Blackhawks

Blackhawks: Keith caps off historic postseason with Conn Smythe

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Blackhawks: Keith caps off historic postseason with Conn Smythe

Brent Seabrook barely waited for the question to finish before giving his answer. It was about his longtime defensive partner Duncan Keith, so it was easy.

“Unbelievable,” Seabrook said of Keith this postseason. “He’s been unbelievable for a long time and what he did this playoffs was amazing. He got a huge goal tonight to get us started and he’s just an amazing player.”

Indeed, Keith capped a tremendous playoff run by winning the Conn Smythe Trophy for the most valuable player of the postseason. Keith, who scored what ended up being the game-winning goal in the second period, played a ton of minutes. He kept saying he wasn’t tired, and he wasn’t kidding. Maybe he lied, but he wasn’t showing the fatigue. And after playing an incredible 700 minutes, Keith still had energy to hoist the Conn Smythe as well as that Stanley Cup, the latter for the third time in his career, after the Blackhawks' 2-0 Game 6 victory.

“It’s been really special,” Keith said of these winning seasons. “Obviously, you play with the same guys for a long time and you develop a bond and then when you can win a championship, it just reinforces that. To be able to do it three times we’re all proud of it. We all talked about what it would be like and like I said,we’re just super proud to be part of a group like this.”

As much as Keith always preaches the team-first mentality, he needs to take a heap of credit for himself. When Michal Rozsival went down with a fractured ankle at the end of the second round, Keith and his fellow top defensemen – Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya and Seabrook – knew they’d have to play the extra minutes. Keith constantly played more minutes and constantly deflected the “are you tired” questions. His stamina surprised many, including some of his newer teammates.

“No one more deserving,” Brad Richards said. “Right from the first game against Nashville, I saw a different level of hockey that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen on my team. Just how [he] kept doing it and never showed any signs of fatigue. He’s probably the best player I’ve ever seen live. It was unbelievable what he did out there."

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Those sentiments were echoed by Jonathan Toews, who added “it’s about time” Keith got an individual NHL accolade.

“We all know he’s going to go down as one of the great players to play the game,” Toews said. “In our room we knew that before the playoffs but he keeps proving it time and time again. So I couldn’t be happier for a guy like that. It’s really incredible.”

The Blackhawks got here with a team effort but Keith led the charge. From start to finish, he was the team’s most consistent player. Those minutes apparently didn’t tire him out after all. Still, the chance to relax now isn’t sounding too bad.

“It’s a lot of feelings of happiness obviously but there’s some belief we got the job done,” Keith said. “We can take a breath now.”

Blackhawks and Blue Jackets both going through own challenges of Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad trade

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks and Blue Jackets both going through own challenges of Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad trade

The Blackhawks and Blue Jackets blockbuster trade from the 2017 offseason is always a hot topic in Chicago when things aren't going great. It especially is when the two teams square off against each other, like Saturday at Nationwide Arena for the first time this season.

If it wasn't already apparent in Chicago, Artemi Panarin has emerged as a real NHL superstar and is set for a giant payday when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2019. He set a Blue Jackets record with 82 points in a single season and has nine points (three goals, six assists) through six games this season.

Brandon Saad, on the other hand, had a challenging first year back with the Blackhawks in 2017-18 after netting only 35 points in 82 games and is off to a slow start this year as well with zero goals and two assists through six games. After a demotion to the fourth line, he was close to being a healthy scratch on Thursday, which only magnifies where things are at as the two get ready to clash.

But Saad was never going to be able to replace Panarin's offensive production. Everybody knows that. Yet, the offensive comparisons will always be there as a barometer and that's something Saad doesn't think about, no matter how much fans talk about it.

"I don't think I do it," he said. "We're different players. He's a great player. Fans are going to do whatever comparisons they want, but at the end of the day you've got to be true to yourself and do what you bring to the table. He's a great player around the league. You can see his highlights and his goals, he's definitely a special player. But at the end of the day I've got confidence in my abilities too. We both bring different attributes, but they're going to make comparisons regardless."

A big reason why the Blackhawks reacquired Saad, other than his ability to play a 200-foot game, is because he carries a $6 million cap hit through 2020-21, which is two years more than Panarin at the same cap hit. (It's also important to note that the Blackhawks hoped they were getting a reliable, young backup goaltender in Anton Forsberg, but the injury to Corey Crawford thrust him into a role he wasn't exactly prepared for.)

It's not all rainbows for Columbus right now regarding where things stand with Panarin, who has made it clear he's not ready to sign a long-term extension. All signs point to the 26-year-old winger hitting the market, putting the Blue Jackets in a tricky situation ahead of the trade deadline. The Blackhawks very well could have found themselves in this position, too, had a deal not been made.

Both sides are dealing with their own challenges of the trade. Saad is still a key piece to the Blackhawks' puzzle and they're hoping to get more out of him, for no other reason than the team's overall success.

"You want to have success regardless of who you're playing for, who you're traded for, things like that," Saad said. "Naturally, just as competitors, you want to bring that excitement and you want to have success with the team and personally."

Anthony Duclair regrets not making most of opportunity with Blackhawks

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USA TODAY

Anthony Duclair regrets not making most of opportunity with Blackhawks

Anthony Duclair knew what kind of opportunity he had in front of him when he was traded to the Blackhawks in January. The first day he stepped into the locker room, he admitted he was a little "star-struck."

But the marriage didn't last very long. 

After recording only two goals and eight assists in 23 games, the Blackhawks chose to move on from the restricted free agent by not extending a qualifying offer. Duclair later latched on with the Columbus Blue Jackets on a one-year, $650,000 "prove-it" deal.

"I wasn't surprised," Duclair said before Saturday's game against his former team. "I knew that I didn't perform as well as I did when I was there. I think I was there for only 20 games and didn't live up to the standards. As soon as I didn't hear anything from my agent I sort of got the message. But it was time to move on."

Duclair made no excuses for what went wrong in Chicago and accepted responsibility for not taking advantage of his opportunity, even though a leg injury sidelined him for the final month that prevented him from giving the Blackhawks a larger sample size.

"I just didn't perform well," he said. "It's going to be one of my regrets, to get that opportunity in Chicago and not perform in the way I did. It was something I had to look in the mirror this summer and move on obviously, but at the same time whenever a team comes next I think I'm going to take that opportunity and run away with it."

It's obvious that Duclair's got the potential to be an effective offensive player in the NHL. But we've only seen that in flashes, which is a large reason why it didn't work out in Chicago and why, entering his fifth season in the league, he still finds himself trying to play for a long-term contract.

"Just being more consistent," Duclair said. "Thats comes up a lot and my agents talks to a couple GMs around the league and it's something I'm trying to work on. It's not something you can work on in the summer, it's more preparing mentally and physically and that's what I've been trying to do."

So far, so good in Columbus.

Duclair has two goals and two assists through six games and is averaging 15:22 of ice time playing in a top-six role, on track to shatter his previous career high in that category (14:23) when he did so as a sophomore in 2015-16 with Arizona. He even made headlines on Thursday after scoring a highlight-reel goal against the Philadelphia Flyers, saying his "phone blew up quite a bit."

How he scored it is what stood out and his perspective after it is encouraging for his overall growth, as well.

"I've already put it behind me to be honest with you," Duclair said. "I'm just focused on Chicago now. I want to be consistent throughout every shift. Look at that goal, [it was] second and third efforts. That's what I want to bring to the table every shift, especially with the guys I'm playing right now. I just want to be having the puck whenever you can and being big on the forecheck."