Hawks

Jan Rutta Becoming the Blackhawks Second Best Defenseman?

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.

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Connor Murphy, has had some early struggles in his Blackhawks career

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.

Rutta and Forsling

Jan Rutta (right) and Gustav Forsling (left) have built a solid second defensive pair for the Blackhawks. 

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.

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Blackhawks Sign Five to Open Free Agency

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Patrick Sharp Returns to the Hawks with eye on a 4th Stanley Cup (Photo by David Kindler)

As I posted yesterday in the Blackhawks free agency primer I noted that the Blackhawks would likely have a quiet opening to free agency come July 1st and in all honesty it was. The ‘Hawks would go on to make five signings, headlined by the return of forward Patrick Sharp but would also include forward Tommy Wingels, forward Lance Bouma, defenseman Jordan Oesterle, and goaltender Jean-Francois Berube.

We will start with the return of Sharp who at age 35 is in the twilight of his career but offers the ‘Hawks with a low risk, high reward option as his cap hit will only be $800,000 and will give coach Joel Quenneville with a forward that if healthy could play in the ‘Hawks top nine forwards. Health has been an issue for Sharp who has battled through some concussion issues as well as coming off of hip surgery that kept him out of the Dallas Stars line up for the final month of the season. As stated before in previous articles if Sharp can recapture that magic from just a season ago he could be a good value for the ‘Hawks.

The other more significant signing for the ‘Hawks was that of Evanston, IL native Tommy Wingels on a one year deal, terms of the deal were not disclosed. Although we do not have the cap number of Wingels you would have to imagine it does not exceed $1 million after two sub-par seasons with the Sharks and Senators. Wingels is another good value for the ‘Hawks and figures to be in the mix for the ‘Hawks bottom six and although did struggle the last two was has scored 15 goals twice in his 7 year NHL career. Analytics place Wingels as a solid fourth line wing that has the versatility to slide over to the center position which GM Stan Bowman values. The flexibility and low price tag make this a solid  addition to the ‘Hawks forward crop.

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Oesterle hoping to help stablize Hawks defensive depth (Photo by Connormah)

The ‘Hawks then went on to add a depth defenseman in Jordan Oesterle who has played in 25 career NHL games over three NHL seasons totaling 5 assists and a plus-minus rating of -4. Oesterle, depending on his performance in camp, figures to be either a top pairing defenseman for Rockford or a 7th/depth defenseman for the the ‘Hawks. Announced the same time as the Oesterle signing was the signing for net-minder Jean-Francois Berube, 25, who has spent two seasons in the New York Islanders system in which he has spend 21 games with the NHL club and posted a 6-4-3 record and 3.11 save percentage. Berube and newly signed Anton Forsberg figure to compete for the ‘Hawks back up goaltender position and as Bowman stated during his noon teleconference it is necessary to have three NHL quality goaltenders in the system.

The final sign of the day, thus far, is that of forward Lance Bouma who his entire career, six season, with the Calgary Flames. Bouma is another one of those depth bottom six players that the ‘Hawks have added on July 1st and this was a signing that confused many a ‘Hawk fan in that this team is already flush with bottom six forwards and how does this addition make the ‘Hawks better today. Bouma who plays a physical style of hockey has never had a propensity to put up points did have one season in which he put up a surprising 34 points for Calgary. He would however plummet to 7 points in each of the next two seasons. Again Bouma figures to be a fourth line player  or depth forward on this ‘Hawks team and if he can recapture what happened in that 2014-2015 season he could be another one of those high risk high reward signings.

It is difficult to judge a team on July 1st still three months away from hitting the ice on opening night but from what the ‘Hawks have done today they are very much the same team leading into it. A team that looks like it could have difficulties scoring and very inexperienced on the blue line, however it has been reported by 670 The Score’s Jay Zawaski that the ‘Hawks are still likely to sign a depth veteran defenseman. If the ‘Hawks are able to get some quality veteran help on the back end this is could be a solid free agency period for the ‘Hawks but as this team sits currently 2017-2018 might be a step back for the Blackhawks.

Chicago Blackhawks Free Agency Primer

Tommy_Wingels_2016July 1st is a holiday for the hockey community in which NHL fans get to watch as their team make moves to steer the course of their franchise into the coming year. For Blackhawks fans however July 1st many times is a waiting game to see what pieces will be moved to get them underneath the salary cap and this year like many of the past will be no different with maybe a few wrinkles. According to Cap Friendly the ‘Hawks currently sit over the cap by $2,995,628 but the team is a bit of a rough draft with the Cap Friendly listing them with 14 forwards, 6 defensemen and 3 goaltenders.  With maneuvering the roster to a size of 22 player (13 forwards, 7 defensemen and 2 goaltenders) the ‘Hawks more realistically sit at a with a cap overage of $2,590,628 meaning moves will need to be made to field a roster this fall.

The most anticipated move to occur after July 1st would be the constant rumored trade of center Marcus Kruger to the Vegas Golden Knights for a pick. If this is too be believed this move helps get the ‘Hawks under the cap by almost $500,000, not enough to sign a player and just enough to help them scrape by with a minimum roster size. Although there is a lot of discussion of the ‘Hawks placing Marian Hossa on LTIR in order to increase their spending budget and to field a competitive line up but the NHL has yet to give their ruling on Hossa’s potential use of LTIR. In theory the ‘Hawks may have a little bit to spend on July 1st but it is unlikely they will not be in on the big free agents of the summer so let’s take a look at some of the players the ‘Hawks may look at to strengthen the depth of their lineup.

Forwards

Sam Gagner C/LW

Coming off of a bounce season with the Blue Jackets in which he scored 50 points, 18 of which came on the power play. Gagner could fill a spot on the Blackhawks power play and give them another option at center or on the left wing. Price could be an issue as he figures to cash in on a strong season but if the price is right Gagner would be a solid add.

Tommy Wingels LW/RW

An Evanston, IL native who is coming off of two down season with the San Jose Sharks and Ottawa Senators however Wingels has scored 15 goals twice in his career and could be a solid value to fill out the bottom six forwards.

Patrick Sharp LW

As of writing this 670 The Score’s Jay Zawaski is reporting that the Blackhawks will likely be signing Sharp come July 1st and will take a contract under $1 million. This could prove to be a good depth signing for the ‘Hawks but as in past season bringing in player past their primes on these incentive heavy contracts. Signing Sharp will provide the ‘Hawks with some good depth scoring and another option to help a struggling power play.

Karl Alzner D

The most unlikely of the ‘Hawks targets as reports have Alzner asking for $5 million plus per season at around 5 to 6 years. Reports have linked Alzner to the ‘Hawks but some major roster moves would have to occur for him to find his way to Chicago. Alzner would project to be a second pairing defenseman with the ‘Hawks but still come with his question and such a thin free agent market Alzner likely prices himself out of Chicago.

Brian Campbell D

Campbell is an interesting case, he didn’t have a terrible year back with the ‘Hawks putting up 17 points points in 80 games. Campbell clearly is not the same player that he was as he nears 40 years old. Campbell could also be a good value signing for the ‘Hawks as he would provide some security for the ‘Hawks who are now extremely young on defense with the departure of Niklas Hjalmarsson.

We are only a few short hours away from start of free agency and this is just a taste of some of the names linked to the ‘Hawks. Soon we will have a clearer picture of what the ‘Hawks will look like as the offseason gets into full swing.

Blackhawks Reshape Roster During Busy Draft Weekend

As we neared the 2017 NHL Entry Draft the Chicago Blackhawks appeared poised to rebuild their farm system and potentially make some moves to alleviate some pressure that the salary cap was putting on their team. Many believed that there was a deal in place with the Vegas Golden Knights in which center, Marcus Kruger, would be moved for a draft pick of one of their surplus defensemen; acquired from the expansion draft. However this deal was believed to be put on hold, according to Scott Powers of The Athletic, because of a roster bonus due to Kruger on July 1st. With this detail being brought up after the expansion draft, it appeared as though the draft might be a quiet one for the Blackhawks. However Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman had different plans.

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Niklas Hjalmarsson will be greatly missed on the Chicago blueline (Nicole & Laura Flickr 2013)

In a surprising move the Blackhawks traded 3 time Stanley Cup champion defenseman, Niklas Hjalmarsson, to the Arizona Coyotes for 24 year old defenseman, Connor Murphy, and 22 year old forward, Laurent Dauphin. After first hearing about the move it was initiallythought to be a salary cap dump on the Blackhawks part, but looking at the cap numbers of Murphy and Dauphin the cap savings were minimal. In fact, if both players did make the roster it would actually have the ‘Hawks take on more salary than they were sending out on Hjalmarsson. This move, similar to the one that we will go over in a moment, appears to have an eye on the future; Murphy 6 years younger than Hjalmarsson, signed to a deal will longer term than Hjalmarsson, and at a lower cap hit. Although not the same player as Hjalmarsson, GM Stan Bowman sees Murphy as a player entering his prime and as someone who he is hoping is ready to take that next step in his career. Dauphin who many viewed as a bit of a throw-in with this deal appears to possibly have a shot at making the club in the fall in a bottom six capacity.

We had thought that the day could not get any crazier until Elliot Friedman of HNIC tweeted that it appeared as though the Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets had a deal in place that would send Artemi Panarin to the Jackets for former Blackhawk forward Brandon Saad. This was a deal that caught the entire hockey world by storm as no one was expecting it and it was seen as a bit of a reaction to the departure of Marian Hossa, as well as the uncertainty of being able to afford Panarin at the end of his bridge deal. The loss of Panarin will certainly hurt the Blackhawks top offensive line that included Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov, but this move finally gives Jonathan Toews the left wing that they have been looking for since the departure of Saad. This move appears to evenly distribute the power on the top two lines with a likely top line of Saad, Toews and Richard Panik and a projected secondary line of Nick Schmaltz, Anisimov and Kane. The response of this trade was quite divisive in that reaction on Twitter from ‘Hawks fans was resoundingly positive where national reaction was a bit more hesitant on the trade from the Blackhawks’ prospective

 

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Brandon Saad is back after two years with the Blue Jackets (Lisa Gansky)

The hesitance comes from the Blackhawks giving up a top ten scorer for a player, who has an offensive touch to his game, but not the dynamic offensive player that Panarin is. Aside from the main components from this deal the ‘Hawks also sent forward Tyler Motte, plus a 6th round pick for goaltender Anton Forsberg and a 2018 5th round pick. Motte came into the 2016 season with a lot a fanfare after an impressive junior season at the University of Michigan, but injuries and lack of professional experience were his downfall. If he can stay healthy and take a season or two to gain experience in the AHL it could turn into a nice complementary piece for Columbus. For the ‘Hawks this trade also fills a need for goal-tending depth, and with the addition of Forsberg the ‘Hawks feel like they have found their back up net minder for the upcoming season.

Now that the draft has passed and free agent frenzy is upon us, it appears as though the ‘Hawks are trying to reshape their roster for the future as well as icing a team that is harder to play against with speed and strength. Are the Blackhawks a better team now that they were at the end of the season? I would say they are more balanced up front but lack experience on the back end which is a bit concerning. With the moves made you would imagine there are more moves that Stan Bowman envisions to get this team back to the Stanley Cup finals and not the first round exit team that we have seen the last two seasons.