Through the early days of the 2010-11 NHL season, the league’s far-and-away leader in average ice-time has been Duncan Keith, the league’s defending Norris Trophy champion and the number one defenceman for the Chicago Blackhawks.  Through three games, Keith has averaged 31:47 per night, three minutes more than the league’s second-ranked defenceman (Carolina’s Joni Pitkanen).

Keith leads his team in all categories.  He’s averaging over 21 minutes per game at even-strength (a minute more than partner Brent Seabrook), 4:45 per game shorthanded, and a whopping 5:50 on the power-play (2:29 more than the next defenceman, again Seabrook).

A quick glance at Chicago’s defensive depth shows why.  While the biggest story this summer was the departure of talented forwards from the defending champions, in the early parts of the season it’s been their blue-line that has appeared shallow.  An injury to Brian Campbell, suddenly a vital cog in the team, put the Hawks behind the eight ball to start with, and means that there’s now precious little behind the top pairing of Keith and Seabrook.

Nick Boynton, placed on waivers by Anaheim last season and suspended for Chicago’s season opener (courtesy of a throat slashing gesture) has emerged as this season’s early number three defenceman, playing nearly 22 minutes per game, and serving a role on special teams.  Niklas Hjalmarsson, who will miss the next two games thanks to suspension, has been the number four.  After those three, things get messy.

Nick Leddy, a 19 year-old defenceman who came over from Minnesota in the Cam Barker trade last year, has seen his ice-time go up and down – from nearly 20 minutes in the season opener to less than 10 a game later.  Where he fits, or even if he’s ready for regular NHL duty, is still up in the air.  John Scott, another former member of the Wild organization, is sixth on the depth chart and not likely to climb, given that his chief asset is his ability to hurt people and he probably isn’t able to handle more than third-pairing assignments.  Jordan Hendry is back to handle part-time duty as the seventh defenceman.  Other options currently in the AHL include Ivan Vishnevskiy and Jassen Cullimore.

Everything should sort itself out, especially when Campbell returns (likely half way through November), but in the meantime it means a lot of ice-time for the top pairing, which has struggled so far this year, and a golden opportunity for Nick Boynton to re-establish himself as an everyday NHL’er.