorites, and with good reason. Few teams, if any, can match the Blackhawks’ combination of depth and playoff experience.
Chicago isn’t perfect, however, as the bottom of the defensive unit is a huge question mark.
With last weekend’s trade of Nick Leddy, the Hawks defense is in flux. Entering 2013-’14, anyone could pencil in the Hawks’ top seven easily. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson, Nick Leddy and Michal Rozsival, then Sheldon Brookbank. Now, it’s tough to identify who the fifth defenseman is, let alone the sixth, seventh or eighth.
When camp began, all eyes were squarely focused on three young defensemen with potential to replace the inevitable trade victim: Adam Clendening, Klas Dahlbeck and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Johns. All three played well in the preseason, but none made the team. Instead, veteran journeyman Kyle Cumiskey and rookie free agent Trevor van Riemsdyk won the jobs.
Rozsival is on the roster, despite his day-to-day upper body injury, and is the de facto fifth defenseman, But realistically, how much can the Blackhawks rely on a 36-year-old? Rozsival comes with hard miles on his body. In 2013, I called him the best sixth defenseman in hockey, but his decline was rapid last season. I wonder if he’s even a top-six at this point in his career.
Cumiskey signed back in July. He’s a speedy, puck-moving defenseman who can’t defend a lick. When his signing was announced, most wrote him off as “veteran Rockford fodder.” As camp went on, you could almost see the glimmer in coach Joel Quenneville’s eye. He loves his veterans and knows Cumiskey’s game from their time together in Colorado. That was enough for him to lock down a roster spot.
Van Riemsdyk, who signed as a college free agent last March, is expected to start on the second pairing with Hjalmarsson and was impressive in camp and in the preseason. Everyone, including the Hawks brass, expected him to start the season in Rockford. But van Riemsdyk kept playing well and flat out stole a roster spot from Dahlbeck. Van Riemsdyk’s game is nothing overly fast or physical, but he’s a steady and intelligent defenseman who can play in any role. He hasn’t seen a full-speed NHL game, though, so how he’ll handle regular-season action remains to be seen.
David Rundblad is expected to flank Oduya for the opener in Dallas. Rozsival is on the roster, but he’s injured and likely won’t be available for either of the first two games this season. Bowman traded for Rundblad ahead of last season’s trade deadline, and no one really understood why. That vision hasn’t become any more clear since the deal was made. In fact, Rundblad’s most memorable moment of the preseason came when he stick-handled around the zone, only to back himself offsides. The Hawks are his third team since being drafted 17th overall in the 2009 draft. Perhaps the light goes on this season. Perhaps not.
The Blackhawks have entered seasons with unanswered questions and won Stanley Cups in the past, but for all the attention the Hawks’ offensive stars receive, their championships have been built on rock-solid team defense. The fifth, sixth and seventh defenseman spots worry me headed in to this season, and with just more than $100,000 in cap space, there’s not much Bowman can do to fix a potential problem.
The questions will have to be answered from inside the organization. There’s talent is definitely there, but the experience isn’t.
Jay Zawaski is the executive producer of the Spiegel and Mannelly Show on 670 The Score and the Blackhawks columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JayZawaski670.