With the Blackhawks blueline getting progressively younger, the fresher legs of the young defensemen who are known to be above average to excellent skaters should have the Hawks poised for a mobile attack in seasons to come.
Combining individual strengths and skill sets makes for an ideal strategy to manufacture a collective modus operandi predicated on transitioning the puck up the ice after helping the goaltender secure the house in their own end.
The operative term is ideal
, though. Do the Hawks really have the correct personnel on the roster today and in the system to establish and sustain a mobile defensive unit year after year en route to perennial Cup contention?
What does it mean exactly for the blueline corps to be mobile?
Mobility isn't just when the team is on offense which in and of itself is good but not great. In fact, the best offense starts with an even better defense. Another way to put it: without the latter, the former is rather tough.
On the offensive side of the coin, rushing the puck zone to zone and joining plays are key aspects of a mobile blueline. The D-men should be able to advance the puck through crisp passes to the forwards or skating it out and up themselves.
Then on the defensive side of the coin, it means being able to shut down the other team in the neutral and defensive zones then retrieving the puck to start the transition toward the offensive end. In other words, flipping the ice.
Teams that can consistently smother then suffocate the opposition into coughing up the puck are going to tilt the ice in their favor much of the time. That's half the battle as the next objective is to keep the puck 200 feet away.
This is where D-men who are adept at activating help to maintain pressure on offense through accurate passes, puck movement, non-stop motors, and smart pinches. Having the wheels to get back if a turnover suddenly occurs helps, too.
Are the youngsters on today's roster the start of a more mobile defense?
Adam Boqvist, Ian Mitchell, Nicolas Beaudin, and Lucas Carlsson are far from being refined specimens who can impact the game in all three zones but they are teasing -- at different rates -- that there is a bright future on the back end.
As far as skating, none of them are particularly fast but they are all agile and technically sound skaters. That nimbleness is critical to keep pace with and shift while mirroring the opponent as well as escape the zone leaving forecheckers behind.
If there is to be a track star, Boqvist may be the speediest of the bunch and is by far the most dynamic when he has the time and space to express himself. What is missing is the confidence to play the game that made him a 1st round pick.
Defensively, Mitchell is the model citizen for them on how to take care of their end. He keeps his head on a swivel to scan, barks out orders to keep teammates alert, wields an active stick, and battles hard in the slot and on the boards.
The other three are able to mimic Mitchell at varying levels of success with Beaudin being the closest and Carlsson coming in third. Boqvist has the steepest growth curve but he's proving to be no slouch either. He at least cares to defend.
Ben Pope from the Chicago Sun-Times wrote a recent article
about Boqvist playing within his means to be an effective defender. Specifically, Boqvist is engaging the opponent beyond stick checking by using his body in a realistic manner.
For instance, Boqvist doesn't need to be like Nikita Zadorov to lay body checks on other players or pin them against the boards. Instead, Boqvist can employ a simple bump or disruption of any sort to disturb the puck carrier just enough.
Something that all of the young blueliners have struggled with to some degree or other is handling the pressure of forecheckers. Two primary weapons to combat this are tape-to-tape passes and swift skates to carry the puck out of harm's way.
However, with experience, the budding blueliners will learn how to balance when to make an expedient play to avoid danger and reduce potential turnovers with when to know they may have time to calculate all options and make the optimal one.
In another Pope piece in the Sun-Times
, he focused on a silver lining of not being in the lineup due to injury, illness, or healthy scratches: having the opportunity to watch games from a screen like fans and having a wider viewing lens.
Head coach Jeremy Colliton spoke about how this benefited Beaudin as a teaching tool when he was in COVID protocol:
"[Beaudin's] patience and willingness to make a play, take an extra second, makes him more effective. As you get used to the league, you understand when you have time. There are other situations when you have no time -- that’s an awareness, too, having alarm bells go off. But he’s going to keep getting better."
Sometimes making a pass out of the zone isn't available because forwards aren't open or they're in the middle of a line change. Rushing the puck up ice may not be viable either if the neutral zone is gummed up with bodies.
Taking a few extra seconds to survey where teammates and opponents are situated and determine where the pressure is building and where the gaps to exploit are can make the world of difference to generate clean entries to the other side.
Waiting to make smart choices may be a solution to off-target passing that has been an on-going issue for the Hawks this season. Such inaccuracies not only kills momentum but prevents the team from sustaining offensive drives.
Boqvist, Mitchell, Beaudin, and Carlsson are capable of making sharp passes out of the zone. What would help are the forwards getting open and not cheating so far south. If they are closer for a reception, then quick short passes are possible.
Playing so far apart, though, makes it ripe for oft-used but ill-advised stretch passes. These long bombs are fine once in a while but should be the exception rather than the rule. Again, make quick shorter passes to advance the puck instead.
An advantage of this is it gets the other team on their toes rather than be in a position to telegraph long passes which in turn creates turnovers. But if forwards are already far away, the opposition has the numerical advantage back on offense.
In the System
While there is potential for all four of Boqvist, Mitchell, Beaudin, and Carlsson to have staying power in the starting lineup, there is also the likelihood that only some of them remain and the others are dealt at some point.
Due to the depth of the D pipeline within the organization, there is actually a luxury of knowing that there may be more winning lottery tickets in case current ones don't pan out or do pan out but could be traded to acquire needed assets at other positions.
Developing prospects as far as player personnel staff can take them is in the franchise's best interest so that this exact scenario plays out, i.e. keep the ones that will have the greatest impact while having good ones to leverage in deals.
The two blueline prospects who could match what Boqvist, Mitchell, Beaudin, and Carlsson have to offer to the Chicago roster are the two Wyatts: Kalynuk and Kaiser. Coincidentally, both are also the best skaters in the system.
Kalynuk is closest to the NHL, of course, currently on the expanded roster after impressing in a pair of AHL games. Kaiser is playing on the 1st pair and on the power play and penalty kill for one of the top NCAA programs as a college freshman.
In addition to NHL-caliber skating, Kalynuk and Kaiser each have a defensive conscience, excellent vision, superb passing ability, and high hockey IQ. Kalynuk could be ready as early as this season but Kaiser is realistically 3-4 years away.
Down on the farm, the IceHogs have a pair of hopefuls in Chad Krys and Alec Regula plus a trio of recent draft picks in Cole Moberg (2019), Isaak Phillips (2020), and Michael Krutil (2020) who are getting a shot to prove their worth to the organization.
Krys has become the forgotten prospect as others have leapfrogged him on the depth chart yet doesn't mean he is no longer a viable candidate to crack the Hawks roster. Already a sublime skater, his defensive coverage and reads to join the play are improving.
In his first pro season, Regula is adjusting to the pressure of a heavier style and blinding speed. He has a good base to work from as a balanced D-man who takes care of his end, skates well for a lanky frame, and uses his long reach effectively.
Moberg and Phillips have been partnered up on Rockford's 3rd pair and have surprisingly stood out as the most dependable. They're big and strong playing shutdown defense, making pinpoint passes out of the zone, and getting shots on net from anywhere.
Another big kid on the backline is Krutil who played for the Czech Republic in the most recent WJC. When on his game, he uses his size well to neutralize the opponent. Where he struggles, though, is positioning and pushing the pace.
Similarly to Krys, Jakub Galvas has been developing in obscurity. He has 5 seasons of pro experience in Europe. Like Krutil, Galvas has also represented his native Czech Republic twice in the WJC. He's slight in frame but competitive and defensively wired.
After Kaiser, the collegiate D prospect to keep an eye on is Alex Vlasic. He had a pedestrian freshman year and slow start to this season but has taken off recently especially offensively. However, his calling card to the NHL is his shutdown ability.
NCAA defensemen Slava Demin and Josh Ess may be on the outside looking in. Demin's stock flatlined while Ess' stock was never high to begin with. Of the two, Demin has the better chance at earning a contract due to his strong skating.
Louis Crevier was a 7th rounder in the latest draft so is a longshot until proven otherwise. Roope Laavainen is still in Finland but could have the same fate as fellow Finn defender Joni Tuulola: only good enough to be a career minor leaguer.
Eventually, today's youngsters will be tomorrow's veterans. Regardless, having Duncan Keith, Connor Murphy, Calvin de Haan, and Brent Seabrook as mentors right now is crucial for the development of Boqvist, Mitchell, Beaudin, and Carlsson.
However, not counting Keith, Murphy, de Haan, and Seabrook as well as Zadorov don't fit the mold of a mobile defense. Even though they're known for being stay-at-home defensemen, they're still not fleet of foot or particularly strong at passing.
Madison Bowey is an interesting case. Acquired strategically as an exposure candidate for the Seattle expansion draft, he could be a valuable commodity for the Hawks. He prioritizes defense, skates reasonably well, and makes a good first pass.
Then there's Anton Lindholm who accompanied Zadorov in the Brandon Saad. Lindholm has little to no shot at being in the organization after this season due to too many prospects ahead of him who offer more to the Hawks than he does.
See you on the boards!