Tomorrow night, the Hawks will cross the rubicon of the first half to the second half of the season, even if it feels like this half was 295 games long. There are a lot of issues with the Hawks that can be studied in this context, but there is no more important one than their blue line. Their blue line is why they’re the worst defensive team in the league. The blue line is why they give up the most high-danger chances in the league. And the blue line is what they’ve told you to focus on in the future. The blue line is why they keep mentioning the names Adam Boqvist (who has looked a bit tasty at the WJC so far, admittedly), Nicolas Beaudin, and Ian Mitchell. They know what the main issue is.
So let’s start our quick, half-season survey stretch by looking at the biggest issue on this team and what they’re going to do going forward.
This is only a working theory, and I’ll never prove it, but the main reason Henri Jokiharju is off with the Finnish kids instead of flying to Denver today is Brent Seabrook. And it’s because the front office didn’t want to put Coach Cool Youth Pastor in a position to have to scratch Brent Seabrook, and consistently. They’re still a touch afraid to have him tell Cam Ward he’s going to sit behind a goalie who has four NHL appearances to his name, even though it’s obvious that’s what has to happen. He’s already had to tell Chris Kunitz and Brandon Manning their services are no longer needed. But that’s one thing. Seabrook is quite another.
Here’s Seabrook’s last 10 games in CF% relative to his team:
+5.62 last night (yay!)
-33.3 (less yay)
Believe me when I tell you that the scoring chance numbers and high danger chance numbers are way, way worse. Seabrook is in the bottom-20 when it comes to relative Corsi or expected goals in the league of any d-man to play 400 minutes at even-strength this term. These are the facts and they are indisputable.
When Jokiharju comes back, it would be easy to argue that Seabrook is no longer one of the most important six d-men. That doesn’t mean best. Because you could easily point out that Gustav Forsling is just as bad, and I would happily agree with you. And this will be the Hawks’ out when The HarJu comes back, demoting Forsling as Dahlstrom appears to have played himself into the lineup every night. But this is Forsling’s make-or-break season. The games he would get to finish out the season are more important than the ones Seabrook will get. You have to find out if Forsling is going to be anything (spoiler alert: he won’t) at this level, and the Hawks probably still believe that something can be mined out of him. Having him finish the year in Winnebago County isn’t going to do anyone any good.
There isn’t a Hawks fan out there who hasn’t pointed at Seabrook’s contract as the reason for the Hawks pratfall from the NHL penthouse to the pile of mud outside the building. That’s not his fault, it is what it is. But the Hawks are doubling up on the mistake by playing him regularly. It’s sunk cost. That money is gone whether you play him or not.
As this season is lost, it doesn’t really matter what you do with Seabrook for the rest of it. Or it matters less than the summer. Because then it’s going to get ugly. Aside from him, Keith, Jokiharju, Murphy are guarantees to be here next year. Let’s just say Dahlstrom continues his strong play and carves out himself a role. We’re not even talking about Gustafssson yet. You have every reason to believe that at least one of the three of the Youth Triumvirate the Hawks keep selling you is going to be on the team, probably two. That’s five without Gustafsson and only one of Boqvist, Mitchell, Beaudin on the team. Any other combination and that’s six. Would you want to see Seabrook ahead of any of them?
The Hawks cannot lose yet another good player in service of paying a player who’s already past it, otherwise known as the “Bickell Process.” That cost them Teuvo and arguably Danault. It can’t happen again. Teams would absolutely call about Murphy, who has looked like the Hawks best d-man from the moment he stepped back on the ice (faint praise, clearly). They’ll be certain to call about the kids. The Hawks can’t choose nostalgia over them.
The easy way out for the rest of this season is to play seven d-men. That was something Q refused to do and most teams are loathe to (except for the league’s best in Tampa, but y’know, why take your cues from the team that’s going to put up more points than anyone has in a decade or more?). I don’t really need more John Hayden or Andreas Martinsen in my life, and you could use that hole with 11 forwards to get all of Kane, Toews, Top Cat, Saad, Strome an extra couple of shifts per night. Seabrook can play on the second power play unit and spotted shifts here and there, and both Gustafsson and Murphy have shown the ability to play either side to deal with pairing-juggling. This is a half-measure for now.
But it won’t be a solution for all of next year, especially if two of the kids make the team. That’ll put Seabrook eighth on the depth-chart. And that’s if the Hawks don’t conclude they need to go outside the organization for a top-pairing guy to help all the kids, which they absolutely, really need to do (except there’s only one UFA who fits that bill and he’s very handsome and Swedish and decidedly not coming here. Or you could offer-sheet Jacob Trouba, and in that same world I’d be marrying Scarlett Johansson).
So where does that leave everyone? To me, there’s only one way out of this.
At his exit interview, or at his summer home, or somewhere during the offseason, Stan, McD, and Rocky are going to have to sit across a table from him and tell him that everything he has done for this team is cherished and appreciated. He will go down as one of the greatest Hawks d-men ever, because he is. But at this point in his career, he’s going to be no more than a #7 on this team, and he will not play half or most games. If he’s fine with that, great. If he’s not, the Hawks will do everything they can to find a team that will take him and play him more, including paying half his salary. They owe him that.
Again, that money is gone either way. If you can get out of half of it, that’s a win. Maybe you have to include a mid-level prospect to entice, but not every one is going to make the team anyway and as long as it’s mid-level and not an established NHL-er in the vain of Teravainen, Danault, and Hinostroza. This gives Seabrook some control, as he has his full NMC, but also gives him say over how his career is going to play out. And yes, I’m willing to wager you can find a team that will take a chance on him for a mere $3M or so per season, especially if they have to give up nothing and maybe can get a lottery-ticket prospect out of it as well. And if you can’t, Seabrook isn’t bringing your team down night after night, and will know why.
For the rest of this season, and especially in the summer, this is the Hawks biggest issue. And how they solve it is going to be a fascinating, if not infuriating, watch.