Monday, October 26, 2015

How Keith’s Injury Helps Blackhawks’ Chances to Repeat

By Louie Centanni

If you've stopped to read an NHL article with the World Series right around the corner and during the height of the NFL season, odds are you know that no team in the salary-cap era has ever repeated as Stanley Cup champions.

Not Niklas Lidstrom and his Red Wings.

Not Sidney Crosby and his Penguins.

Not Jonathan Quick and his Kings.

And, of course, not the current defending champions: the Chicago Blackhawks.

This is what made last week's announcement of all-world defenseman Duncan Keith's meniscus tear so newsworthy. He isn't the first blue-liner to miss 4-6 weeks with a knee injury, but he happens to be the defensive MVP of the team trying to accomplish a rather herculean feat. Another team's dreams of doubling-up dashed, right?

Some of you might remember Keith's seemingly impossible performance in the 2015 NHL playoffs. The part-human, part-cyborg Keith played roughly 1,000 minutes per game, levitated on occasion, and even served as the between-period Zamboni guy. It seemed like he never left the ice.

He was +16 with 21 points in the postseason, including the series-clinching goal in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Simply put, Chicago does not beat Tampa Bay without him.

So why is it that I think his injury helps the Blackhawks' chances to repeat? Walk with me.

During Chicago's first Cup win of this era, 2010, Keith played an integral part during the playoff run. Playing heavy minutes in 22 games, he finished a +2 on the ice, and a -6 in "teeth still in head." The lasting image of Keith hoisting the Cup with his empty-mouth smile is one that Blackhawk fans remember with great fondness.

He took his then-career-high 26:36 average time on ice (ATOI) and, without more than a week off, began training to win the Gold Medal in the 2010 Olympics with Team Canada. By the time Keith took a moment to sit down and take a breath, his NHL franchise came calling for the next season's training camp.

Unsurprisingly, Keith went from a Norris-Trophy-Stanley-Cup-Gold-Medal winning world-beater to another human playing defense. Granted, his coach kept his minutes up — setting an even higher ATOI record (26:53) in 2010-11. His +/- went into the negatives for the first time in his post-Kane/Toews career. His point total dropped by 40%. And before the season was over, the Blackhawks were eliminated in the first round of the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs.

The following season, his ATOI maxed out at 26:54 and, while his numbers began trending upward again, the Blackhawks were unable to get past the Phoenix Coyotes, suffering another first-round defeat.

Simply put, Keith's exhaustion made the Blackhawks far less formidable.

In 2012-13, with only half a season to play, Keith's energy came back at full force and we saw what happened: 24 straight games earning a point out of the gate, second Cup in four years by season's end.

My argument is simply that these 4-6 weeks on the bench will serve as a second offseason for one of the main "hearts" of this Blackhawks organization. When he returns, it will be a version of Keith much closer to the rested 2012-13 man than to the overwrought 2010-11 edition.

And the Blackhawks will not falter in the regular season too greatly without him. The team, built to last despite injuries to main players in recent years (remember, Patrick Kane missed almost 20% of the season last year), will likely hover around the 5/6 seed all year and do just enough to reach the postseason. Then they'll have Keith at 100%.

Some might argue that my theory is flawed because Keith didn't get much rest between 2013 and 2014 and was still effective. They might say other players have had similar experiences missing a bulk of the season and didn't return as dominant as they once were. This is true.

Lest we forget, though: Keith may not be merely mortal.

Fellow Blackhawk defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk recently tweeted that "no one man" could replace Keith. While he may have intended it to mean "no single person," I don't think it's a coincidence that it could just as easily be understood as "no human" could replace him.

And that's what the rest of the NHL will have to deal with when he returns: a rested, recharged, and rewired machine roaming the blue line for one of the NHL's best teams.

The Hawks might not repeat as champions, but Keith's injury may have just boosted their odds.

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