Ulf Samuelsson

For the Blackhawks defense, change is the new normal

For the Blackhawks defense, change is the new normal

Ulf Samuelsson saw the changes the Blackhawks made this season, his hiring as assistant coach being one of them. Soon he’ll be working with the team’s defensemen, another area that’s had some upheaval.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity here, some uncertainties and some moving parts that I probably, typically haven’t seen going into a season. So that makes it even more interesting and challenging,” Samuelsson said. “So I’m looking forward to this opportunity to really develop and work with some of the younger players.”

From its immediate coach to its personnel, the Blackhawks’ defense is dealing with plenty of change that will continue when the season begins this fall. The Blackhawks have had some addition (Connor Murphy, Jan Rutta and Jordan Oesterle) but dealing with the subtraction (Niklas Hjalmarsson and Trevor van Riemsdyk) will nevertheless be tough. Coach Joel Quenneville said on Friday that pairings are a work in progress.

“We’re going to see when we’re putting the pairs together, whether we're going to reunite [Duncan Keith] and [Brent Seabrook] or look for some balance,” he said. “There are a lot of options. We’ll look forward to that and sorting it out.”

For Murphy, who was acquired in the deal that sent Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes, there are no set expectations as to where he fits yet.

“With any team you go into training camp proving where you’re going to be. Everyone has to come in and earn certain positions, especially me being a guy who they’re not as familiar with; I have to show what I can do,” Murphy said. “I definitely want to bring a more physical edge to defending at times and be able to skate well, have a good reach, make smart reads and try to help out with whatever’s needed with that.”

As for young players, the opportunity is there. Gustav Forsling admits he wasn’t happy that fellow Swede and role model Hjalmarsson was traded. But Forsling, who looked strong coming out of camp last September, knows he has to take advantage of the situation.

“Of course, I want to take the next step and play more,” he said. “I want to keep progressing my game and keep developing.”

The same goes for Jordan Oesterle, who the Blackhawks signed to a two-year deal on July 1.

“When I wanted to come here the opportunity was tremendous. Just the chance to come in and try to make the top six is there, it’s a battle with a number of us guys but that’s all you ask for in the situation I’m in,” he said. “Just the amount of opportunity that is in front of me just drives me even more. I want to be here and force their hand to keep me here.”

Again, the Blackhawks could re-address defense once they implement Marian Hossa’s long-term injured reserve after the season begins. General manager Stan Bowman said there’s “no exact plan” right now on how they use that space – “that’s probably going to be dictated by where we’re at when we get to October, how the team’s playing, what areas are strong, what areas we want to add to,” he said.

It remains to be seen on that front. Regardless, from coaching to personnel, much has changed with the Blackhawks defense. 

Blackhawks Notes: Coaching changes and Marcus Kruger’s status

Blackhawks Notes: Coaching changes and Marcus Kruger’s status

Coach Joel Quenneville didn’t mince words. Finding out his good friend, former assistant coach Mike Kitchen was fired not long after the Blackhawks’ postseason ended, frustrated him.

“That day, I was not happy. I was a little disappointed,” Quenneville said on Thursday. “We lost a great coach and somebody I had been working with for a long time. It was tough and we’ve moved on now, but I wasn’t excited at the moment.”

In moving on the Blackhawks have revamped their coaching staff, adding another old friend and teammate of Quenneville’s in Ulf Samuelsson and a former member of his St. Louis staff in Don Granato. Quenneville said Samuelsson will take over Kitchen’s responsibilities while Granato will handle a number of tasks.

“Whether he’s pre-scout, helping Kevin [Dineen], helping Ulfie, helping me. He’s helping the young guys like Stan [Bowman] said,” Quenneville said. “We have input with all areas and all coaches and it’s a fun thing, drawing up practices or talking to guys, preparing meetings and evaluating performances. But I think he’s excited to be a part of that as well and Ulfie, he’ll be doing something he’s been doing and he’s excited to work with some of our defense as well.”

As far as the Blackhawks’ defensive style, Quenneville doesn’t foresee it changing.

“I think there are some areas how it ended or after a playoff series, there’s always some tweaks we like to do in games, in playoffs or in series," Quenneville said. "It’s obviously disappointing. But I think there’s a lot of positive things we accomplished last year and how we played without the puck, I don’t think that was too much of an issue.

"But we have a defense that can play both ways and we still want offense from our defensive part of our game. That’d be one of our strengths. But when it’s time to defend, how we want to play in our own end without the puck is something that’ll be very close to how we play.”

Kruger’s situation

There’s been plenty of talk regarding Marcus Kruger, and whether or not he’ll remain with the Blackhawks. Whatever the future holds for the center, general manager Stan Bowman wouldn’t say on Thursday.

“Yeah, there have been a lot of these rumors around, but Marcus is no different than any other player. I’m not going to comment on rumors out there, but people are stating it as if it’s a fact,” Bowman said of Kruger being at the center of trade rumors. “There’s a lot of speculation, but it’s not fair to the players for me to be commenting on what’s been rumored out there. I don’t really have anything to add on that front.”

Trevor van Riemsdyk was Vegas’ selection in Wednesday night’s expansion draft. But a source said it’s still possible the Blackhawks trade Kruger to the Golden Knights.

How will Blackhawks juggle having three assistants on coaching staff?

How will Blackhawks juggle having three assistants on coaching staff?

The Blackhawks officially tabbed Don Granato and Ulf Samuelsson to be Mike Kitchen's replacement, the team announced Thursday, giving Joel Quenneville three assistants on his coaching staff, along with Kevin Dineen.

Before we continue, there's history to note on the new staff: Quenneville, Dineen and Samuelsson were teammates with the Hartford Whalers in the 1980s while Granato and Quenneville spent time together with the St. Louis Blues in 2005-06. Granato's older brother Tony, who is the current head coach for the NCAA's Wisconsin Badgers, also served as an assistant under Quenneville in Colorado for three seasons from 2005-08.

But it's uncommon for a team to have three assistants behind one bench, so how exactly is this going to work?

Dineen will likely resume his responsibilies of leading the power play, while Samuelsson is expected to work closely with the penalty kill unit and team's defensemen, which used to be Kitchen's primary focus. Samuelsson, a Swedish native, enters an organization filled with young defensemen from his country, including Niklas Hjalmarsson, Gustav Forsling, Erik Gustafsson, Carl Dahlstrom and Viktor Svedberg, which should help ease the transition from the minors to the pros for many of them.

It's unclear what Granato's role will be exactly and whether he will actually be on the bench during games, but his track record suggests it could be to help develop the Blackhawks' young players.

Prior to being hired by Wisconsin, Granato, a native of Downers Grove, spent five years as the head coach for USA Hockey's national team development program, where he mentored rising NHL stars Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, Charlie McAvoy, Auston Matthews and Zach Werenski, to name a few.

Ryan Hartman, Vinnie Hinostroza and Nick Schmaltz are among the notable Blackhawks who played for Team USA during his tenure, along with prospects Alex DeBrincat, John Hayden, Luke Johnson, Chad Krys, Anthony Louis and Tyler Motte. Some of them were not directly coached by him, but they all were under his watch over that span.

Granato has also made coaching stops in the AHL, ECHL, USHL and most recently at the collegiate level, further expanding his hockey background and perhaps adding another voice to the scouting department.

It's a unique situation for the Blackhawks, and it will be interesting to see how the dynamic works.