5 Former Blackhawks to Watch in the Conference Finals

Then there were four. What started with 16 teams competing for Lord Stanley’s Cup has now dwindled down to the final four. The Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Rangers will square off in the Eastern Conference Final, while the Colorado Avalanche and the Edmonton Oilers will vie for the honor of becoming the best in the West. Players on these teams have shed a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get where they’re at. Yet they’re only halfway there. With that in mind, let’s live vicariously through five former Chicago Blackhawks who are still in the playoff race.

Brandon Hagel, Lightning (No.38)

It was a tough pill to swallow when Hagel was dealt at this year’s trade deadline. Teammate Alex DeBrincat paid Hagel the ultimate tribute; “He represents what the identity of our team needs to be to be successful.”

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But then he was gone, traded away for Taylor Raddysh, Boris Katchouk, and first round picks in both the 2023 and 2024 NHL Draft. That’s a pretty hefty return for someone that’s essentially a third line caliber player. Blackhawks’ general manager Kyle Davidson rightly took advantage of an offer he couldn’t refuse. Hagel was beloved with fans, teammates and coaches alike for his ceaseless energy and tenacity, his never-say-die attitude. He always gave 100% on the ice, every shift and every game. Players fed off this, and in turn put forth that extra effort as well. This was all sorely missed when he departed.  

Brandon Hagel Chicago Blackhawks
The loss of Brandon Hagel at the trade deadline was very difficult for the Chicago Blackhawks. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The 23-year-old took advantage of his opportunities on a subpar Blackhawks’ team, earning top-six deployment and minutes. When he left, he was in the midst of a stiff competition with Patrick Kane for second on the team in goals scored.

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It’s no surprise Hagel took all these tangible and intangible skills to his new team. In our recent Blackhawks Banter podcast, fellow THW colleague and Lightning writer Jim Bay indicated Hagel at first was pushing too hard and trying to do too much. But he’s since settled in on the third line with Ross Colton and Corey Perry. He’s also a member of the Lightning’s second power play unit. Hagel has established himself just like he did with the Blackhawks as the energy guy that’s hard to play against.

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In the first round of the playoffs against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Hagel registered a goal and three assists in the team’s hard-fought seven-game series. He went pointless in the second-round sweep of the Florida Panthers. But through these first two rounds, he’s contributed 18 shots on goal, 15 hits, six blocked shots and been credited with five takeaways while averaging 13:35 minutes of ice time.

I’m sure Hagel will be looking to add to his playoff production against the Rangers, as well as helping the team win in any way he can. It will be fun, and a little bittersweet, to watch him compete for the ultimate hockey prize in just his second full NHL season.

Jan Rutta, Lightning (No. 44)

Another Lightning player that’s a former Blackhawk is defenseman Jan Rutta. The Blackhawks traded Rutta to the Lightning at the 2019 trade deadline for another blueliner in Slater Koekkoek. Rutta has been with the Lightning for the past three seasons, while the Blackhawks let Koekkoek walk in free agency after just one season. I think it’s safe to say the Lightning won this transaction.

Jan Rutta Tampa Bay Lightning
Jan Rutta has turned out to be a reliable player for the Tampa Bay Lightning. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The now 31-year-old veteran played more of a minor role in the 2020 playoffs (five games) but was an integral part of the 2021 playoff run (two goals and one assist in 23 games). It’s like he’s an extra defenseman the organization has in their back pocket. Depending on depth or injuries, Rutta receives more or less playing time. But he’s a pretty dependable backup.

The Czech native suited up for Game 1 against the Leafs in the Lightning’s first round. But then he was involved in a scuffle involving multiple players. Rutta ended up leaving the ice with a huge gash on his forehead. This was likely a factor in the journeyman not playing the rest of the series. But he participated in all four games versus the Panthers, albeit only averaging 9:38 minutes of ice time. Will the Lightning need Rutta to play big minutes against the Rangers, or will he be relegated once again to a more minor role?

Duncan Keith, Oilers (No. 2)

Ah, we thought it was hard to watch Hagel suit up for the Lightning. But that’s nothing compared to seeing Duncan Keith wearing a different jersey after 16 seasons and three Stanley Cups with the Blackhawks. Yes, the same Keith that started his career in Chicago when the franchise was at the bottom of the barrel (kind of like now). The man who sacrificed seven teeth, won two Norris Trophies and was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy in the 2015 playoffs. A famous saying surrounding the fan-favorite defenseman was, “Chicago runs on Duncan”.

Duncan Keith Edmonton Oilers
It’s tough to see Duncan Keith wearing an Edmonton Oilers’ jersey. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Keith is known for his freakish fitness regimen, and with that comes a penchant for heavy ice time. With the Blackhawks, it was just expected the blueliner would be out of the ice more than anyone else on the team. As he got older this caught up with Keith. He could still handle the minutes physically, but his stats understandably started to dip.

Even so, this reputation followed Keith to Edmonton when he decided to change organizations to be closer to his son, Colton. Part of the trade package for Keith was that the Blackhawks receive a third-round draft pick in the 2022 NHL Draft. However, this will become a second-round pick if the Oilers make it to the Cup Final, and if Keith ranks among the top four Oilers’ defensemen in ice tie through the first three rounds of the playoffs.

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Through two rounds Keith ranks third on the team with an average of 19:52 minutes on the ice, along with a goal and four assists. Top-pairing defensemen Darnell Nurse (21:19 minutes) and Cody Ceci (20:47) rank first and second respectively, while Keith’s second-pairing partner Evan Bouchard (18:22) places fourth.

Here’s to those heavy minutes, Duncs!  

Artemi Panarin, Rangers (No. 10)

I honestly never thought the Rangers would make it past the Carolina Hurricanes in these 2021-22 playoffs. But here we are. Many people look at Artemi Panarin as the one that got away from the Blackhawks. But Chicago was never going to be able to afford him. He makes $12 million, people! Nonetheless, it was sad to see the dynamic duo of Panarin and Kane split up.

Artemi Panarin New York Rangers
Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Just like others who play alongside Kane, many thought the Russian winger was simply benefitting from his linemate’s elite skills. But Panarin has gone on to prove he’s a playmaker all on his own. Since departing Chicago, he’s consistently put up more points with the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Rangers than his first two seasons with the Hawks.

In his first two seasons in the league when he played with the Blackhawks, Panarin was criticized for not showing up in the playoffs. But he’s doing his best to shed that status in this year’s postseason. Through 14 games, he boasts four goals and seven assists. Lining up on the second line with Ryan Strome and Andrew Copp, it’s imperative Panarin keeps up the good work if the Rangers want to make it past the defending champion Lightning.

Tyler Motte, Rangers (No. 64)

Panarin might be the superstar, but do you all remember forward Tyler Motte?! Motte was also part of the trade that sent both him and Panarin to the Blue Jackets in 2017. Motte was drafted in 2013 by the Blackhawks in the fourth round (121st overall), and spent some time with the Rockford IceHogs and the Blackhawks in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 season. He then moved on to the Blue Jackets and the Vancouver Canucks before joining the Rangers this past season.

Tyler Motte New York Rangers
Forward Tyler Motte is in the midst of a playoff run with the New York Rangers. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Motte is known as a fourth line grinder, playing with Barclay Goodrow and Ryan Reaves. He’s also an integral member of the penalty kill. His two goals in nine games is a good indicator of the depth that’s needed to make a strong playoff push. He’s also credited with 15 shots on goal, 29 hits, nine blocked shots and seven takeaways.

But there’s another aspect of this hard-nosed player that makes him special. Motte took a leap of faith when he was with the Canucks. He confessed to the training staff that he suffers from anxiety and depression. They worked with him to support him, and he ended up putting together a video about his experiences. The purpose was to use his platform to help others that might suffer in a similar way.

Here’s a short clip of Motte after his most recent goal in the Ranger’s most recent series against the Hurricanes.

It just goes to show hockey players are human beings too. Kudos to Motte for showing his vulnerability to the world. I know I’ll be watching to see what impact he makes in the Rangers’ series against the Lightning. But he’s already making a huge impact that goes far beyond hockey.

It will be fun to see how these former Blackhawks contribute as the playoffs roll on. Best of luck to these five players in their quest for the Cup!