By Matt Carlson
CHICAGO — Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville played 12-plus seasons in the NHL as a steady defenseman. The outlook for his team’s blue line corps heading into the 2017-18 season is anything but stable.
Quenneville, entering his 10th year behind the team’s bench, struggled to name more than four defensemen who are in Chicago’s mix during a session Saturday at the team’s annual fan convention.
“You’ve got Duncs (Duncan Keith) and Seabs (Brent Seabrook) as a possibility of being reunited,” Quenneville said. “With Connor Murphy in and we’ve got (Michal) Kempny and right now I’m thinking No. 42 . (Gustav) Forsling. So we’ve got some options.”
Granted, the 58-year-old Quenneville’s voice was even raspier than usual from the dais at the Q&A event. His hesitation prompted chuckles across the room, but there may have been a hint of nervousness in the crowd’s laughter.
“We feel that there’s going to be some opportunity in the organization for some young guys stepping in and grabbing a spot,” said Quenneville, whose 851 career coaching wins trail only Blackhawks senior advisor Scotty Bowman in NHL history.
Beyond Keith and Seabrook, All-Stars who anchored Chicago’s Stanley Cup wins in 2010, 2013 and 2015, the defense thins out in a hurry when it comes to winning or experience.
Murphy was acquired in a deal that sent three-time Cup winner Niklas Hjalmarsson to Arizona. GM Stan Bowman maintains the 24-year-old Murphy has ample upside after four seasons with the Coyotes.
“Now that I have a few years in the league under my belt, I feel I can bring more of a calm and good presence,” Murphy said. “I want to show what I have right off the bat.”
Kempny played 50 games and averaged just under 15 minutes of ice time in 2016-17, his first NHL season. The Czech will turn 27 in September.
Forsling is a prized 21-year-old prospect who impressed Bowman when he played for Sweden at the 2015 World Junior Tournament. Forsling split last season between the Blackhawks, with whom he struggled with consistency, and their AHL farm team in Rockford.
“This year I’m going to be up here full time and I’m going to have to take a bigger role,” Forsling said. “It’s up to me.”
A gap opened on Chicago’s back end when up-and-coming 25-year-old Trevor van Riemsdyk was taken by Vegas in the expansion draft, then dealt to Carolina. Brian Campbell, 38, retired last week, and the Blackhawks haven’t expressed interest in re-signing 35-year-old free agent Johnny Oduya.
So barring a trade, Chicago’s defense will undergo a youth movement. Directing it will be new assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson, an NHL defenseman for 16 seasons and Quenneville’s teammate with the Hartford Whalers for six of them.
“Usually you have six (defense) spots locked up, but we have nine players who can make it into the lineup,” Samuelsson said. “It’s going to be a little bit of a process here. We’re going to have to be good with our teaching and maybe show some patience. But we’ve got some young players who are going to come here, for sure.”
Quenneville is not known for tolerance of mistakes by young defensemen since he took over in Chicago four games into the 2008-09 season. He has guided the Blackhawks to nine straight playoff appearances and three Cups.
He’ll have to change, at least for the short term.
“It’s going to be new, but we’re going to have a lot of alternating, different (defensive) pairs and matchups over the course of the early part of the season,” Quenneville said. “Then, I’m sure it will get stable as we go along.”
Notes: Throughout the convention, Blackhawks coaches and players have saluted 38-year-old forward Marian Hossa, who will miss the season because of side effects from medication to treat a skin disorder. Hossa may not play again. . Reacquired forwards Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp were reintroduced to 2,000 cheering fans who gave them a standing ovation in a packed ballroom at the downtown Chicago hotel where the convention is being held. The 24-year-old Saad got a handful of rock star-esque screams from young women. … Quenneville’s answer to a submitted question about how he grows his signature mustache: “You’ve got to water it at a certain time of the night.”