NHL Latest – Can the Blackhawks Cope Without Duncan Keith?

Duncan Keith has led the Chicago Blackhawks in ice time each year since entering the league in 2005-06.  (Courtesy of bleacherreport.com)

Duncan Keith has led the Chicago Blackhawks in ice time each year since entering the league in 2005-06.
(Courtesy of bleacherreport.com)

After their 3-1 defeat to the L.A Kings in Game Three of the Western Conference Final on Tuesday, the Chicago Blackhawks suffered another huge blow just a day later. Star defenceman Duncan Keith was suspended for one game by the National Hockey League’s Department of Player Safety after striking Jeff Carter in the face with a high-stick during the loss. This post takes a look at how the absence of a player who is averaging 24:44 minutes of ice time and is a vital member of both the penalty-kill and power-play units, will affect the Hawks ahead of tonight’s game at Staples Centre.

Though they have a roster bursting at the seams with talent, the Blackhawks lines on defence have remained relatively constant in the postseason so far, relying on their top five defencemen; Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, Leddy and Oduya to remain healthy. This is something the group have managed to achieve, with Chicago using the same set of players in all 15 playoff games so far, Michal Rozsival solidly filling the sixth spot.

In Game Three however, the Hawks really began to feel the full effects of L.A’s ‘get the puck deep into the offensive zone and hit hard’ tactics. As a team, they were simply unable to respond to the onslaught, much in the same way the Kings had struggled in the opening two games of the series, at the opposing end of such relentless defensive zone pressure.

When considering where Chicago will struggle most without Keith, I believe it will be his free-flowing skating abilities in these situations, to take control of the puck and either carry it all the way into the offensive zone or find the perfect outlet pass, neutralising the Kings’ main threat and setting up instant counter-attacks. This rare attribute has defined him since he first entered the Blackhawks team and in many ways, makes him impossible to replace.

Although Brent Seabrook also exhibits a similar style in terms of the transition game and is a superb defenceman in his own right, his form throughout the post-season has been a little inconsistent. This was notable in his reduced minutes at the start of the second round against Detroit, though there has definitely been a transformation in his play since being reunited with Keith in Game Five of the Western Conference Semi-final. Together, the two form a deadly and dynamic tandem for opponents to face and I believe Seabrook may struggle in the absence of his line-partner.

Then, with very little sun breaking the bleak Game Four horizon, there are the skills Keith brings to Chicago’s impressive special teams. As well as playing the quarterback role for their devastating power-play, he is only second to Niklas Hjalmarsson in total penalty-kill ice time, a unit that has only conceded two goals in 15 games during the 2013 playoffs.

Hjalmarsson has been exceptional during the postseason, reliable and bringing great energy to each shift. It would have been a natural decision to give him more minutes in Keith’s absence, but the Swede took a vicious slap-shot to the knee in Game Three before limping off. Though he is still expected to play in tonight’s game, it will be whilst battling through the pain barrier and asking him to shoulder even more responsibility would be a strange call.

It seems the direction that the Hawks will take is to add Sheldon Brookbank to the line-up and perhaps move Nick Leddy up to play alongside Seabrook. Though he hasn’t yet played in this year’s playoffs, Brookbank played 26 games during the regular season, producing a single goal and no assists. For Leddy, this could be a huge opportunity, the youngster had a nice season but has looked fairly average in the postseason, playing 15:25 minutes per game and posting -5 points differential.

When it comes to answering the question of whether the Chicago Blackhawks can cope in the absence of Duncan Keith, the answer is a resounding and fence-sitting ‘maybe.’ The facts suggest that they simply cannot replace what he brings to their team each and every shift, but if the likes of Seabrook, Hjalmarsson and Oduya can produce their very best form, then they may be able to contain the Kings just long enough to allow their offensive stars to shine.

In the end, whether the Hawks get a win in Game Four will be far more dependent on players such as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who have underwhelmed at times, providing offence when it really matters.

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