The Chicago Blackhawks make no bones about the fact that the success of the organization runs along the blue line.
The strength of the 'Hawks lies in a solid defensive corps. As Chicago prepares for camp, the team will be welcoming new faces to the mix. This begs the question of whether the current gang on the back end will be more effective than the group that took the ice a year ago.
To answer that question, let's look at the current makeup of the current defense compared to that which hit the ice a year ago.
The constants in the lineup are the first pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, along with Niklas Hjalmarsson. All three should be playing similar roles to the ones they played the past two seasons.
Keith should have every reason to come to camp ready to erase memories of an uninspired performance last season that was a notch below his Norris Trophy-winning level of two seasons ago. He and Seabrook have a reputation as one of the best young blue-line pairings in the game. It is time to live up to that billing again.
Hjalmarsson shook off a difficult start to the season to play decent hockey, but needs to raise his game now that his favorite line mate is patrolling the ice in Florida. It looks like his new partner will be Nick Leddy, who may be the pivotal piece of the puzzle on defense.
In a lot of ways, Leddy is still the kid learning the ropes he was a year ago. However, the organization is expecting him to shoulder more responsibility as he continues to get a handle on the NHL game.
This has to be a steadier version of the 19-year-old rookie who was sent down after the first five games last season. Any defensive lapses are going to be more costly to the Blackhawks.
After Hjalmarsson and Leddy, there are a lot of newer faces on the back end.
Brian Campbell is a Panther. Chris Campoli may be signing with a team in the next few days. Jassen Cullimore is playing overseas. Nick Boynton is, ahem, available (cue the crickets).
The fact that the 'Hawks signed Steve Montador to a four-year contract tells me he is the fifth defenseman. He possibly moves up if Leddy struggles, but it's safe to say he'll be a regular.
Sean O'Donnell and Sami Lepisto are the front-runners to fill out the lineup at defense. Both are capable third-pairing guys.
O'Donnell adds toughness and the ability to get the puck from the front of the net, even at age 40. Lepisto is a cheaper version of Campoli, though I get the feeling the 'Hawks expect him to blossom in the Chicago system.
Where does that leave John Scott?
In the press box if he's lucky. In Rockford if he's not. Unless the 'Hawks choose to carry eight defensemen, something they never did last season, there doesn't figure to be room on this roster for Scott.
A relaxed cap situation may allow the Murdersaurus to take in games from the 'Hawks box on non-pummeling nights. If O'Donnell and Lepisto are right, Scott is of little use in Chicago. The problem is, he doesn't add much in the way of veteran tutelage to the prospects in Rockford.
Where Scott ends up may be the biggest question mark in training camp.
If injuries necessitate, the 'Hawks have options in Brian Connelly and Ryan Stanton. You may see one of them if someone is to miss a few games. Connelly would replace Leddy or Lespisto, while Stanton is better suited to play a more defensive style.
Shawn Lalonde may also earn a call-up if he has a good camp. Dylan Olsen needs a year playing steady AHL minutes. Of course, it all depends on what the young guys show in camp.
Obviously, the key to the defense is how the 'Hawks replace Campbell. I don't think one guy will just swoop in and take his place. However, this defensive group looks to be deeper that the squad that opened last season.
The hope is that the bottom pairing can carry more of the load and share the task of replacing Campbell, along with a re-focused Keith. If Leddy can take his game up a notch and the top pairing could avoid that extra three or four shifts a game, things look promising.
In the next Countdown to Camp, I will size up the 'Hawks situation in net.
For a look at the forwards, check out the first two installments of the Countdown to Camp.