Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson comprised the Big 3 on defense during the dominant run by the Blackhawks from 2010 to 2015 where they brought three Stanley Cups to Chicago.
Not only do each of them have three championship rings but they also have earned medals at international tournaments including the Olympics representing Canada and Sweden.
Another thing to note about Chicago’s historic Big 3 is that they were all drafted by the Blackhawks. Seabrook was the only 1st round pick at 14th overall. Keith and Hjalmarsson were taken in the 2nd and 4th rounds respectively.
The other difference is Seabrook played only three games in the minors after finishing his career in juniors with the Lethbridge Hurricanes before jumping to the NHL the following season. In contrast, Keith and Hjalmarsson each spent two years with the Blackhawks AHL affiliate whether in Norfolk or Rockford.
Well, Hjalmarsson is now with the Coyotes and both Keith and Seabrook are starting to age. Each of them are showing wear and tear -- albeit at different rates that influence their impact on the ice. Even if Keith and Seabrook were still performing at a high level, the Big 3 would be operating at 2/3 capacity.
How important is the Big 3 for NHL bluelines?
And do the Blackhawks have the assets in the system to restore that vaunted triumvirate en route to building a perennial contender again?
Grant McCagg is someone I follow on Twitter and religiously read his tweets. He is a former NHL scout, founder of a website that covers draft eligible prospects, and reporter for major Canadian junior leagues.
He accurately predicted that the Senators would select D prospect Jake Sanderson with their 5th overall pick. What is noteworthy about this selection wasn’t that he was correct with his prediction but more so what his reasoning was.
So not only did McCagg stress the importance of a Big 3 but also the importance of a top pair. Every championship-caliber team has them and the Blackhawks were no different with Keith and Seabrook as the top pair for nearly a decade and Hjalmarsson rounding out the supreme trio.
Youth will be served as indicated by the new direction that the Blackhawks are seemingly going based on offseason transactions made so far by Stan Bowman. Obviously, Keith and Seabrook are decorated yet grizzled veterans so they are on the outs sooner or later as the Top 3 constants.
Keith may have enough in the tank to stay in the Top 3 for a few more seasons. However, Seabrook has fallen to the 3rd pair on defense and is categorically not considered Top 3 anymore.
Do the members of the new Big 3 have to be perfect analogs of their predecessors Keith, Seabrook, and Hjalmarsson?
I would argue no. What is more important is that each member of the blueline -- whether the Top 3 or the defenders in the 4/5/6/7 slots -- consistently competes to contest every puck, uses different techniques to defend, and flips the ice swiftly once possession is gained.
Flipping the ice like clockwork was what the Blackhawks blueline was known for in their recent championship era and should be the mark of what the new wave of defensemen needs to achieve in order to be considered commandingly effective.
To flip the ice like a well-oiled machine, every D-man needs to skate reasonably well -- not necessarily fast with north-south speed but agile and quick with lateral movements -- and be capable of either making a crisp pass to clear the zone with that singular play or skating the puck out and up ice with haste and purpose.
Who can Chicago turn to next to construct a new Top 3?
The Blackhawks prospect pool -- particularly on the back end -- has become increasingly deep not only with draft picks but also with astute free agent signings and trades. Regardless of how they were acquired, the young D corps is being home grown like Keith, Seabrook, and Hjalmarsson were.
Here’s who I would nominate as candidates to ascend to form the next Big 3 for Chicago’s blueline:
* Adam Boqvist: If there is an offensive dynamo in the young D corps, Boqvist is the one. He has the offensive skill and flair but just needs the confidence and space to unleash them. While he will never be a defensive stalwart, he is at least committing to playing responsibly in his own end so as to not be a one-trick pony.
* Nicolas Beaudin: Sometimes a top blueliner doesn’t need to be elite at any one thing but rather be intelligent, fundamentally sound, and equally reliable on both ends. Think Brian Rafalski. Beaudin fits that mold. What I like about Beaudin is that he is learning to defend in different ways including battling in the tough areas.
* Lucas Carlsson: The comparable moniker Hjalmarsson Lite isn’t too far off for the younger Swede. Carlsson can play physical in his own zone to protect the net and also be trusted to rush the puck up ice. He is also an underrated weapon that the Hawks could use as a powerplay QB with his cannon of a shot that stays low and gets on net.
* Wyatt Kalynuk: Possibly the best skating rearguards in the system are the two Wyatts: Kalynuk and Kaiser. Being the closest to the NHL, Kalynuk has the smooth technically sound skating, defensive awareness, and offensive skill -- especially on the man advantage -- to stake his claim as a top D-man on the Hawks.
* Ian Mitchell: Just as Carlsson has a comparable moniker, so does Mitchell as Keith Lite which is coincidental that Keith is his idol. Mitchell’s style is very similar and his impact could be as well given time and experience. Of all D prospects, he has the strongest chance of becoming the team’s #1 blueliner. He has the poise and tenacity.
* Alex Vlasic: Even though he is a solid skater who is able to carry the puck, Vlasic is the most defensively wired of the bunch. Feedback that I commonly read about Vlasic is that he has all of the tools to be a defensive defenseman capable of shutting down the other team’s best players but just needs to put it all together, keep pace at higher levels, and get stronger so he can overpower the opponent.
Many may insist that none of these D prospects have what it takes to be Top 3. Sure, that could end up being the case with any prospect who is projected to be a high-end talent. Perhaps they are at least serviceable in lesser roles.
Then again, how many people -- analysts, hockey personnel, and fans -- predicted Keith to be a future Hall of Famer with a case full of prestigious hardware including Norris trophies, a Conn Smythe trophy, Cup rings, and gold medals?
See you on the boards!