Who is the Blackhawks' most important player?

No one plays more minutes for the Blackhawks, or is more valuable to the team, than the tireless Duncan Keith. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Declaring your team's most important player is not a simple thing. It's not always the most valuable guy or the highest points producer. It is the player who makes your team go; the one you can't afford to lose, even if all he contributes can't be measured by fancy stats.

Most Important Player: Duncan Keith, Defenseman

In a lot of ways, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are the Chicago Blackhawks. They are the faces of the organization, and their rise in the NHL has been in lockstep with the Blackhawks’ rise over the past eight years. The team's three Stanley Cup championships and booming popularity can be largely linked to them.

But as valuable as Kane and Toews are the Blackhawks, it's another player who is most important to Chicago right now: Duncan Keith.

Keith showed exactly how much he means to the Hawks during last season’s playoffs. Chicago wouldn’t have been passing around the Stanley Cup on home ice without his contributions. And while he put together a memorable individual playoff run and was widely praised for it, it wasn’t much different than what he has done on a day-to-day basis throughout his career.

Ice time always seems like the logical place to start with Keith. He is one of those rare players who can skate and skate and skate and never seems to tire. He has led the Blackhawks in ice time for the past 10 seasons. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has tried to give Keith more of a breather and has reduced his ice time in the regular season in recent years, but Quenneville goes back to utilizing him freely in the playoffs. Keith averaged a career-high 31:07 of ice time in last season’s playoffs.

Of course, it’s not just how much Keith plays, but how he plays in those minutes. In the playoffs last season, he led all players in Corsi-for and goal differential in 5-on-5 play, and he was second in Corsi differential, tied for second in assists and tied for fourth in points. Again, his regular-season play hasn’t been much different. Over the past five seasons, he has been first among defensemen in Corsi-for, third in Corsi differential and sixth in total points.

Ultimately, what pushes Keith over Kane, Toews and goalie Corey Crawford as the Blackhawks’ most important player is where the team is defensively right now. For Quenneville to lean so heavily on four defensemen in last season’s playoffs was an extreme, but the Blackhawks also have defensive issues going forward.

Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson return from last season, and Trevor Daley will be looked to replace Johnny Oduya in the top four. From there, the Blackhawks have a number of young defensemen to fill the remaining spots. That youth won’t include Adam Clendening, Klas Dahlbeck, Stephen Johns and Mike Paliotta; all four players were once considered potential NHL defensemen for the Blackhawks, but they all were traded in the past year.

If Kane, Toews or Crawford had to miss some games, the Blackhawks might be able to get by for some time. The Blackhawks possess some depth at forward and in net. If Keith were to go down, the odds of them staying afloat are far worse; he’s essential to their success.

Luckily for the Blackhawks, they haven’t had to test that scenario much. Keith has missed just 20 regular-season games in his career.