If there’s one player the Chicago Blackhawks couldn’t afford to be without this season, it was star defenseman Duncan Keith. But the Blackhawks’ worst nightmare came to pass Tuesday as the team announced Keith will miss 4-6 weeks following surgery to repair a meniscal tear in his right knee.
“Duncan underwent successful surgery today to repair his right knee meniscal tear,” Blackhawks team doctor Dr. Michael Terry said. “The surgery was successful and we expect him to return to full hockey activities in approximately 4-6 weeks.”
Keith’s importance to the Blackhawks is nearly immeasurable. The 32-year-old blueliner is coming off of an unanimous Conn Smythe Trophy win in the 2015 post-season and is the Blackhawks’ top-minute defenseman, a perennial all-star and a key contributor on both the penalty kill and power play. For Chicago, being without Keith is akin to the Ottawa Senators being without Erik Karlsson or the Los Angeles Kings being without Drew Doughty.
The timetable for Keith’s return could have a significant impact on the Blackhawks, too. With Keith going down for 4-6 weeks, he could miss anywhere from 12 games on the low end to 20 games should he be gone for the full six week period. Nearly a quarter of the season without their Norris Trophy-winning defenseman will mean the Blackhawks will need to figure out a way to clamp down on defense and do so in a hurry.
It’s not as if the Blackhawks have a favorable schedule over the next six weeks, either. While they’re without Keith, the Blackhawks will have a huge swing through the Pacific Division, including pairs of games against the Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. It’s near impossible to see an upside for the Blackhawks, but one fortunate thing is that Keith will only miss a total of five divisional games over the next six weeks. That includes a game against the Winnipeg Jets and two games against both the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues.
It’s been widely reported the Blackhawks have been in the hunt for a defenseman to shore up what has been a shaky third unit consisting of Trevor Daley and Trevor van Riemsdyk. Rookie blueliner Viktor Svedberg has taken a second-pairing spot ahead of Daley and van Riemsdyk, but it’ll be up to coach Joel Quenneville to decide whether he can continue to pair the rookie with Brent Seabrook with Keith out. No matter what Quenneville decides, though, the injury to Keith will almost certainly intensify Chicago GM Stan Bowman’s search for a rearguard to shore up the back end.
The Blackhawks do have defensemen David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey as potential fill-in options, but it’s clear Quenneville’s confidence in his spare defenders isn’t high, especially as Svedberg continues to get reps over Rundblad. As for Cumiskey, the 28-year-old got seven games of action with the Blackhawks in 2014-15 but was relied upon as an injury replacement for Michal Rozsival during the post-season. That could bode well for Cumiskey’s chances to fill in with Keith out.
Of course, veteran Rozsival, who signed a one-year, $600,000 deal to remain a Blackhawk, could be an option once he returns from injury, but he’s still battling his way back from a horrific ankle injury suffered in the playoffs. He skated with the team Saturday, but is still week away from returning.
It's possible that Quenneville’s trust in Svedberg could open the door for another of Chicago’s AHL defensemen to make the jump, though. Two interesting options are Erik Gustafsson and Ville Pokka. Gustafsson, 23, spent the past two seasons playing in Sweden’s SHL and is coming off of a four-goal, 29-point 2014-15 season. Pokka, 21, was the key piece the Blackhawks got in return from the New York Islanders in the Nick Leddy trade. At 6-feet, 214 pounds, Pokka has a good size frame and has shown he can contribute in the Blackhawks’ system, scoring eight goals and 30 points in AHL Rockford in 2014-15.
Regardless of who steps onto the Blackhawks blueline or who Bowman acquires in the meantime, there will be no replacing Keith. He has scored 40 points in each of his past six full seasons and only Doughty and Ryan Suter have averaged more ice time than Keith over the past five campaigns. The Blackhawks may simply need to tread water until Keith returns. If they can’t, the defending Stanley Cup champions are going to have an awfully tough time making the post-season.