NHL

Ducks' defense finally getting respect as it builds balance and depth

Ducks' depth on the defensive end could make a difference in a long series with Chicago

Maybe it's because the Ducks don't have a dominant, minutes-gobbling defenseman like two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith of Chicago, tireless Ryan Suter of Minnesota, or Norris finalist Drew Doughty of the Kings that their defense corps hasn't gotten much respect.

Hampus Lindholm has the potential to become that kind of stud defenseman someday soon, but the Ducks don't have the equivalent of Keith, who is averaging a remarkable 30 minutes and 25 seconds of ice time per game. For now, the Ducks' strength is the balance they've built among their three pairs in terms of style and ice time.

"We don't get overloaded with minutes," said Francois Beauchemin, the team leader at an average of 23:50. "Guys don't get tired, like when you log 29, 30 minutes a game."

Once, Beauchemin routinely logged high totals. When the Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007, their defense featured Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer and future Hall of Famer Chris Pronger, but Beauchemin led them with an average of 30:33. Pronger played 30:11 and Niedermayer averaged 29:51. "I was young, and I was able to take it easy," Beauchemin said, smiling.

While any coach would love to have a franchise player like Keith or Brent Seabrook, the quality of the Blackhawks' defense falls off sharply after those two and Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya. That was a problem for them Sunday in their 4-1 loss to the Ducks in the opener of the Western Conference finals, when a shaky David Rundblad committed several costly turnovers, and it could become a major headache if the Ducks' focused physicality wears down those top four defenders.

"If you know those guys are playing big minutes, 25, 26 minutes, you want to make it as difficult on them as you can," defenseman Cam Fowler said Monday after the Ducks practiced at Honda Center. "Especially physically, and that's kind of the brand of our team, getting in on those D."

Rundblad had replaced Michal Rozsival, who broke his ankle in the finale of the Blackhawks' second-round sweep of Minnesota. Based on their pairings in practice Monday, Rundblad will be replaced Tuesday by Kyle Cumiskey, who has a minus-seven defensive rating in six career playoff games, all with Colorado in the 2009-10 season.

Coach Joel Quenneville wouldn't confirm the change, but given that he put Cumiskey with Oduya — with Keith alongside Hjalmarsson and Seabrook with 40-year-old Kimmo Timonen — the move seems all but certain. Timonen played 5:15 on Sunday and is averaging only 9:02 because he has struggled to keep up, adding to the burden on the top four defensemen.

"If they want to continue playing those same four or five guys," Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf said, "that's to our advantage down the stretch, in the later stages of this series."

The Ducks, meanwhile, have played the same six defensemen so far and can call upon veteran James Wisniewski if needed. Chicago might have a stud, but the Ducks have stability and depth with Beauchemin, Lindholm (21:37), Fowler (20:50), Sami Vatanen (20:10), Simon Despres (18:23) and Clayton Stoner (17:42).

"I think with their minutes, with their responsibilities, now there's not a fear of putting any one of them into any situation that comes to the front," Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau said.

Stoner, signed as a free agent by the Ducks last summer in part because of his physical play for Minnesota against the Blackhawks in last season's playoffs, said he likes the equal distribution of minutes.

"I think it shows confidence in all six of us," he said. "It's been like that all year. ... It just gives us more diversity when we're playing a team with so much depth like the Blackhawks. They've got four good lines, and it helps to have confidence in all six defensemen."

Stoner dished out a team-high seven of the Ducks' 44 hits Sunday. The Blackhawks' defensemen can expect more of that from the Ducks, who are averaging 36.2 hits per game in the playoffs.

"Whether it's Duncan Keith or Hjalmarsson or any of them, I mean, it doesn't matter," Boudreau said. "Whoever's back there, it's our job to make it tough for them to get into the play. So we're going to do what we do."

What they've done has worked well enough to finally earn them some respect.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Twitter: @helenenothelen

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