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Friday, April 16, 2010
Defense rules Hawks-Preds series

By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- In a league where general managers crave high-end defensemen now more than ever, we present to you the Nashville-Chicago first-round series, otherwise known as Blue-line Heaven.

"It's pretty exciting," Predators coach Barry Trotz said Friday morning after his team's pregame skate. "If you're a young, aspiring defenseman, our series is probably one you'd want to watch a little bit because we've got some great talent on both ends."

The series opens Friday night, and the common bond for two franchises that couldn't be more different is the decadent depth on the blue line.

"Everything offensively for most teams is generated from good defense, and both teams have the ability to do that," said Trotz. "Obviously, Duncan Keith will get a lot of consideration for the Norris Trophy and I think Shea Weber will get a quite a few votes.

"Both blue lines have sort of the same personality in the sense that they can have good escapability. They've got some people that can launch the puck from the blue line and they've got some people who can be physical. Some of the best young defensemen in the league right now are playing on these two teams."

Weber and Ryan Suter form one of the best blue-line pairs in the NHL, but that's just the beginning.

"They got a great group back there, it doesn't just stop with those two. But they've got [Francis] Bouillon and [Dan] Hamhuis as well, great defensemen," star Hawks blueliner Brent Seabrook said Friday. "They really bring it from the back end and push the pace. They're big, they're physical; it's going to be a fun matchup."

And don't forget Denis Grebeshkov (who has been cleared from injury), Kevin Klein and Cody Franson. The Preds may just be the deepest team in the league on defense.

The Hawks usually are, but therein lies the possible X factor for this series. While both teams are deep on defense, only one is healthy. The Blackhawks are missing top-four blueliners Brian Campbell (broken clavicle) and Kim Johnsson (upper body) to start the playoffs, a fact that shouldn't be underestimated.

The injuries forced Hawks coach Joel Quenneville to move power forward Dustin Byfuglien back to his old position on defense for the first time in a few seasons, while also breaking up the longtime pairing of Keith and Seabrook. Big Buff is now playing on the right side of Keith.

"I grew up playing as a defenseman, so it's been a good transition back," Byfuglien said Friday. "It hasn't been the easiest thing, but playing with Duncan has made it easier."

No kidding. Who wouldn't want to play with the silky smooth Keith, a serious contender for the Norris this season? Byfuglien has done better back on defense than the Hawks' coaching staff honestly thought he would. Mind you, Quenneville had never seen him play along the blue line. Byfuglien hadn't done it here since Denis Savard was still coach.

"Buff, I know, played some D here in the past in the organization, but I think it was a nice surprise for our staff that, in the middle of the year, all of a sudden, you put him back there and he's able to play important minutes against top guys and looks comfortable offensively and defensively," Quenneville said Friday. "And it gives us some size and a big shot. It's been a nice fit for us. We split up Dunks and Seabs, which we were wondering about at the time, but it's turned out OK. Buff gives us another weapon. That was a big void when Soupy went out of the lineup and he's been able to mend it."

Funny thing about Campbell. Suddenly, he's really missed. Before he got hurt, all people talked about was that he was making too much money at $7.1 million per season for six more years. But once he got hurt last month, it was obvious how important he is to the team. He played more than 23 minutes a night and helped key the transition game. It's the reason people loved him in Buffalo and why he was so darn attractive on the free-agent market two years ago. And quite frankly, he's not replaceable.

The day before Campbell was decked into the end boards from behind by Alex Ovechkin, Johnsson played his last game when the Hawks were in Philadelphia. Officially, Chicago is saying only "upper body," but it's believed he is still suffering from post-concussion symptoms (not surprising given his history of concussion problems).

So, the Hawks begin their Stanley Cup quest without two very important blueliners.

"It's tough anytime you lose guys like that," said Seabrook. "Soupy brings an element not a lot of guys do; he brings the puck up the ice very well, he's an offensive producer. And Kimmy, the short time we got to see him, he was a lot like Soupy. I think the element we miss is just skating that puck up from the back end."

Still, with Keith and Seabrook leading the charge, along with the immensely underrated Niklas Hjalmarsson, Chicago is as well-equipped as any team to cope.

"You look at the injuries they've had and it still doesn't look like they're missing anyone," said Weber. "Their back end is solid. They're as good as anyone in the league."

Weber is buddies with Seabrook and Keith, and that was the case even before winning Olympic gold together two months ago. Their paths have crossed many times over the years. Keith and Weber played junior together in Kelowna of the Western Hockey League (how good was that junior blue line?), while Weber and Seabrook played a world junior tournament together. The Olympics just reinforced the friendship among the three.

"I know him pretty good and we're good friends," Keith said of Weber. "Obviously, he's a tough player, and when we're out there playing a game, there's no friends. He's competitive and so am I. It's going to be a fun series to play."

Seabrook made it clear he'll hammer Weber if he has the chance. They can have a pop and laugh about it over the summer.

"If I have a chance to take a shot on him, I will take it, and I'm sure he'll do the same, vice versa," said Seabrook.

"Yeah definitely," smiled Weber. "Both teams want to win. There's no friends out there on the ice. We're going to play hard and play to the end. After the series, it'll be back to where it was before."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.