CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks will be without top defenseman Duncan Keith for an estimated 4-6 weeks after he had surgery Tuesday to repair a meniscal tear in his right knee, according to Blackhawks head physician Dr. Michael Terry.
The defending Stanley Cup champions will have to replace not only Keith's speed and stamina, but leadership and elite skills in all zones. Keith plays in all situations and logged the most minutes of any player in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs (715:37). Since his rookie season in 2005-06, Keith's 19,544:17 played in 11 regular seasons is second only to St. Louis Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester (19,991:05) among active players.
"[He] kind of always exceeds expectations," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said after practice Tuesday. "I think in this case, at a certain point, something's got to give. He's been playing his tail off for three years in a row, more ice time than anybody. Sometimes things happen. But for our team, we've played without some of our top players before. We've got to find ways to do it again."
Analysis: Blackhawks will survive
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.
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Toews, right wing Patrick Kane and forward Patrick Sharp each missed long stretches during the past three seasons. Each time, Chicago had enough talent to weather the storm. That appears to be the plan this time, even though this presents different challenges.
"With [Kane's injury] you [missed] a big chunk of your offense," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "With [Keith], it’s almost like you miss both parts of your game. So I don't think you want to overemphasize one area. I think we're going to have to be strong in our total team game."
Quenneville said before thinking about prospects who might be ready to play in the NHL he will first look to the defensemen on the active roster. He called upon the forwards to be more vigilant helping in the defensive zone, and that sentiment was echoed by Toews and right wing Marian Hossa.
"The system is still the same," said Hossa, one of the NHL's best two-way forwards. "Nothing changed there, but definitely younger guys are going to have more responsibilities [on defense], and forwards, we need to help those guys better, coming back and help them out in our zone."
Subtracting Keith from the mix creates a big hole.
Chicago is already playing without veteran defenseman Michal Rozsival, who's on long-term injured reserve recovering from a left ankle fracture, and has rookies Trevor van Riemsdyk and Viktor Svedberg in the playing mix.
Trevor Daley, a veteran, was acquired from the Dallas Stars in an offseason trade for Sharp and is getting familiar with all the facets of Quenneville's defensive system. David Rundblad, 25, has played 105 NHL games in parts of five seasons.
Without Keith, the Blackhawks will have four active defensemen who played at least a game in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Rundblad and van Riemsdyk, however, didn't play much when active. Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson did, playing key roles as two of Chicago's top four defensemen who soaked up about 90 percent of the ice time available. Keith and Johnny Oduya were the other two, and Oduya signed with the Stars as a free agent in the offseason.
"It's a big opportunity for me to be playing," said Rundblad, who's been scratched the past five games. "It's been tough not playing these last games, so I'm excited for this opportunity. It's never fun to see a teammate get hurt, but I've just got to do with the situation and just play my best."
Quenneville gave an idea of what his defense pairings will look like when the Blackhawks play the Florida Panthers on Thursday at United Center.
Seabrook will remain paired with Svedberg, who plays the left point. Rundblad will play with Hjalmarsson, with Hjalmarsson switching from the right point to the left. Daley and van Riemsdyk will remain together.
As for other options, it's unclear whether the Blackhawks will recall a defenseman from Rockford of the American Hockey League, place Keith on LTIR in order to sign a free agent, or just ride it out with what they've got.
Chicago signed Kyle Cumiskey, 28, to a one-year contract last week, and he saw time for the Blackhawks in last season's Cup Final. After clearing waivers, Cumiskey was assigned to Rockford. Quenneville said Cumiskey isn't ready to play yet while recovering from a lower-body injury that caused him to miss the preseason and start of the regular season.
Rozsival is expected to be ready for action sometime around the date he's eligible to come off LTIR (Oct. 30 against the Minnesota Wild), but that isn't a guarantee he'll be ready.
If Keith is placed on LTIR, it will grant the Blackhawks an additional $5.54 million in relief against the NHL salary cap, but it's unclear whether they will look to the outside for temporary help. General manager Stan Bowman didn't meet with reporters Tuesday.
"There's no doubt we're aware of the void that [Keith] leaves if he gets hurt," Toews said. "But it's a challenge for everyone in our room, defense or forwards or even goaltenders, to step up and try to play better without him. There's not one area of the rink that [Keith] doesn't cover. It is a collective effort and we all need to try to step up for everything that he brings to our team on a daily basis."
It's a tall order, but the Blackhawks are banking on the bigger picture.
"He played the most minutes [out of] everybody the last few years, and definitely, somehow it's going show on his body," Hossa said. "So it's better to repair something like that in the beginning of the season and miss a few weeks, five or six weeks, or whatever it is, and then be ready for the middle and end run for the playoffs."