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Blackhawks Wed Oct 06 2010

Blueline provides stability in offseason turmoil

With all the departures that grabbed headlines after the Blackhawks Stanley Cup victory last June, the biggest story may have been the one player that stayed. The Hawks matched San Jose's 4-year, $3.5 million per year offer sheet for defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, keeping a key young blueliner who blossomed last season and who still has upside. While resigning Hjalmarsson set the wheels in motion for goalie Antti Niemi, he's a much more integral part of their system, and ensured that last season's 5th ranked defense in goals against (and 1st in shots against, at 25.1 per game) would keep its top 4 intact, at least for this season (Brent Seabrook's contract is up at the end of the year).

That means Hjalmarsson and Seabrook will be rejoining 2010 Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith and Brian Campbell to form the defensive core. Also returning is midseason pickup Nick Boynton and Jordan Hendry, while the lone departure is Brent Sopel, who was part of the Atlanta deal with Dustin Byfuglien and Ben Eager. Sopel's heart was always his biggest asset, and Boynton showed he's willing to step in, block shots, and do what it takes when he was called upon in last season's Cup run. Hendry's an underrated player who can jump in to the offense when needed, but always plays positionally sound defense, and can usually be counted on to take some key shifts every game.

The Top 4 D will still carry the bulk of the minutes, but will start the season shorthanded, as Campbell is expected to miss the first month with a sprained knee suffered in last Friday's preseason game. Campbell's loss opened the door to one of the bigger surprises in training camp, 19-year-old Nick Leddy, who will fill the roster spot. Leddy was acquired last year in the trade of Cam Barker to the Minnesota Wild, and was expected to be a few years away from making the team, but the University of Minnesota sophomore gave up his eligibility and surprised many with the progress he made this offseason to earn a shot.

Leddy's an offensive defeseman with decent speed in the mold of Campbell, and will try to fill the gaping hole left in his absence. Though he's shown a lot of skill and a smart hockey sense thus far, facing NHL-level talent every night is also bound to provide its challenges for the youngster. Combined with the entire defensive corp adjusting to the drastically different style of goalie Marty Turco, the biggest strength of the Hawks is facing some tough adversity to start the season, and there's bound to be some miscues on the blue line. If Leddy falters early on, he may have a ticket back to Rockford at the ready.

The other big (in a literal sense) addition is John Scott, the towering 6-foot-8, 258 pound free agent, also from the Wild. Scott fills a bit of the enforcer role, as his 6 fights and 90 penalty minutes last season show, but he's also shown he has enough skill to not be a liability when out on the ice. While it's hard to have blazing speed with that big a frame to maneuver, Scott's done a good job of taking the body when having the chance and keeping himself in position in his own end. As a 3rd line pairing, Scott will still see limited minutes in most games, but will be hard to miss when he's on the ice.

With Hjalmarsson, Seabrook and Keith gaining a wealth of experience in last season's playoff run (it's sometimes hard to remember Seabrook and Keith are 25 and 27, respectively, given their tenures as Hawks), there's no reason that this year's blue line shouldn't just as strong it was last year, provided Campbell returns and the rest of the unit can stay healthy. Though there may be growing pains to adjust to in October, the Blackhawks dreams of a repeat will go as far as the blue line, and come playoff time, they will be ready.

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