Even with the subtractions already made to the Blackhawks’ roster this summer, the blue line hasn’t been impacted very much. So what could the defensive pairs look like when the season opens in October?
There is an opportunity for the Blackhawks to have the Jones brothers together as the top pair. But it certainly felt like the intention last summer was to pair McCabe with Seth Jones on the top pair from the jump. Injuries to begin the regular season hurt the depth chart and led to some musical chairs, but assuming they’re healthy when the puck drops gives new head coach Luke Richardson the opportunity to put these two together.
This could be an intriguing spot to watch. Ian Mitchell plays the right side (like Murphy) but played top-pair minutes in Rockford, and the Blackhawks might look to give him a more significant look in the final year of his contract than as a third-pair guy. And Caleb Jones returning via a qualifying offer and subsequent contract (still TBD) means he’ll also be in the mix. Right now, we’re leaning toward two veterans on the middle pair. Murphy is good for 20+ minutes per night, so the Blackhawks will likely have three defensemen carrying the load from a minutes perspective.
Mitchell and Stillman together feels like a good pair to build with on the bottom pair. Stillman brings a physical game; Mitchell is more of a puck-mover who skates well and can get the puck out of the zone. With Regula and Vlasic being available to find an NHL role after a long look last year, they could also find a role. Vlasic primarily plays the rights side like Mitchell while Regula plays the left.
The good news here is the Blackhawks have five veterans to give them some confidence in the group. And they have three good younger players ready to step in and fill a role, and they could see their responsibilities grow over the season as well. Both Regula and Vlasic bring good size to the ice as well, which is a strong plus on the depth chart.
It’s also worth noting that with the depth we outlined here, there is always the chance/likelihood that there will be a deal made from this group. The NHL is always looking to get better on the back end and both McCabe and Murphy have very tradeable contracts in the $4 million range with term left.