We’ve Been Here Before
Last February, the Blackhawks looked down the barrel of a worst case scenario. Patrick Kane had gone down. The team, the city, anyone who called themselves a fan held their breath, and braced for a long road to the playoffs. All they had to do was overcome this latest obstacle. They did.
That was nothing. Today the Hawks have revealed that Duncan Keith has had surgery to repair a meniscus tear. He will miss 4-6 weeks, the longest break in Keith’s 11 year career. Obviously, it is still early in the season, so there is no reason to panic, yet. The wheels are only temporarily off the cart, but an injury to Keith is still a worst case scenario, and it remains to be seen how it will be dealt with.
If Duncan Keith returns, say, after the circus trip, he’d miss 18 games, 14 of them against Western Conference teams.#Blackhawks
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) October 20, 2015
Keith’s injury comes on the back of an already thin defense. Michal Rosival is currently on the long-term injured reserve (LTIR). Kyle Cumiskey was recently signed, but he is also starting the season injured. What’s left is a trio of veteran defensemen in Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Trevor Daley. Then, they go down a line of young players. Trevor van Riemsdyk has proven his worth to the team. He is not as steady as the veterans, but he has gained coach Joel Quenneville’s trust, and the teams. Viktor Svedberg is the latest, and largest defense man to catch the Hawks eye at 6’8”. He is likely to stick around, as he has been an early surprise, who is far more agile than his size would indicate. Both van Riemsdyk and Svedberg will get some extra minutes in Keith’s absence. However, that top trio will undoubtedly carry the lions share of the 25+ minutes that Keith ate up every night. While his minutes will be divvied up, it remains to be seen who will come up with the big moments in the clutch, until he returns.
The Carousel Has Only Just Begun
After that, it gets a bit dicey. David Rundblad is the next call up, but he’s prone to mistakes in his own end. His offense is a bright spot, but it lurks in the shadows cast by defensive shortcomings. From there the Hawks venture into territory that makes coach Q a bit uncomfortable. The young blue liners with little, to no NHL experience. Ville Pokka will certainly see some time, as he has already come up this season. However, the bottom pairing on the defense is likely going to be filled by committee. It’s probable that Hawks fans will get their first taste of Erik Gustafsson, at some point. A highlight, considering he has been the defensive, heir apparent to Teuvo Teravainen in the eyes of Stan Bowman, and we all know how well that turned out. If Gustafsson is half as good in the early goings, any experience gained on the NHL level should be a preview of a Blackhawks future defensive staple. The reality is, Keith going down for any length of time is the nuclear option, they don’t say ‘Chicago Runs On Duncan’ for nothing. He is the engine that drives this team, and Seabrook will undoubtedly have to step up and earn every penny of his huge extension, in Keith’s stead. While the carousel of defenseman has just begun, it is highly likely that the Blackhawks will opt to place Duncan Keith on LTIR, freeing up cap space to sign someone like Lubomir Visnovsky, or Jan Hedja. Both players joined the Hawks in training camp, but failed to make the roster, due in large part to cap constraints.
Say It Isn’t So
They could also make a trade, possibly putting someone like Andrew Shaw on the block. The Hawks inability to unload Bryan Bickell will almost certainly cause a move that is less than popular, with Shaw being one of the most valuable assets they have available. The fact that Shaw has a contract year looming, with very little money to pay him if they hope to lock up Marcus Kruger long-term, will only add fuel to this scenario. And this scenario is absolutely going to be a most unpopular option in the eyes of Hawks fans.
For now, all we can do is wait for the other shoe to drop. The Hawks could choose to wait this one out, and give the prospects a chance to show their worth. After all, it is still very early in the season. However, the Blackhawks are rarely a team that will sit on their hands in the face of adversity. Quenneville has a very short leash with young players, and an even shorter leash when it comes to defensive errors. The young guns play this weekend will likely dictate just how aggressive the Blackhawks get on the trade market.
Whatever the Hawks do, no matter how unpopular it may seem, Stan Bowman has certainly earned the faith of his team, and their fans. Missteps have been rare in his tenure as General Manager, and he has always managed to find that diamond in the rough with his back against the proverbial wall. It is time for Bowman to do his work, and for the fans to brace for whatever fall out is to come.
For now, December seems a long ways off, but Keith will undoubtedly leverage his outstanding conditioning to return to his team as quickly as possible. The road to the playoffs is fortunately a long one, and the Hawks are far from out of the race, even without Duncan Keith.