That Brent Seabrook didn’t fly with the Chicago Blackhawks last week was the first red flag. That the team said the veteran defenseman hadn’t joined his teammates because he was undergoing a medical evaluation was another. And that Seabrook continued to miss games without the Blackhawks offering any additional update was somewhat ominous. Even still, few could have expected the news emanating out of the Windy City on Boxing Day to be so bleak. But bleak it was.
On Thursday, the Blackhawks announced the 34-year-old defenseman will go under the knife this week to repair a right shoulder injury and be sidelined for the remainder of the season. But it’s not just the remainder of this season that’s in question. In early January, Seabrook will also undergo surgery on his right hip. And, as if that isn’t bad enough, he’ll follow up the right hip surgery with a procedure on his left hip roughly one month later.
That the surgeries are piling up for Seabrook – and that the wear and tear has finally taken its toll – is not exactly shocking. At his age and with the sheer volume of games he’s played, he was bound to have picked up some battle scars. And make no mistake, Seabrook has been something of an iron man for the Blackhawks. Since 2006-07, his sophomore season in the NHL, Seabrook has skated in 1,045 regular season and 123 playoff games. He's missed only 30 contests due to some combination of injury, suspension or scratch. And at no point during those 1,168 combined games did Seabrook really play a game that was all that conducive to longevity.
No, Seabrook was never a style over substance player during what will surely be looked back upon as the halcyon days of Blackhawks hockey. Instead, his game was predicated on being the physical cog in an otherwise elite-skilled wheel. Without question, he had his heroic moments and could contribute offensively – his overtime winner in Game 7 against the Detroit Red Wings will go down as his greatest moment – but so often Seabrook was the steak, not the sizzle, on a team that was propelled to its greatest heights by the Patrick Kanes and Jonathan Toewses and Duncan Keiths.
Just take a second to consider some of the numbers. Of players who appeared in at least 500 games with the Blackhawks since the beginning of Seabrook’s tenure, his 2,075 hits are 1,500-plus more than Toews’ 569. Seabrook’s 1,914 blocked shots are nearly 300 more than Keith’s 1,627. And that’s just in the regular season. In the post-season, Seabrook added another 425 hits and blocked another 269 shots. Suffice to say, the day was always going to come that Seabrook’s body would betray him and that he’d be in line for a major surgery or two. That it has taken until now, when he’s less than four months away from his 35th birthday, should be considered a hair short of miraculous.
In the minds of some, however, the real miracle will be if we see Seabrook in a Blackhawks jersey ever again.
It’s true that he’s been on the decline, far more burden than brace for a Blackhawks outfit that has been defensively inept since the departure of Niklas Hjalmarsson more than two years ago. But that doesn’t change that Seabrook has another four years at $6.875 million per season remaining on his contract. Given what’s left on his contract, too, we’re to assume this isn’t the end of the road. And realistically, it doesn’t have to be.
Despite the extent of the surgeries – the double-hip surgery is far more concerning than the shoulder procedure – we have seen players return from similar ailments in the past. Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ian Cole had double hip surgery over the summer and is back skating regular third-pairing minutes. David Krejci had his second hip surgery back in 2016 and has remained a top contributor for the Boston Bruins in the time since. Jamie Benn also had double hip surgery ahead of the 2015-16 season, and it was the season following those surgeries that the Dallas Stars captain scored a career-best 41 goals and 89 points.
But the difference between Seabrook’s situation and those of the aforementioned players is age and miles. Seabrook will be in his mid-30s by the time his recovery is in full swing. By comparison, Cole is still months away from his 31st birthday, Krejci was about to enter his age 30 season when he underwent his procedure and Benn was in the thick of his prime, a 26-year-old coming off of an Art Ross Trophy-winning season.
So age isn’t on Seabrook’s side. Chances are reality isn’t, either. Already not the most fleet-of-foot defender, suggesting Seabrook will lose a step after the lengthy recovery certainly is by no means a stretch. In a league in which the speed of players is seemingly ever-increasing, that’s concerning. And there also exists the possibility that his body simply won’t be able to heal the way he wants it to. If that is the case, there’s potential for Seabrook to go through years of failed physicals and enter into so-called LTIRetirement. He wouldn’t be the first player to go out that way, nor is it likely that he would be the last.
At that point, the Blackhawks would have a decision to make: retain Seabrook and work around his contract as other franchises with players in similar situations have or find a way to move the dead-money along. Both seem like realistic possibilities, particularly as Chicago goes through something of a rebuilding or retooling stretch as its three-Stanley Cup-era players begin to enter into the back-nines of their respective careers. But, truth be told, neither is ideal. Trading a stuck-on-LTIR Seabrook could come at the cost of adding in a few picks or a decent prospect, and those are pieces Chicago needs right now.
It is, of course, too soon to know what the next steps will be. It's guesswork. And given everything Seabrook has fought through and the dedication he’s shown to the Blackhawks, it should go without saying that he’s going to give it everything he has to come back. You can rest assured, too, that there will be any number of players within Chicago's dressing room rooting for Seabrook to get healthy and slide back into the lineup. But despite all of that, one can't help but wonder if this might be it, if we've actually seen the last of one of the Blackhawks' most integral players of this generation. Only time can tell.
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