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Maybe They’re Lookin’ For Answers – C.I.’s Season Preview: 51 Phantom And The Defense

When the Hawks opened camp on Friday, we discussed what their biggest problem is, and that’s forward depth. Today might be a good day to swing at the other side, before we spend the rest of this in the middle (sounds like life). And that’s the Hawks’ defense.

Which sounds strange to say, because the Hawks’ defense last year was most certainly not a strength. And some of those problems could be problems this year, too. Duncan Keith’s knee is not really ever going to be “better.” That may be nothing or it may be something, and that something may be down the line. Once you remove that cartilage though, it’s not like it regrows. And he was clearly off by a half-step last year.

Secondly, if Brent Seabrook is still ordering the menu at Manny’s on the way to the morning skate, then there are still issues that Brian Campbell is not going to solve. So far so good, on that front, but we’ll see what the real games have to say.

What we do know is that the signing of 51 Phantom is going to solve a lot of problems.

The Hawks lacked a second puck-mover, play-pusher, rush-d, whatever you want to call it. Other than Keith, and he was hampered, the Hawks had no one who could either A)pinch the play before it got to their own line and get the puck to the forwards quickly, or B) make a pass or skate the puck out of their own zone cleanly. They thought it was Trevor van Riemsdyk. It was most certainly not Trevor van Riemsdyk. Erik Gustafsson didn’t have the defensive chops. There wasn’t anyone else who was even an option.

Campbell is both of these, though it’ll take everyone less than two periods to deride his defensive game or call him soft or some other horseshit narrative that just isn’t true because that’s how it went for him here last go-round. At the top of it, Campbell has been a dominant possession player the last three years in Florida. He’s had a CF% of 50.9, 53.4 and 53.0 which translated relative to the rest of the Panthers as +2.5, +2.6, and last year’s kicked-a-hole-in-the-sky +5.5. Now, whatever shape Seabrook is in he’s not Aaron Ekblad, Campbell’s partner in Sunrise. Hjalmarsson is Aaron Ekblad-level, at least defensively, so if Q returns to that pairing things could happen that will all make us feel an inch taller.

To balance that out though, Campbell and Ekblad did not take on the toughest competition in Florida last year and didn’t start many shifts in their own zone at all, around 30% for each of them. For some reason that assignment went to Willie Mitchell and Erik Gudbranson, and yet they still won the division and the world feels slightly more cold and lonely. Whether Campbell has to take on tougher competition here is a real question. In Q’s ideal world he keeps that assignment off of Keith, who then gets to go full Mongolian horde on the lesser lights and really push what the Hawks do. Last year he couldn’t do that, though Keith’s possession numbers remained right where they had been (on less than two legs, and yet it still feels like Keith isn’t as appreciated around here as he should be).

The common theme around here is that Q didn’t trust Campbell when he was first here so he won’t now. This isn’t actually true. In Campbell’s last year here, when Keith was admittedly thinking about everything but hockey (insert any multitude of jokes here), it was Campbell and Hjalmarsson that were thrown out to close out games, and Campbell actually got out on the penalty kill then too. Whether time has dulled those senses for Q, we’ll just have to see.

The other questions Soupy is going to have to answer is how he handles the class rise from the Atlantic Division to the Central. It’s one thing to get five or six games a year against the likes of the Bruins, Sabres, Canadiens, Senators, and Leafs. As we know, there might not be any free passes in the Central. The Avalanche won’t be coached by the humanized form of a crotch-grab, and the Jets might even get goaltending. And both of those teams have provided headaches anyway. Whatever the Stars problems are it isn’t speed, and same goes for the Predators. We know no encounter with St. Louis is ever pleasant, whether talking about hockey or aroma. So he almost certainly isn’t going to be able to push the play as well as he did in Florida here. That’s just how this goes.

While I’d like to say Campbell would be a boon on the power play, that might not be the case. He only had eight points on it last year, and 11 the year before that. Quenneville will icepick himself in the face before letting anyone else QB the first unit other than Keith, but Campbell should be an improvement on whatever drunken clown was doing so for the second unit last year. However, under Kevin Dineen in Florida, Phantom’s power play points were 31, and 17 in the 48-game season. So Q might not know what he has, but Dineen most certainly does.

As I talked with our colleague Fifth Feather on Friday before Laura Jane Grace blew my ear drums out, he said the Hawks will be very good this year because the top four is going to be very good. I’m not ready to sell out on that just yet because of the questions over those who were here and Campbell having to prove he can handle the West. But it seems more likely than not that will be the case.