All those minutes were going to catch up to Duncan Keith eventually. Nobody's played more over the past few years than the Chicago Blackhawks' star defenseman. Nobody's played harder competition under coach Joel Quenneville. Even a cyborg needs his joints replaced and his oil changed every once in a while.
It goes without saying that this is a devastating development for the Blackhawks. The team's defense was already a work-in-progress even with one of the game's best playing 24 minutes a night, and now that playing time will be distributed down the depth chart. For the next few weeks, including the always difficult Circus Trip, Coach Q isn't going to have his usual workhorse to lean on.
Chicago has weathered brutal injuries before. The team was without Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane for weeks last season. The smart teams do their best to prepare for these situations. This one might be different, though.
You can't really replace Keith. He's not just Chicago's best defenseman, a weapon that can deployed at even strength or during a man advantage. He's also the team's stabilizing force. When the Blackhawks need someone to go above and beyond to settle things down on the blue line, they turn to Keith. His ability to play all three zones effectively and keep his feet moving in Q's system is unmatched. All that was magnified this year, too, due to the team's lack of depth.
That makes the next few weeks some dangerous, unknown territory. Keith has never missed more than eight games in a season. Assuming no setbacks, he could miss as many as 18 with this injury before returning.
This is the longest the Blackhawks have gone without Keith in the lineup since 2005. This group has had to go through a lot, but it was always with a healthy Keith playing 24-plus minutes a night. Now those minutes will go to Trevor Daley, David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey. It doesn't take much imagination to suggest how this might go.
Here's the Hawks defensive lines during Tuesday's practice:
|Trevor Daley||David Rundbald|
|Niklas Hjalmarsson||Trevor van Riemsdyk|
|Viktor Svedberg||Brent Seabrook|
Surely the Blackhawks are working behind the scenes to pour through their options. Maybe there's a trade to be made or a minor signing to stopgap the situation. Lubomir Visnovsky has been suggested as a possible addition after a decent showing with the team during training camp. Maybe this is finally Ville Pokka's time to shine.
Still, this is bad. Part of why the Hawks were always so good at weathering big injuries was the ability of someone like Keith to go above and beyond. Now he's the one that needs to be replaced, and that's pretty much going to be impossible. The next few weeks of Blackhawks hockey are going to be some of the most difficult in recent memory. Get well soon, Mr. Keith.