An Early Return For Duncan Keith
Monday morning, the Blackhawks attempted to break the internet with yet another timely return. Last year, it was Patrick Kane returning for the first round of the play-offs, after a devastating shoulder injury that was supposed to sideline him through to the Conference Finals, or longer. If they could make it that far. They did, but they didn’t have to try and do it without Kane.
Coach Joel Quenneville says he has "fingers crossed" hoping Duncan Keith can return for Saturday's game vs. Blues. #Blackhawks
— Chris Kuc (@ChrisKuc) November 8, 2015
Today, the normally tight lipped, coach Joel Quenneville shared the one thing that Blackhawks fans were not expecting to hear after Duncan Keith took to the ice for the Blackhawks morning Skate. Next saturday, November 14th is the earliest that Keith could return to the line up, given his stint on the long-term injured reserve; However, his exact return date is still up in the air. With fingers crossed throughout the city of Chicago, the hope is that Duncan Keith will return on Saturday for the Hawks match up against the Blues. A must win, that comes just prior to the teams annual circus trip. A trip everyone thought Keith was going to miss. To say the timing couldn’t be better would be a monumental understatement.
Artem Anisimov and Marian Hossa both returned Sunday night against the Edmonton Oilers, which warranted another big sigh of relief from anyone who works with, or follows the team. Hossa’s impact was noticeable even though he only took one shot on goal, as always with Hossa it is the intangibles. Anisimov was reunited with his bread and butter co-horts in Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin, and it was easily the best line of the night as it has been on many occasions. Anisimov had 2 shots and recorded a goal and an assist. Panarin had 4 shots with two goals and an assist, with the first goal coming less than sixty seconds into the game. Finally Kane had 4 shots with the game winning goal and three assists, for a four point night.
Michal Rozsival is also likely to be ready in the next week as well. All good news, for the struggling Blackhawks.
If possession is 9/10ths of the law, the Blackhawks are being owned on the road, and the circus trip is right around the corner, leaving a sense of dread. The Hawks have gone 4-4 without Keith and 1-2 without Hossa.
Without Keith and Hossa to help drive the teams transition the engine has faltered. The goals are coming in the last few games, but they have been unable to control the puck in the neutral zone where the Hawks have thrived for years. There have been few tape to tape stretch passes without Keith, and the Hawks have missed Hossa’s ability to not only carry the puck through the neutral zone, but retrieve the puck when it finds its way onto an opponents stick.
The reality is that without Keith and Hossa, the Hawks are playing without their quarterback and their running back.
The Hawks offense under coach Joel Quenneville has always started with their defense getting involved, and without Keith it has stalled like a car with bad engine. While they have had some stand outs among the young defenseman called up in Keith’s absence, none of them are ready to carry the full burden of Keith’s role, and it has hurt the Hawks. Trevor van Riemsdyk has done an admirable job of picking up heavy minutes, and for the bulk of that time on the ice, he has been playing well above his experience level. TVR has shown great poise in the early stages of his career, and that should bode very well for the Hawks going forward. However, even van Riemsdyk has stated that no one player can replace a guy like Keith.
Unfortunately, TVR’s ability to step up when needed most hasn’t been quite enough to equate to a lot of wins right now. No matter how hard the defensive corps try, replacing a two-time Norris trophy, and a Conn Smythe winning defense man is not easy. Add to that the leadership void and the calming presence of Duncan Keith, and the Hawks are currently reeling with his loss. The good news is that he will be back, and there will still be plenty of time for a strong push towards a play-off berth, but with every loss the road ahead gets longer and the terrain a bit rougher.
For their part, Seabrook and Hjalmarsson have been pretty solid, but they have their own roles to fill on a nightly basis. Asking either of them to take on Keith’s role is not only impossible, but also leaves a different sort of void. The clear evidence of that came Friday night against the New Jersey Devils, when Hjlamarsson had an outlet pass picked off that would have been right in Keith’s wheelhouse. You can’t fault Hammer for trying, but the puck still ended up in the back of our net. There is no doubt that both of these d-men are highly skilled and deeply relied on by the team and the coaching staff, but even they can’t fill the void.
Erik Gustafsson has had his opportunities to fill a part of the void, and he has done so quite well at times, though his transition has not been as smooth as with van Riemsdyk. David Rundblad has been used sparingly, as it would seem that Q has more faith in TVR and Gustafsson, which they have earned. Rundblad has a solid offensive upside, but he has simply been caught mishandling the puck in his own end far too often for Q’s liking.
Who Stays, Who Goes
With the return of Keith imminent, there will be a few players on the outside looking in. Without a doubt, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and Trevor Daley are going to stick. But that leaves Rozsival, van Riemsdyk, Rundblad and Gustafsson to vie for the other two spots.
There is little concern for van Riemsdyk, he should easily hold on to one of those spots. Rozsival will likely have a shot at the other. Gustafsson has a two-way contract which means he will likely head back to Rockford. There, he can continue to play and build on his experience, as this should not be the last we see of him. That leaves Rundblad. He would have to pass waivers to return to Rockford, and unlike Bickell, his price tag could easily make him appealing to another team.
David Rundblad pinches in, but fails to keep the puck in the zone. Winnipeg’s Scheifele snaps one past Crawford and the Jets lead 3-1.
— Blackhawk Up (@Blackhawk_Up) October 30, 2015
He might not be ready for prime time in Chicago, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t worth some time for another team to develop him. Perhaps a team that has a little less on the line than the Hawks. However, it is unlikley the Hawks would be willing to let him go for nothing, so Rundblad will likely spend his time watching from the sidelines. Unless he becomes a piece of the trade puzzle that has been buzzing around the Hawks all season.
Only time will tell, but with Keith’s return everyone will breath a little easier. Perhaps the tension in the teams collective shoulders will look a little looser tonight, and maybe….just maybe that can help them get a pair wins before Keith returns. Whatever the outcome, Keith will be a welcome sight, whenever he makes his return.
Kristi is a long time hockey fan who grew up in, and around hockey rinks across the United States and Canada. A native Chicagoan, Loucks has always been an avid Blackhawks fan. Kristi also covers the Chicago Cubs and writes suspense thrillers, when not covering the Chicago Blackhawks. Follow Kristi on twitter @louckske