Monday, July 7, 2008

Blue Lining Up in 08-09

Fresh off the moves to solidify their chances for long lost playoff success on the west side of Chicago, the Blackhawks have a conundrum, one that many teams would feel fortunate to have, in that they have too many talented players with NHL experience, but too few spots to play all of them.

The 2007-2008 season was a great awakening for the Blackhawks, who despite having the most rookies that saw playing time in the NHL, finished only 3 points out of the playoffs, even with injuries to Martin Havlat and Nik Khabibulin, their two highest payed players. The signing of Campbell looks even more valuable after James Wisniewski announced that he will undergo knee surgery to repair a torn ACL, an injury that will force the Wisniewski to miss a significant portion of the upcoming season.

Even with the loss of Wisniewski, the blue line will have numerous candidates to start on a nightly basis, and battles might be brewing for the right to commit to the Indian on a nightly basis.

Brian Campbell will be the first line left defenseman, and will also be in the same position on the power-play in 08-09. And while Duncan Keith, the Blackhawks’ best defenseman before the acquisition of Campbell, would form a formidable blue line with Big Red, two left handed shooters on the same defensive pair could cause problems for the Hawks. It seems more likely that Brent Seabrook will pair with Campbell in even strength situations. The second group of defenders will most certainly be lead by Duncan Keith on the left side and James Wisniewski on the right side when he returns to his late season form. Until then, my money would be on the 21 year old 6’3” Sweed Niklas Hjalmarsson to hit the ice with Keith. Hjarlmarsson’s name might be hard to pronounce, but his talent is hard to mistake. He didn’t put up gaudy numbers in his NHL service last year, but he earned high praise from Denny Savard. A physical two way defender, Hjalmarsson plays both sides of the game with an aggressive nature, something that will endear him to fans very quickly, even if it does find him in the box at times, something fans are very used to with Wisniewski. There is a small drop-off on both the offensive production and size between Hjalmarsson and Wisniewski, but Hjalmarsson is an adequate substitute in the second pair and his time with Keith will only make the Blackhawks better when the Wiz comes back.

When Wisniewski comes back, there will be a logjam. Without injuries, the Blackhawks have four NHL defensemen and only two starting spots to fill them with Brent Sopel, who received a multi year contract extension last year, and is a solid veteran presence on a very young team, stands to make claim to one of the spots. So the battle for the final spot on the roster and a spot in the starting lineup comes down between Jordan Hendry and Cam Barker. Barker, who has been enigmatic in his time with the pro team, but dynamic with his time in Rockford certainly has the offensive talent to make the team without a challenge, but his inconsistency and often times clumsy play puts him at a disadvantage. Which is all the advantage for Hendry to make a name for himself, something that he was unable to fully do in 40 games for the ‘Hawks last year, tallying only 4 points and 22 penalty minutes with a 0 +/- rating. Hendry is not one to wow the scouts on the offensive side, but he is a strong defender who finishes his checks and is capable in moving the puck. Barker looks lost on the defensive zone at times, but is a top notch offensive d-man talent. Depending on what Denny Savard thinks his team will need in the regular season, the choice between them will be made, with the other getting spot minutes on the bench until Wisniewski’s return. Expect Savard to experiment with both in a platoon role for a solid chunk of the season.

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