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Analysis: Blackhawks will go patchwork without Keith

by Dan Rosen / Chicago Blackhawks

Losing defenseman Duncan Keith for an extended period of time does not mean the Chicago Blackhawks season is ruined, but dealing with the absence of the two-time Norris Trophy winner and reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner will test them in a way that is new.

Keith will miss at least 4-6 weeks while recovering from surgery he had to repair a right knee meniscal tear, the Blackhawks announced Tuesday. If Keith misses six weeks he'll miss 18 games minimum. He's in his 11th NHL season and has missed only 20 games total.

For as good as captain Jonathan Toews is and as important as he is to the Blackhawks, it can be argued that nobody on the roster is as important as Keith because of the lack of depth Chicago has on the blue line and for the role he plays as a top defenseman who does everything at an elite level.

It'll be laughable to read or hear someone say that David Rundblad is replacing Keith in the lineup for the Blackhawks game Thursday against the Florida Panthers, because nobody in Chicago and maybe only a handful of players in the entire NHL could actually be considered legitimate replacements for Keith.

Rundblad might get the opportunity to play instead of Keith, but that's about it. The Blackhawks can't replace Keith with anybody in the organization or, frankly, with anybody they might consider acquiring in a trade.

There aren't many defensemen in the NHL who can play 25 or more minutes in each game, in all situations, at an elite level.

What the Blackhawks can do instead is go patchwork style and hope it works so they can stay afloat in the Western Conference race until Keith returns and starts dominating again.

To go patchwork style, the Blackhawks will need defensemen Trevor Daley and Trevor van Riemsdyk to step out of their comfort zones and try to make a bigger impact in every game.

The Blackhawks already lean heavily on Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson, who can withstand the weight of some more pressure on top of them with Keith out. They'll be fine.

It's too much to ask of Viktor Svedberg and whoever serves as the No. 6 defenseman (Rundblad is the best option now; Ville Pokka and Kyle Cumiskey are possibilities soon) to play outside of their comfort zones. There just isn't enough experience or ability there for them to try to do more than they're capable of doing without risking harm.

Coach Joel Quenneville will likely shelter them by keeping Svedberg with Seabrook and pairing Rundblad with Hjalmarsson.

Daley and van Riemsdyk won't be sheltered. They will have to do more.

That means Daley can't keep talking about trying to adjust to the new system he's playing in Chicago; he has to play it and be good in it.

Daley has to move the puck better out of the defensive zone. He has to skate better. He has to join the attack more. He needs to create from the back end because so much of what Chicago does is predicated on its ability to generate speed and possession from the back end.

That's Keith's bread and butter. The Blackhawks won't have him so they'll have to improvise. They need Daley to be a part of it. He set career highs with 16 goals and 38 points last season with the Dallas Stars. He can do more.

So can van Riemsdyk, although his experience is still lacking. Regardless, van Riemsdyk can't be timid or think of himself as a player who has to give the Blackhawks a few good minutes so Keith, Seabrook and Hjalmarsson can catch their breath.

The Blackhawks signed van Riemsdyk to a two-year contract extension during the offseason, a one-way contract in fact, because they feel he has more to offer. He doesn't have to change his defensive-minded approach, but he needs to be firmer with his decisions and embrace a bigger role.

It's possible at some point soon, perhaps by the end of October or in early November, that Michal Rozsival will be ready to come off long-term injured reserve. Rozsival is a veteran player who is still serviceable, but he'd basically be the replacement for Rundblad, not Keith. He's also coming off a serious ankle injury and mobility might be an issue for the 37-year-old.

The timeframe for Keith's return means Chicago could put him on LTIR and thus exceed the $71.4 million salary cap, creating the opportunity to look outside the organization at either an unrestricted free agent or a trade.

Chicago had veteran defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky in training camp on a professional tryout contract before releasing him on Sept. 28. Visnovsky is a lefty like Keith who is known for his ability to move the puck and join the attack.

Although he has a history of concussions and he's 39, Visnovsky proved last season he could still play. He had 20 points in 53 games with the New York Islanders.

Jan Hejda is another lefty who was with Chicago in training camp on a PTO until Sept. 26. He's also an unrestricted free agent. Hejda, however, doesn't have the same skillset as Visnovsky, who more closely resembles Keith.

Regardless of what the Blackhawks decide to do with the open spot, Daley and van Riemsdyk remain keys to them staying above water while Keith out.

If Chicago is able hang in the race without Keith, don't be surprised if come January and February stories start to surface about how this injury was a blessing in disguise for the defenseman and the Blackhawks.

Keith, remember, played 715:37 in 23 playoff games this past spring, an average of 31:06 of ice time per game. Getting six weeks off early in the season should help him refuel his body for another run at the Stanley Cup next spring, provided the opportunity exists, of course.

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