Heroes get remembered. Legends never die.
Duncan Keith has undoubtedly written a legendary story over the course of his 16-year NHL career. Owning one Conn Smythe and two Norris Trophies while having his name etched on the Stanley Cup three times over of the course of his decorated career, Keith was arguably the key to unlocking the Blackhawks success in the 2010’s.
But in a new era of Blackhawks hockey, what does Keith’s 2021 season say about the player he is currently and what fans can expect heading into the future?
Keith’s 2021 season in a nutshell: inconsistent.
Keith is on the back nine of his career and no longer the player he was in his prime. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a good player anymore, nor that he can’t be a capable contributor at the NHL level. Good ol’ No. 2 didn't exactly have great numbers in 2021, but adding context helps explain why.
First and foremost, the now 37-year-old Keith has lost some of the speed which once earned him the nickname, “The Flash”. Playing a hybrid man-to-man defensive system may have suited him a bit better when he was in his prime. It’s uncertain if it’s by design from the coaching staff or from Keith himself, but he is still trying to be a cowboy out on the ice when he’d likely see more consistent success in a more conservative role, sitting back and playing center field.
When being paired with Adam Boqvist, Keith has shown glimpses of this. But there was so much fluctuation in Keith’s results that it became difficult to expect what to see on each of his shifts. It also didn’t help that Keith led all Blackhawks skaters with an average ice time of 23:25.
Keith did not end his 2021 season on the best note, missing the final two games with a concussion and finished the year with some not-so-stellar numbers. Since tracking began in 2007, last season saw a career-low for Keith in shares of shot attempts (CF%) at 44.84 and another career-low in his share of expected goals-for (xGF%) at 41.88. However, it’s important to note that he was not alone in his struggles.
While it is frustrating to see one of the Blackhawks’ all-time greats in decline, every one of Chicago’s veteran blue-liners was guilty of committing errors on a nightly basis, suggesting a difficult/flawed system or improper usage may be as much to blame as Keith himself. There were a number of shifts when Keith looked really good and just as many where he looked as if he were hanging the “not interested” sign.
So, what exactly is the problem with Keith’s usage?
It’s important to understand how significant coaching and schemes can be for particular players. While a player like Patrick Kane is going to find ways to score regardless of his situation, Keith’s skillset goes to waste when not used properly. A prime example of this is seen when looking back to Keith’s 2006-07 season. After surprising the United Center faithful in his rookie year, Keith’s sophomore campaign was, well ... bad.
With Blackhawks Hall of Famer, Denis Savard coming in to coach the team that season, the defense saw a change in scheme. Likely in an attempt to keep up with the new speed the league was seeing after post-lockout rule changes, Hawks defenders were regularly pinching in deep, which resulted in them losing foot races when the puck headed back towards their own end. Keith was no exception, more often than not being out of position and behind the play. He also racked up 76 penalty minutes, a number he would not get close to until the 2018-19 season when he tallied 70.
Once Joel Quenneville was brought in as Savard’s replacement only four games into the ‘08-09 season, Keith was put into a situation that allowed his skillset to flourish while he turned into a dominant shut-down defenseman.
How should the Hawks handle Keith’s usage in 2022?
The Blackhawks are unlikely to change their D system anytime soon, but there are a few bullet points from the Q era to note that could help better Keith’s situation.
Up first: Keith can no longer be expected to be the fastest guy on his pairing. One of the flaws of Chicago’s current system is the huge disadvantage in terms of matchups. When given the assignment, Keith can no longer be expected to chase after the best skaters the opposing team has to offer, because he can’t quite hang with them all over the zone. In 2021, Keith was often caught below the dots or out of position for goals against scored by top talent.
Part of this solution will require the Blackhawks to assemble consistent defensive pairings that work well together, have chemistry and can cover their bases in their own zone. The other key to success for Keith — and his teammates on the blue line — is getting more advantageous matchups, both in line-matching and in man-to-man coverage. The 2021 Blackhawks seemingly had no rhyme or reason to their lines, partners or matchups and that did not serve Keith, or the team as a whole, very well.
The bottom line:
Even when taking the rose-colored glasses off, Keith still has a lot of value to offer. Keith is a future Hall of Famer with experience, leadership and a list of intangibles longer than the fire escape stairs at the UC. There is a lot that the young core of Hawks talent can learn from him, and in a slightly reduced, middle-pairing role, he would be an excellent player to have on a team that could make a deep playoff run.
To get the most out of him at this point in his career, though, the Hawks must avoid the things that caused him issues in 2021. Keith can no longer be out on the ice for 25 minutes a game (nor should he have to be, especially with how frequently the Hawks dress seven defenseman). He needs to have a regular partner who can move (like a Boqvist or Wyatt Kalynuk) and be strategically matched up against the proper lines.
From a very personal standpoint, Keith is a player that I have a lot of love for, as one of the people in this fan base who were lucky enough to watch him blossom into a bona fide superstar as the Blackhawks clawed their way out of irrelevance and into a dynasty. Given the unceremonious retirements of guys like Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook and Andrew Shaw, I selfishly hope that this team can find a useful way to deploy Keith in these latter stages of his career so that it ends in the best way possible, allowing Keith to retire with all the love and adoration he deserves for being a foundational piece of this organization’s incredible run and three of the best years of my life.