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Blackhawks’ Duncan Keith shows he can still keep up at 35 years old

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The veteran defenseman found success despite seeing his ice time diminish on the power play.

NHL: Anaheim Ducks at Chicago Blackhawks Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s take a moment to remember the top highlight from Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith’s 2018-19 season.

It was a vintage Keith play, breaking up a 1-on-1 rush from Avalanche phenom Nathan MacKinnon and then cashing in at the other end for an overtime victory. We saw that Keith in spurts last season, though not as often as we have in the past. That’s to be expected for a 35-year-old player closing in on 1,100 games next season. So what to make of this year’s 82-game grind for the veteran blue-liner? Let’s dive in.

Offensive numbers

Keith tallied six goals and 34 assists, numbers in line with his career totals. After an egregious-looking minus-29 rating for the 17-18 season, Keith bounced back with a plus-13. His shot percentage also returned to normal at 4.3 percent, just shy of his 4.4 career average and significantly better than 17-18’s unlucky 1.1. The most noticeable difference in Keith’s statistics arises when separating by situation. In 17-18, Keith had two goals and eight assists on Chicago’s power play. This past season, he never scored and had only three assists. The reason for that?

Ice time

Keith’s average time on ice (23:01) was the lowest mark of his career, which was fueled by a significant cut in power play ice time. With defenseman Erik Gustafsson manning the point and four other forwards making up Chicago’s top power-play unit under Jeremy Colliton, Keith’s average power play time per game plummeted from 2:36 in 17-18 to 1:23 last season. Keith’s shorthanded time on ice also took a minor slide, going from 2:26 (second on the 17-18 Hawks) to 2:02 (fourth behind Brent Seabrook, Connor Murphy and Brandon Manning). We already the Blackhawks had a historically terrible penalty kill and now know Keith’s impact on the power play was minimal, which leaves the biggest part of Keith’s ice time to dissect.

Even-strength performance

For comparison’s sake, advanced stats from the last decade have been summarized in the table below, with the most recent season highlighted at the top:

(For a quick reminder on the xGF% statistic, check out this SCH article from November)

  • xGF% - Keith’s xGF% numbers have steadily declined during the years, following a steady downward trend for the team rate. The good news, from Keith’s perspective is he put up an xGF% rate which is roughly similar to his team’s numbers. The problem, though, is his team had the second-worst xGF% mark in the league. The question for the future becomes, if the Hawks team-wide performance increases, will Keith’s do the same?
  • Zone Starts - One of the biggest trends with Keith during the last four seasons has been a significant increase in his offensive zone starts, as indicated above. The Relative ZSR stat measures how often a player started in the offensive zone as compared to his teammates. Keith’s 10.21 mark was the third-highest on the team, trailing only Gustafsson and rookie Henri Jokiharju — Keith’s most frequent defensive partners this season. It’s not surprising that Keith is receiving more offensive looks in his later years, as both Colliton and former head coach Joel Quenneville searched for ways to get effective minutes out of the aging veteran. But that increased offensive distribution hasn’t had too much of an impact on Keith’s underlying numbers.

Future

Locked into an annual salary cap hit of more than $5.5 million through the 22-23 season, Keith seems to be worth that cap hit for the immediate future. For a player who’d crack the top 150 in NHL history for games played with another full slate of work, Keith is venturing into uncharted territory in terms of late-career regression. For now, Keith feels like a player who can still help a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. But with an already absurd amount of mileage on Keith’s well-worn tires, it’s something that will need to be actively monitored in the upcoming seasons.

s/t to Shalyn Brady for helping compile all the statistics referenced in this article.