The initial reaction to Michal Rozsival’s injury – after the cringe-inducing images were shared and the speculation was over about what he broke, twisted, tore and/or ruptured – was that, well, at least it wasn’t Duncan Keith or Brent Seabrook. That would have really been a fatal blow to the Chicago Blackhawks chances.
Judging solely by coach Joel Quenneville saying the injury, “doesn’t look good,” for Rozsival means he is done for the playoffs. Notorious for keeping injury news under wraps, that Quenneville went so far as to say that something doesn’t look good means it really doesn’t look good. And as much as it may seem like Rozsival isn’t integral to the Blackhawks lineup, it can’t be understated just how much of a bind this could put Chicago in.
First, the facts: this post-season, Rozsival has been the Blackhawks clear number five defenseman, has just one point and isn’t exactly taking the tough minutes on a regular basis. That said, he’s still logging nearly 17:30 in ice time per game, has been steady and allows Quenneville to give his top four a break. It’s in that last point that the problem arises.
Through the playoffs so far, Keith is averaging 30:37 per game. Niklas Hjalmarsson is second on the Blackhawks blueline skating 24:39 per outing. Then comes Johnny Oduya at 24:29 and then, finally, Seabrook at 24:02. Rozsival wasn’t used to give Keith a break – in fact, of the 174-plus minutes Rozsival has skated in the post-season, more than 135 have been alongside Keith – but he was letting Quenneville rest Hjalmarsson, who logs big minutes on the penalty kill, and Seabrook, who works the power play.
Now, without Rozsival, Quenneville will have to call on one of four players: Kimmo Timonen, Kyle Cumiskey, David Rundblad or Michael Paliotta. Of the four, Cumiskey averaged the highest ice time during the regular season, Rundblad saw the most games, Timonen is the 40-year-old veteran and Paliotta is the most inexperienced.
The issue lies in finding someone who is a suitable replacement for Rozsival, though – someone who can be a stay-at-home defender and reliable partner to Keith when Hjalmarsson and Seabrook are taking shifts off. In Cumiskey, Runblad and, in what little time he’s played, Paliotta, the Blackhawks have three mobile defensemen who might be able to fit in that spot. Truthfully, however, Paliotta stands little to no chance of slotting into the lineup. He has played 12:45 of NHL hockey and Quenneville isn’t necessarily the kind of coach to throw a rookie into the fire like that.
As for Timonen, he’s played in every post-season contest so far but has averaged fewer than 10 minutes per game and eclipsed the 10-minute mark just once in the second-round series against Minnesota. That’s likely the role he will continue in.
What it will come down to is which defenseman – Rundblad or Cumiskey – can line up with Keith.
This season, Rundblad skated 581:11 at 5-on-5. Nearly 200 of those minutes were with Keith, while Oduya was the next highest healthy defense partner at roughly 50 minutes. As for Cumiskey, of his 84:33 time at even strength, 66:40 was alongside Seabrook.
While many look at the Blackhawks’ offense as its greatest strength, the argument is there that Chicago is worse off losing Rozsival than they would be had, say, Patrick Sharp gone down with injury. They played the entire second-round series without the services of Kris Versteeg and were absolutely no worse for wear. When depth forwards go down, there’s always someone to step up. When a depth defenseman goes down, the Blackhawks lineup gets thinner.
Keith has been near superhuman for the past several years of his career, taking on minutes the likes of which only Ryan Suter can understand. In the Western Conference final, there’s little doubt he’ll see those big minutes again and if Quenneville can’t trust Rozsival’s replacement, then he’ll have to make due with a four-defenseman system.