Editor's note: This story was originally published prior to news breaking that Duncan Keith was being traded to the Edmonton Oilers. Full details on that deal can be found here.
Can Duncan Keith still play? Yes, yes, he can.
As rumours swirl that Keith is looking to move to a team in either Western Canada or the Pacific Northwest, fans of several teams are wondering if Keith would be a worthwhile addition. Keith’s offensive numbers have been in steady decline over the past three seasons. The soon-to-be 38-year-old defenceman has gone from averaging 0.49 points per game in 2018-19 to 0.28 this past season -- the second-lowest total of his career.
Defensively, Keith’s 1.0 expected goals against per 20 minutes while he's on the ice at even strength ranked 168th out of 174 defencemen with at least 500 minutes played. On the surface, it appears the aging blueliner’s gas tank is somewhere between low and empty, but a deeper look into his usage and individual impact numbers suggest a new environment and role might just be what Keith needs to bounce back next season.
Keith averaged over 23 minutes per game on a high-event Chicago Blackhawks team. The Hawks ranked fifth in scoring chances and goals off the rush. They ranked 23rd in rush chances against and 29th in goals against. Chicago finished the season with an expected goals-against average of 3.04 -- only the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks were worse defensively.
In many ways, Keith was a byproduct of his environment as the Hawks averaged more high danger shots while he was on the ice than any other defenceman. They also averaged more high danger shots against while he was on the ice than any other blueliner. For better or worse, goalies were getting a workout in the minutes Keith logged for Chicago.
The reality is, Keith is not a top-pair, 23-plus minutes per night defenceman anymore. However, in a more sheltered role, there is reason to believe he can still be a productive player. Keith has always been a great skater and he did well this season breaking pucks out of the defensive zone. Keith ranked 38th among all defencemen in defensive zone carry-outs (skating the puck out of the defensive zone), averaging 3.4 per game.
While you might be inclined to think this is because the defensively weak Blackhawks spent a lot of time in their end to begin with, that’s not entirely true for Keith who ranked in the 59th percentile among all defencemen in terms of the amount of time he spent in the defensive zone. He can still skate the puck better than most and that will be an asset to whichever team Keith plays for next season.
Keith also has a good defensive stick, ranking third among all defencemen in blocked passes in the defensive zone. Again, this is more a reflection of his ability in this area than a byproduct of being hemmed in his end. One of the league leaders in expected goals for percentage, Keith ranked first in defensive zone blocked passes.
If moved in the off-season, puck-moving ability and an effective defensive stick are two attributes Keith will bring to his new club. An area of concern with Keith is how often he turned the puck over in the defensive zone last season, though. Keith ranked in the 38th percentile among defencemen in defensive zone turnover rate, which measures how often he turned the puck over relative to his total puck possessions. In the two seasons prior, Keith ranked in the 92nd and 88th percentile, respectively. Whether this was an anomaly or early signs of a more significant issue is something interested teams will need to investigate.
Speaking of which, according to multiple reports the teams with the most interest in acquiring Keith seem to be the Edmonton Oilers and the expansion Seattle Kraken. Keith will get to call his shot as he has a full no-move clause in his contract with two years remaining at a cap hit of $5.5 million. He would appear to be a good fit with either teams.
In Edmonton, he would not have to be a top-pairing defenceman as the number one spot on the left side of the ice is occupied by Darnell Nurse. Keith could fit on the second pairing depending on the health of Oscar Klefbom, who missed the entire 2021 season recovering from shoulder surgery. Like the Blackhawks, the Oilers create a lot of offence off the rush, finishing top 10 in rush chances and goals this season. Edmonton was better than Chicago at limiting these chances against so, in a supporting role, Keith’s puck-moving ability would be a welcome addition.
As for Seattle, Keith would be a logical choice as a veteran who could play out his current contract on a team that is starting from scratch. There will be plenty of tinkering with line combinations and defence pairings as the Kraken sort out who has chemistry with who next season and this is something Keith experienced in Chicago recently. Last season, Keith did not have a regular defence partner, instead playing significant minutes with Ian Mitchell, Adam Boqvist, and Connor Murphy.
As mentioned, Keith can still play but the added value he could bring in a mentorship role should be of particular interest to Seattle. Depending on who the Kraken select in the expansion draft, Keith can also quarterback one of their power play units. Last season, Keith split time with Boqvist quarterbacking a Blackhawks power play that finished 11th overall, converting on 21.7 per cent of its chances.
If Keith does want a change of scenery, he will be able to choose where he wants to go. If a deal is to be made, it’s likely the Blackhawks' trade partner will want Chicago to eat some of his salary as well. How much of Keith’s contract the Hawks would be willing to retain remains to be seen as Chicago is rumoured to be interested in a pair of top defencemen -- Seth Jones and pending unrestricted free agent Dougie Hamilton.
If we have seen the last of Keith in a Blackhawks uniform, you can bet he will receive a loud, standing ovation when he returns to Chicago next season. The 54th overall pick in the 2002 NHL Draft is a two-time Norris Trophy winner, three-time Stanley Cup champion, and was named playoff MVP in 2015. Regardless of which logo is on the front of Keith’s jersey next season, when his career comes to an end the next place you’ll see his No. 2 sweater will be in the rafters at the United Center.