Duncan Keith

Our Line Starts podcast: Can Ovechkin catch Gretzky?; Merzlikins’ hot streak

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Kathryn Tappen, Keith Jones and Ben Lovejoy analyze Alex Ovechkin’s hot streak; can he catch Wayne Gretzky on the all-time goals list? They react to Patrick Kane’s 1000th point, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith fighting each other, as well as Elvis Merzlikins leading Columbus’ recent run of success. Plus, Pierre McGuire interviews Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold, who talks about his favorite memory with the team, and the lessons learned from the 2017 expansion draft.

0:00-1:34 Intros
1:34-10:15 Ovi’s recent hot streak; Caps favorites in East?
10:15-20:36 Kane’s 1,000th point; Blackhawks fighting for playoffs
20:36-38:00 Pierre interviews Craig Leipold
40:05-end Elvis Merzlikins fueling Blue Jackets’ hot streak

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

Quenneville returns to Chicago with Florida Panthers

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CHICAGO — In some Chicago circles, certainly every one that includes a hockey rink, it’s just “Q.” Only one letter is necessary for a man so revered there is a Twitter account for his mustache with more than 40,000 followers.

Q returns Tuesday night.

Joel Quenneville leads the Florida Panthers into Chicago to take on the streaking Blackhawks for the first time since his wildly successful run in the Windy City ended some 14 months ago.

The 61-year-old Quenneville coached the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cup championships and nine playoff appearances in 10-plus years before he was fired when the team got off to a lackluster start last season. He was hired by the Panthers in April, setting up what almost certainly will be an emotional night for the coach and his former players.

“He’s like an icon in Chicago, whether it’s him winning three Stanley Cups, coming in and helping us become better players,” Blackhawks star Patrick Kane said. “What he’s done here in his career is amazing, he’ll get a warm reception and it’ll be good to see him. We’ll try to get a win against him and enjoy the time.”

Quenneville coaching against his former team is the big headline, but it’s also a matchup of two surging teams hoping to carry their momentum into an extended break. Kane got his 1,000th career point when Chicago beat Winnipeg 5-2 on Sunday night for its season-high fifth consecutive victory. Florida earned its season-best fifth straight win Monday night, topping Minnesota 5-4 on Noel Acciari‘s goal with 5.6 seconds left.

“Going into the break, so it will be an important game for both teams,” Quenneville said. “It will be fun being back there, for sure. Looking forward to it.”

Chicago had made just one playoff appearance in 10 years when Quenneville took over four games into the 2008-09 season, replacing Hall of Famer Denis Savard. Dale Tallon was the general manager for the Blackhawks at the time, and he hired Quenneville again with the Panthers.

The coaching change in Chicago sparked an unprecedented run for one of the NHL’s Original Six franchises.

Quenneville was the right choice at the right time for Chicago’s promising young core, and Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook blossomed with the former NHL defenseman behind the bench. The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015, and they also reached the conference finals in 2009 and 2014.

“Well, all great memories. There’s been special years there,” Quenneville said. “You think of all the people that you got acquainted with; the staff, management, players, training staff, everybody you had some great memories with and some great times. The fans were always special as well. It will be fun to be back in the building.”

Quenneville has Florida in contention for its first postseason berth since 2016. Keith Yandle had a goal and three assists in the victory over the Wild, and Jonathan Huberdeau is heading to the All-Star Game for the first time.

When Quenneville was fired by Chicago, Jeremy Colliton was promoted from the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate in Rockford to the top job. Colliton has been booed before some home games this season, but he sounds as if he is looking forward to the cheers for Quenneville.

“It’s a chance to honor Joel. It’s a big night for the organization,” Colliton said after the victory over the Jets. “He was great to me, so I want to honor him too. It’s a big part of the reason why I came here to begin with, because he was here.”

Blackhawks have some big goaltending questions to answer

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Robin Lehner was one of the many offseason additions for the Chicago Blackhawks this past summer, and probably the only one that has actually worked as expected.

After helping guide the New York Islanders to a surprising playoff berth a year ago, a performance that saw him finish the season as a Vezina Trophy finalist, Lehner signed a bargain one-year, $5 million contract with a Blackhawks team that was still trying to squeeze something out of its aging championship core.

Halfway through the season Lehner has been everything the Blackhawks could have hoped for him to be and has been one of the few bright spots for a team that still can’t stop anybody defensively.

He enter’s Saturday’s game with a .922 save percentage and is one of the biggest reasons the team is still reasonably competitive given the state of its defense. Along with his individual numbers, the Blackhawks have a .608 points percentage when he starts (99-point pace over 82 games) and a .363 mark when he doesn’t.

He is also eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season, which could cause some headaches for the Blackhawks.

1. Lehner wants his fair value

Lehner talked about his contract situation a little on Friday (via NHL.com), and while he made it very clear he would like to return to Chicago, he also made it clear he would like to get what he considers to be fair value on his next contract. He also wants a long-term home instead of signing another one-year deal.

His play the past two seasons makes it clear he has earned both.

Since the start of the 2018-19 season his .927 all situations save percentage is second in the NHL behind only Dallas’ Ben Bishop. His .930 mark at even-strength is fifth best. The only season out of the past five where he didn’t produce like a No. 1 goalie was the 2017-18 season in Buffalo when he played behind a Sabres team that was one of the league’s worst. By every objective measure he is a top-shelf goalie and at age 28 should still have some strong seasons ahead of him.

Complicating matters for the Blackhawks is their other goalie, Corey Crawford, is also playing out the final year of his contract.

2. Lehner should be the Blackhawks’ priority

For as great as Crawford has been for the Blackhawks, helping the team win two Stanley Cups, it is pretty clear that Lehner is the best option at the moment has to be the priority if winning is still the priority.

He has not only outperformed Crawford this season (and has for two years now), he is also seven years younger.

Bowman has always been extremely loyal to players he has won with (even re-acquiring several that won in Chicago after losing them in cap-related transactions), but that has also played a role in the team’s rapid decline into mediocrity the past three years.

At some point you have to turn the page, and for as much as Crawford has meant to the Blackhawks, if it comes down to an either/or situation the only sensible choice is Lehner. He is also probably the best option that will be available to them this summer.

Washington’s Braden Holtby is the other big-name goalie that could be available, but he seems to be a shell of his former Vezina Trophy self, while the early returns on Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida should make every team wary of giving out a massive contract to a soon-to-be 31-year-old goalie.

None of the other potential free agents (Jacob Markstrom, Jimmy Howard, Craig Anderson) can match up with Lehner.

He is the best option no matter where you look.

3. The other factors

And by other, we mean everything from the salary cap ramifications, to what exactly the short-term direction is for the Blackhawks and where Lehner might fit in.

Bowman added a ton of future money to the organization this past summer, and when combined with the mega-contracts that belong to Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith at the top of the lineup the salary cap is always going to be an issue. They could get some relief if they move Brandon Saad or another veteran or two.

But even if they do, is there enough space to fit in a long-term deal for Lehner and still make the necessary additions around him to make the team better?

Barring a drastic second-half turnaround, the Blackhawks are on the verge of a third consecutive non-playoff season and still have holes all over the lineup. The defense is again one of the worst in the league, the forward depth is lacking after Kane, while he, Toews, and Duncan Keith are going to be another year into their 30s next season.

The Blackhawks tried to stay in “win-now” mode this past summer and hoped a few tweaks could fix it. That has not been the case.

Even if they find a way to keep Lehner, they still have a lot of problems to fix to make the team competitive.

If he goes, it simply adds another problem and takes away one of the few remaining strengths the team still has.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

Blackhawks old and new lead rally to beat Red Wings

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January might seem a little early for “must-win” games, but the Chicago Blackhawks cannot afford to fall to lesser opponents. The Detroit Red Wings managed a 2-0 lead on Sunday, yet Chicago rallied to win 4-2.

Kane delivers as usual for the Blackhawks

Hyping up Red Wings – Blackhawks as a battle of two teams trying to build for the future makes sense.

Sure, Patrick Kane leads the way for Chicago. Kane remains far-and-away the driving force of the Blackhawks’ offense, generating his 54th point of the season when he assisted on the first goal of Dylan Sikura‘s NHL career:

But as dominant as Kane is in the present, youngsters drove both sides’ successes.

Red Wings, Blackhawks can look on bright spots for future

First, Filip Zadina scored the 1-0 power-play goal. The sixth pick of the 2018 NHL Draft — who many picked to go fourth or even third instead — stumbled a bit during his development, including dealing with injuries. Shots like that goal remind that he has plenty of time to succeed, and Zadina is delivering reasonably overall, generating 10 points in 18 games so far this season.

Fresh faces paced the Blackhawks’ comeback, too.

Two Dylans scored in just 45 seconds during the second period. Dylan Strome (third in 2015) continues to be a nice point-producer for Chicago, collecting the 2-1 tally. Then, it was that Dylan Sikura goal. Promising defenseman Adam Boqvist (eighth in 2018) ended up producing the game-winner, his second goal of 2019-20.

The sexier Dominik Kubalik goal could have happened after Duncan Keith sprung him for a breakaway, but Jimmy Howard narrowly avoided that with a save. Kubalik instead scored an empty-netter, giving him 12 on the season, second among all rookies.

Sports fans love to imagine potential magically turning into production, but that doesn’t always work out. Sikura, for example, took 44 games to score his first NHL goal.

Still, if a few of the Kubaliks, Stromes, and Zadinas work out, both franchises might be able to wiggle out of these post-dynasty stupors.

The Blackhawks made sure that there’s at least a slight chance that they might end their playoff drought in 2019-20 by not losing to a Red Wings team that, scrappy or not, can’t seem to protect a lead. Sunday represents what they hope is the start of a strong homestand, and playoff push.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blackhawks moving on without Seabrook, de Haan

CHICAGO — Reality set in for Jonathan Toews when he got to the Chicago Blackhawks’ locker room Friday morning.

Brent Seabrook‘s stall was empty.

”Day 1, pretty much. He’s not around,” Toews said, ”and you notice it right away.”

Seabrook has been ruled out for the rest of the season after years of physical play finally caught up to the steady defenseman, who had right shoulder surgery on Friday. The 34-year-old Seabrook then will have surgery on his right hip in January and left hip in February.

The Blackhawks also will be without Calvin de Haan for the rest of the year. The 28-year-old defenseman had his own right shoulder surgery on Friday.

Seabrook and de Haan were placed on long-term injured reserve, creating significant salary-cap space, but leaving Chicago with a huge void on the back end.

”From the (coaching) perspective, we’re focused on the players we have and find a way to get it done,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. ”But of course those guys are really big parts of the group, both on and off the ice. A lot of leadership and solid, dependable-type players, which, of course, we’re going to miss.”

De Haan was acquired in a June trade with Carolina. He had surgery on the same shoulder last offseason.

Colliton said both defensemen are expected to be ready for training camp next year. But in the meantime, a run of injuries is making it more difficult for last-place Chicago (16-17-6) to work its way into the the playoff race.

Brandon Saad is expected to miss another three weeks after he hurt his right ankle during Chicago’s 4-1 victory at Winnipeg on Dec. 19. Fellow forwards Andrew Shaw and Drake Caggiula are on LTIR due to concussions, though Caggiula has been skating and could return soon. Rookie defenseman Adam Boqvist missed Friday night’s 5-2 victory over the New York Islanders because of a right shoulder injury.

”I don’t manage expectations,” Colliton said. ”We expect to win. We expect to compete, give ourselves a chance with how to we play.”

The 6-foot-3 Seabrook has been a key player and leader for Chicago for more than a decade. He has 103 goals and 361 assists in 1,114 games since his NHL debut in 2005, plus 20 goals and 39 assists in 123 playoff appearances.

He helped the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

”Such a huge part of our room,” forward Patrick Kane said. ”So hopefully he gets his injuries fixed and comes back better than ever.”

Seabrook was a healthy scratch for the third time this season when Chicago lost 4-1 to Colorado on Dec. 18. The Blackhawks then announced the next day he was undergoing further medical evaluation.

Seabrook, who is under contract through the 2023-24 season at an average annual value of $6,875,000, missed a total of nine games over the previous six seasons.

”He’s battled through these injuries for a long time,” defenseman Duncan Keith said. ”Anybody else, they probably would have been missing a lot more time than that over the course of the last several seasons. It shows the kind of mentality and the type of person that he is.”

Keith and Seabrook have been connected since they entered the league together. Keith, a two-time Norris Trophy winner as the league’s best defenseman, said he has played his best hockey alongside his longtime pal.

”We sit beside each other in every locker room,” Keith said, ”so it’s different, you know, not having him on the bus and things like that. He’s definitely missed, but like I just said, nothing we can do about it now.”