There’s little doubt about which player will play the most minutes for the Blackhawks in the 2017 playoffs. That will be No. 1 defenseman Duncan Keith, who regularly logs the highest minute totals for the team, especially once the postseason rolls around.
The past two years, Keith has seen his per-game minutes increase from around 25 in the regular season to over 31 in the playoffs. That’s about as many minutes as one NHL player can conceivably play, and the Blackhawks have not shied away from pushing their star blue liner to the limit in the pursuit of Stanley Cups.
Part of why the Blackhawks can get away with that is Keith’s unparalleled durability. He’s gotten various minor injuries here and there, but in the playoffs, Keith has always played as many minutes as the Blackhawks needed. During series against the Blues last year, he averaged 31:28 per game.
But with the 2017 Blackhawks boasting their deepest set of defensemen in years, will they need to push Keith so hard again?
That’s one of the big questions for coach Joel Quenneville entering the first-round playoff series against the Predators. We know he’ll lean heavily on Keith in all situations, but with the team actually rolling three proper pairs this season, maybe this is a chance to ease off the pedal a bit and push some responsibility on other players.
Compare the Blackhawks’ third pairings from 2015 and 2016 to the current one of Brian Campbell and Trevor van Riemsdyk. Two years ago, the Hawks were rotating an on-his-last-legs Kimmo Timonen, Michal Rozsival, David Rundblad, and Kyle Cumiskey in those spots during the playoffs. Last year, TVR was in the top four and Rozsival, Rundblad, Erik Gustafsson, and Viktor Svedberg filled the remaining gaps.
Seeing those options, it’s not hard to explain why Keith played so much the past two playoffs. The Blackhawks didn’t really have another choice unless they wanted guys like Rozsival and Rundblad playing big roles in a Stanley Cup run. Clearly, they did not, because Keith was playing more than half of each game.
But now those options are Campbell, a reliable veteran with Cup experience, and van Riemsdyk, who has come into his own in a smaller role. Unlike the past couple years, it stands to reason that Quenneville will actually want to use this pairing with some regularity in the playoffs.
That theoretically should mean less work for Keith and the other top-four defensemen, which ideally would keep them fresher for those potential multi-overtime games and a long playoff run. In the 2013 and 2014 playoff runs, Keith averaged closer to 28 minutes per game, so maybe that’s the benchmark Quenneville will shoot for after the defenseman averaged 25:37 per game in the regular season.
If the Blackhawks need more from Keith, he’ll surely be ready. But for the first time in a few years, they may not need to grind Keith down to a pulp, and hopefully that should have benefits for everyone involved.