During the offseason many in hockey media knew the Blackhawks needed to improve on their defensive quality and depth but many were shocked when defensive stalwart Niklas Hjalmarsson was dealt to the Arizona Coyotes for 24 year old defenseman Connor Murphy. While many fans were upset with the deal in that it immediately made the Blackhawks defense worse and although Murphy is still young and on a cheaper deal the trade did not resonate with fans. Those outside of general Blackhawks fandom did however seem to see the allure of the trade in that Murphy had a long term deal with less money than Hjalmarsson and could be someone who could sit on your second or even first pairing for the next ten years. He was no Hjalmarsson but there was some positive thought that this could be a good deal for the ‘Hawks in the long run.
The Blackhawks then addressed their depleted depth on the blue line by signing Jordan Oesterle to a relatively cheap deal and bringing in veteran defenseman Cody Franson on a PTO, eventually getting a full deal after the start of the season. These three, Franson, Oesterle and Franson were seen as all nice pieces that would truly help with the ‘Hawks defensive depth and if players like Michal Kempny and Gustav Forsling could take steps forward the ‘Hawks could have a pretty solid defense that was young and potentially mature into a strong defense. What if I were to tell you the Blackhawks had already signed their standout defenseman back on June 7th in Jan Rutta.
Rutta, 26, had been playing in the highest Czech league the past two seasons with Piráti Chomutov but in those two seasons had put up impressive numbers with 53 points in 90 games with Chomutov. Although not a huge name Rutta had been coveted by multiple teams in the offseason because of the offensive skills that he did bring to the table but also was seen as a bit of a project considering he had not played on the North American ice surface.
Coming into training camp many thought Rutta could possibly make the Blackhawks in a reserve role as he adapted his game to the new ice surface and the Joel Quenneville system but even could have slip down into the AHL to get some more consistent playing time. However out of the gates Rutta seemed to be a stand out, drawing the attention of Quenneville who often commended his efforts during practices and preseason games. With Rutta standing out and Blackhawks prospects like Luc Snuggerud (injuried during preseason) and Ville Pokka faltering during training camp it was Rutta who found a home in Chicago.
Early in his Blackhawks career Rutta has found immediate success and unlike all the other defensemen brought in during the offseason has not seen a single night in the press box. In Rutta’s first 9 games he is currently sitting third among Blackhawks defensemen with 19:16 in ice time, tied for second in points with 5 points and second on the team in plus-minus with a +5 rating. All signs point to Rutta continuing to grow as a player for the ‘Hawks and with him already appearing to have Joel Quenneville’s trust he will continue to get the chance to grow in the Blackhawks lineup.
The question now is has Jan Rutta become the second best defenseman in the Blackhawks lineup, clearly behind the perennial Norris candidate Duncan Keith, and honestly it might be too early to tell but thus far he has been.
Brent Seabrook has regressed as many of us expected he would, looking slow on defensive assignments he is not the same player that the Blackhawks had when they hoisted three Stanley Cups. Looking down the rest of the lineup its difficult to see any other defenseman who is a more complete player than Rutta. Its fair to question if Rutta can keep up this strong start throughout the rest of the season but at this current pace Jan Rutta at least is proving to be a major part of the Blackhawks future blueline.