CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS DEFENSEMAN BRENT SEABROOK doesn't remember exactly when he first met Duncan Keith. It was probably at some prospect camp that the Blackhawks held after Seabrook was drafted in the first round in 2003, he says. But it wasn't as if the skies opened up or a chorus of angels started singing when they shook hands, which just goes to show that when you meet your hockey soul mate, it doesn't always leave an impression. Seven years later Keith and Seabrook will go down as an unforgettable—and all but inseparable—defensive pair that helped deliver a championship to a Stanley Cup-starved city.
For these Blackhawks, great things seem to come in pairs. But unlike Chicago's sublime forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the two high-end draft picks who were billed as the future of the team even before they ever suited up for the same game, the best defensive pair in the NHL this season emerged more slowly and more organically, building chemistry over many shifts and many years of sharing the same ice.
"In the new NHL it's hard to keep two guys together for so long," says former Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon. "It turned out to be ideal. They're a perfect match."
The 6' 1", 196-pound Keith, a lefthanded shot, offers speed and maneuverability on the ice, while Seabrook, a righty with a quick release, is more of the stay-at-home defensive type. He uses his 6' 3", 218-pound frame to protect the puck and muscle opponents. "They gave themselves the nicknames Thunder and Lightning", Blackhawks center Patrick Sharp says (Thunder being Seabrook, Lightning referring to Keith). "It applies to them."
As a tandem they're symbolic of the new breed of defensemen that's coming of age in the postlockout NHL, in a game that puts a premium on speed and skill over clutch and grab. "They're tough to play against," Flyers forward Daniel Brière says. "They move the puck really well. They're not overly physical, but when they move the puck that well, it makes it harder to get a good forecheck in."
Seabrook and Keith, who've logged big minutes playing against the league's top lines, were crucial to Chicago's leading the Western Conference in goal differential in 2009-10. (Keith finished the season at an excellent +21, Seabrook a +20.) They've also been at the heart of the Blackhawks' shift to the puck-possession game that has come to define the team.
Yet just because they're part of the next generation of defensemen doesn't mean that hockey's long-standing ethos doesn't still apply. In the second period of Chicago's series-clinching Game 4 win against the Sharks in the conference finals, Keith was manning the point on the power play when the Sharks' Patrick Marleau let loose a hard clearing attempt from the slot. The puck collided with Keith's face.
"Unlucky play," Keith said with a shrug a couple of days later. "I knew right away my teeth were smashed in."
Keith says that as he hurriedly skated to the bench, he could feel seven of his front teeth either hanging on by fibrous threads or rattling around in his mouth. "I coughed one up," he told reporters, prompting winces from those assembled. "It probably could have been a lot worse if I got hit in the jaw more." About 6½ minutes after the smashmouth play, Keith was back on the ice. No harm done. Although, as Seabrook suggested, "it definitely doesn't make him look any better."
WHEN THEY BROKE INTO THE LEAGUE TOGETHER IN 2005-06, Keith was a lanky defenseman out of Michigan State who had spent two years in the AHL, in part developing his build. Seabrook, meanwhile, weaned in the Western Hockey League, was looking to trim some of his adolescent bulk. Because Chicago had few defensive options then, the two were pushed into the NHL ahead of schedule, and the fact that they started their careers on a struggling team proved a boon. They were given major minutes almost immediately and gained valuable experience.