By Jay Zawaski-
(CBS) In the interest if full disclosure: I wrote this story during the second intermission of the Blackhawks-Wild game on Tuesday night. I was that convinced that the version of the Hawks we’ve seen over the last month doesn’t have the capability to come back from a 3-0 deficit. If I was wrong, great, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be.
(Hey, I was right! Minnesota won 3-0.)
Almost every team goes through some kind of slump, but I think we’re seeing a real troubling trend in the 2014-’15 Blackhawks. Their defense is struggling mightily, and if it’s not addressed, it could cost them a run at the Stanley Cup. Make no mistake, the Hawks won their two recent Stanley Cups because of a dominant team defense. Not only did they feature four shutdown defensemen, but the vast majority of their forwards were willing and capable of shutting down the opposition.
On paper, not much has changed. The (typical) top four of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya are intact. Michal Rozsival is still around, while David Rundblad and Tim Erixon have replaced Sheldon Brookbank as the sixth/seventh defenseman.
The only major loss, to the naked eye, is Nick Leddy. However, there has been a significant drop-off in Oduya’s play this season. He’s gone from being part of the Hawks’ shutdown pair to an outright liability on the ice. The only player on the roster with a lower Corsi Relative percentage than Oduya (-7.3 percent) is Joakim Nordstrom (-7.4 percent). Couple that with the fact that the 36-year-old Rozsival is aging like Mother Gothel without the golden flower, and you have a pretty significant problem.
The Hawks need to shore up their defense before the playoffs begin. The answer could come from within the organization. Trevor van Riemsdyk was brilliant in the 18 games he played before getting injured, but it’s a bit presumptuous to think a 23-year-old rookie will be the savior of the defense. The Hawks could recall Klas Dahlbeck, who is considered the most NHL-ready defender in their system, but that’s putting the season in the hands of another rookie.
The other option would be to explore a trade. The league’s trade deadline is March 2, and while general manager Stan Bowman has said that he expects to be pretty quiet on deadline day, you have to wonder if the feeling has changed based on the team’s recent play.
As everyone knows, the Hawks have salary cap issues. As it stands right now, they have about $800,000 in cap space. If they were to acquire a proven, valuable NHL defenseman (like Toronto’s Cody Franson or Ottawa’s Marc Methot), they’d have to move a significant salary off of their roster. What the Hawks do have is a plethora of bottom-six forwards.
Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw would be my two top candidates to be moved. Bickell, who makes $4 million, would allow for a higher-salary rental-type player to be added at the deadline. Moving the big winger would also create a bit of breathing room for next year’s cap. Losing Shaw ($2 million) would hurt the roster the least, in my opinion, but I find it unlikely that the Hawks will part with everyone’s favorite grinder.
This is the first time Bowman has been faced with a real problem on his roster. Sure, the second-line center situation was less than ideal over the last few years, but it wasn’t fatal. The Hawks’ current blue line situation could be catastrophic. Bowman has been criticized for his conservative nature at the deadline. If the Hawks don’t start to turn it around, they may force his hand.
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.