The Chicago Blackhawks are less than a month away from the start of the regular season (October 13th), when they’ll take on the Avalanche in Denver, Colorado. But with training camp set to begin on Thursday, we’re keeping an eye on a number of key position battles that have yet to be decided.
Today we are looking at the bottom of the Blackhawks’ defensive rotation.
With the “new-look” defensive rotation in Chicago, there’s not much room for speculation at the top of the group. Seth Jones, Connor Murphy, Jake McCabe, and Calvin de Haan are the guys that will lead the unit throughout the 2021-22 season. You have a top-minutes guy like Jones, who could end up playing in all situations defensively for Chicago, and a trio of defensive-minded blue-liners that will factor into the penalty-kill and will all likely play between 18-20+ minutes a night. But it is the next level of defensemen in the group where things open up to competition for Chicago.
Who will make up the bottom-pairing at the NHL level and who will be pushing for NHL ice-time behind them?
Outside of the top-four defensemen in the group, I believe the conversation for the bottom-pairing starts with Wyatt Kalynuk. He came to the Blackhawks last summer as an unsigned draft pick from the Philadelphia Flyers organization. He made his professional debuts in the AHL and NHL last season, skating in eight games with the Rockford IceHogs and 21 games with the Blackhawks.
— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) April 18, 2021
Kalynuk tallied four goals and nine points in those 21 NHL games, and found himself playing on the second powerplay unit for the Blackhawks late last season. He moves the puck well, has an ability to jump into the offensive attack, and, as a rookie last season, did not look out of place at the NHL level. And yes, I am a bit biased to get another Wisconsin Badger into the lineup, but Kalynuk backs it up with his play.
Another acquisition the Blackhawks made last season that ended up making a bigger impact than some might have predicted was getting Riley Stillman from the Florida Panthers. Following his short-stint in Chicago, where he skated in just 13 games with the Blackhawks, Stillman was given a three-year contract extension to stay in Chicago.
— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) May 7, 2021
Stillman looks to be penciled into the final defenseman slot coming into training camp after the trade of Nikita Zadorov. Stillman plays that similar styler to what Zadorov did, play big and hit a lot of people. But unlike Zadorov, Stillman showed a bit more mobility with and without the puck and he ended up being much cheaper in the long-run. But he’s not a necessary lock as the No. 6 defenseman on the Blackhawks depth chart.
Also in the mix is recently acquired younger brother of Seth Jones, Caleb Jones. Coming from the Oilers in the Duncan Keith trade, Caleb comes to the Blackhawks with an opportunity to break into the NHL roster and hold a position down more than he would have had in Edmonton. In parts of four professional seasons with the Oilers organization, Jones has skated in 93 NHL games and 125 AHL games. So he has plenty of experience at 24-years-old, plus, his two-way style of play could allow him to be used in many different situations on the ice in a limited role for Chicago.
If Kalynuk, Stillman, and Caleb Jones fall into the No. 5, 6, and 7 defensemen on the NHL roster, there won’t be too much space between them and the top players that will then end up with the Rockford IceHogs in the AHL. Last year we saw three defensemen bounce between the AHL and NHL, all with seemingly bright futures at the NHL level someday soon. Ian Mitchell, Nicolas Beaudin, and Alec Regula will more than likely become the top three defensemen in the AHL for the IceHogs this season and probably will be the first players looked at for call-ups to the Blackhawks if/when necessary.
Mitchell started last year strong in his rookie season with Chicago, but began to hit a wall mid-way through the year and found himself playing in Rockford. Beaudin was back and forth, but in his time with the Blackhawks, showed that he could hang in the NHL in a bottom-pairing role. As for Regula, he made his AHL and NHL debuts last season and started to show a bit of what made him an intriguing prospect to grab from the Detroit Red Wings in the Brendan Perlini trade a few seasons back. His size and mobility are his biggest assets, but his offensive game has started to come around over the last year.
Regula had a lot of praise coming from IceHogs head coach Derek King following the Tom Kurvers Prospect Showcase.
King on Alec Regula: "Probably one of the best players on the ice every game, the two games he played. He controlled the play. His skating has improved. His thought process is a lot quicker. His shot has improved. He just looked really good."
— Scott Powers (@ByScottPowers) September 20, 2021
Of the three, Beaudin likely has the highest potential on the offensive side of the ice as a blue-liner and Regula might have the most well-rounded game with a two-way style and the size that the Blackhawks seem to now be prioritizing on the back-end. One other name to keep an eye on in training camp that might be a dark-horse to push for NHL ice-time this year: Jakub Galvas.
Chicago is hoping that their revamped blue-line can help ease the load on their goaltenders this season and make their jobs easier, even with having the 2021 Vezina Trophy-winning Marc-André Fleury in the fold now. The Blackhawks have finished the past three seasons giving up either the most or the second-most shots per game in the NHL, and have finished in the bottom-ten of the league for the past seven seasons. Gone are the days where the Blackhawks could ride on the backs of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson all the way to a Stanley Cup. While the top-four group will have a more defensive-minded feel to it than in recent seasons, the bottom-pairing will need to be able to hold up their end of the deal in the rotation.