On Wednesday, the news came that the Chicago Blackhawks had added highly sought after Czech free agent defenseman Jan Rutta. The 26-year-old blue liner signed a one-year deal with Chicago for $925,000. It also carries almost $500,000 in potential bonuses.
That same day, reports also filed through that retired former NHLer Ulf Samuelsson was to sign with the Blackhawks as an assistant coach. He takes over the defensive and blue line duties of the fired Mike Kitchen. Defence and penalty kill were two big problems for the Hawks this season. General manager Stan Bowman is clearly well aware of that. He is getting an early start attempting to do whatever he can to remedy it this off-season.
Chicago Blackhawks Defence Undergoing Significant Overhaul
Now that the dust has had some time to settle, and we’ve gotten a better look at some of the best teams in the NHL, it’s become pretty clear where the Hawkers came up short this year. The team needs to get faster, especially out of their defensive zone. The Nashville Predators read the tea leaves excellently, flipping their old, slow captain Shea Weber for the younger, quicker, P.K. Subban.
Despite a sluggish regular season, through their miraculous run at the Stanley Cup, Subban is showing exactly why Nashville went out on a limb and made the trade.
Conversely, the Montreal Canadiens, who enjoyed an excellent regular season with Weber in the defensive corps, were, like Chicago, eliminated in the first round by the lower ranked New York Rangers. Using what little salary cap wiggle room they have available to them, Bowman has begun to address this problem. He starts with this weeks’ two European additions.
Who is Jan Rutta
Rutta, who played last season for Pirati Chomutov in the Czech Extraliga, is an offensive defenseman. He stands at 6’2″ and 211 pounds. After netting eight goals and 32 points in his latest campaign, Rutta began to generate some interest from NHL clubs. According to reports, the Blackhawks beat out the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers for his services. Rutta is also a right-handed shot, which will be a great relief for a group of Hawks defenseman who almost exclusively shoot left-handed.
Rutta can carry the puck out of the defensive zone. This is a skill the Hawks badly needed help with last year, especially in the Playoffs. The idea could be to pair Rutta with the Czech defenseman the club signed last year, Michal Kempny. The two play together on the Czech national team. Another member of that club is David Kampf. He is a forward Chicago also signed last month.
Changes on the Blue Line
With both Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya unlikely to return, as well as Trevor van Riemsdyk able to be pinched by the Vegas Golden Knights; the Blackhawks already have their work cut out for them to find defensive production. Ideally, Rutta will provide this, and do so cheaply.
However, the Hawks have a potentially even more important defensive accumulation in the pipeline – the proposed addition of Ulf Samuelsson to their coaching ranks. Samuelsson spent 17 seasons as an NHL defenseman. He also spent six of those years as a teammate of Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville and assistant Kevin Dineen.
More importantly, the 53-year-old has a proven track record when it comes to turning around a franchises’ defensive shortcomings. Before a stint with the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL, the Swede spent a stint with the Rangers in a similar role.
In discussing his stint with the New York Rangers, Samuelsson told Sny.tv, “If you can’t play quick, you basically can’t play any more.” Of this, Bowman is also well aware. In two of his three years with the organisation, Samuelsson’s defensive units were top five in allowing the fewest goals against. They were also consistently higher than the league average for penalty kill percentage, before a downtick in his final year.
Why Changes Were Needed
Although Chicago’s goals against was not terrible this year, landing in the league’s top 10, that can largely be attributed to the strong goaltending tandem of Corey Crawford and Scott Darling. Their pk, on the other hand, was disastrous, considering their first place Western Conference finish. It was successful just 77.77 percent of the time, compared to an NHL average of 80.9 percent.
But is it too little, too late for this group? After all, with the remainder of the defensive corps aging quickly, such as Brian Campbell (38), Niklas Hjalmarsson (30), Duncan Keith (33), Oduya (36), Brent Seabrook (32); it is going to be a long, tough overhaul of their defensive style.
Will it be too tough? Time will tell. It’s just a shame they don’t have much of it.