Johnny on the Spot
Before the February 27th trade deadline arrived for the NHL, the Chicago Blackhawks were mired in a three game losing streak and had dropped 12 of 16 games including, a season-worst, nine straight losses. They ranked near dead last in the league for their penalty killing unit and questions arose regarding their chances to even make the playoffs. Their defense was plagued with injuries to key players and it was public knowledge that General Manager Stan Bowman was shopping for a blue-liner.
Enter Johnny Oduya.
Bowman dealt a pair of 2013 draft picks (2nd & 3rd round) to the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for the Swedish veteran in hopes of saving his team's season. "[Oduya]'s one of the better skating defensemen in the NHL," Bowman said following the deadline. "He's got experience. He's played on some good teams and played a lot of minutes. I think with our team right now, he's going to come in and be a calming influence on some of our players."
Oduya wasn't the sexiest name on the market and he continually drew comparisons as the "poor man's" Brian Campbell before even stepping on the ice wearing the Indian head sweater. Johnny would be responsible for filling the hole as a puck-moving defenseman left by Campbell, who was traded away by the Blackhawks, prior to this season, due to his hefty salary. Oduya was attractive because the 'Hawks would only incur a $776,000 hit to the salary cap leaving Bowman money to work with for more deals. Those deals didn't pan out and it seemed, on paper, like Chicago didn't do enough in improve their team via trade.
However, that wasn't the case at all; since the Oduya acquisition, the Blackhawks are 9-1-1, currently winners of five straight including wins over the three top seeds (at the time) in the Western Conference (St. Louis, Vancouver and Dallas) and they it doesn't look like they'll be slowing down any time soon. During the current win streak, Chicago's defense has allowed no more than 25 shots on goal and even limited Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals to just 18 shots. All the praise shouldn't be handed to one player, as it takes a full team effort to win games, but it's hard to pinpoint another reason for their resurgence. It should be noted that the goaltending also has improved immensely since the deadline.
Oduya came over with a rating of minus-9, but since donning Blackhawk red, he is plus-5 and has scored five points (1 goal, 4 assists). He's also taken on the task of extended minutes, averaging 23:16 time on the ice, mostly paired with youngster Nick Leddy. "It's been really fun playing a lot of minutes," Oduya said after Chicago's overtime victory over Vancouver on Wednesday. His acquisition has allowed coach Joel Quenneville to put his top two defenders, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, back together and finally find some consistency out of his defensemen instead of continually flip-flopping the pairs.
It's also no coincidence that the Blackhawks have killed all but two power play chances during the 11 games since the deadline (17/19 for 89.74%).
Oduya has made quite an impact on his teammates, as they have had nothing but good things to say about his play. After their 4-3 victory over the Rangers, Patrick Kane had this to say: "He was our best player tonight."
With just seven games remaining, three against teams ahead in the standings, the Blackhawks are now in position to start thinking about potentially having home ice during the first round of the playoffs. They have tied Nashville with 92 points and trail Detroit (4th in the West) by just one point.
Expect to see an extra dose of Oduya on the ice during this final stretch of the regular season with the suspension of fellow defenseman and former Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith. Keith was suspended, today, for five games because of an errant elbow that connected with the head of Vancouver's Daniel Sedin on Wednesday night. This is his first offense, and it couldn't come at a worse time for the Blackhawks who are starting to really mesh as a unit. Keith is usually among league leaders in ice time and the 'Hawks will have to find a way to eat up those minutes; it's likely that Oduya and Seabrook will be expected to pick up the slack. Sean O'Donnell will be filling in as the sixth defenseman.
Oduya is slated to be an unrestricted free agent after this season, and based on his play and impact he's had on Blackhawks fans, I would surprised if Bowman didn't try to extend his contract for a couple years. It might be a tough and pricey task, but he's already proved his worth in just 11 games.
Steve Peters is a staff writer for NHLfanchat.com. Follow on twitter: @stevepeters_ @nhlfanchat