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The amount of minutes Duncan Keith has logged in this postseason is historic. In the salary cap era, no one has even come close to approaching it.
Wednesday night's contest got him up to more than 500 minutes of 5-on-5 time, making him one of just three guys in the last 10 seasons to clear that milestone. The other two are Dennis Seidenberg with Boston in 2011 (500:59) and Drew Doughty last season (528:59). They required 25 and 26 games, respectively, to get there. Keith got to 506:58 it in just 21. If the series goes three more games, he still won't match their games-played number, but he'll have blown by Doughty. Hell, based on what we've seen so far in this series, he'll probably do it in Game 22.
What's amazing is that he's not just playing all these minutes, but rather that he's playing dominant hockey for all these minutes. By just about any measure, Chicago dominates its opponents when Keith is on the ice versus when he's off — possession, high-quality chances, goals, etc. — and this is despite the fact that, were Keith any sort of actual human being and not a well-conditioned robot, fatigue ought to get to him far more than it has.
Conventional wisdom and even a bit of statistical research indicates that, as you get more minutes, your body starts to break down and you don't do as well. This makes perfect sense. Look at the concerns about Ryan Suter's workload in Minnesota having a negative impact on his numbers (though, y'know, not playing with Shea Weber hurts as well, and the opposite is true for Nashville's No. 1).
Want to know how rare it is that anyone plays this many minutes? Defensemen — and not a single forward — have cleared 450 minutes of even-strength ice time just 20 times in any the last 10 postseasons, and three of those seasons are Keith's alone. Johnny Oduya and Zdeno Chara are the only other guys to show up on the list more than once.
And as you might imagine, Keith is not only gobbling up more minutes than just about anyone in recent postseason history, but is also turning in elite-level performances among this group:
And not only that, but he's doing it getting some of the most difficult usage ever seen in the postseason. Even before this postseason, he was turning in lots of minutes against high-quality competition (the higher of the bottom two Duncan Keiths in the chart below is from 2009-10, Chicago's first Cup run). But this season takes things to such an absurd level as to be laughable. The distance this year's Chicago team puts between itself and the rest of the field here is absolutely ludicrous.
Even leaving aside the quality of competition, it usually takes a special confluence of circumstances to play as many minutes as Keith has: 1) Your team has to get to the Cup Final, 2) Your team has to slog its way to get there through a number of lengthy series, and 3) Your team has to be at least a little thin on the back end.
For Keith, Chicago ticks all three boxes except the second, and that's what makes him unique. He piled up all those minutes despite playing no less than two games fewer than any of the other playoff runs in which a defenseman was used this heavily.
Now, again, this kind of mileage obviously wears on a player to some extent, and it's clear that as the minutes pile up and the quality of competition increases, Keith hasn't fared quite as well at 5-on-5 in this series as he did early on.
All that still adds up to some of the best possession numbers of anyone in the postseason, and his goal share is inarguably outstanding despite that huge decline in the middle. But there have been declines of late, not that one can really blame him. Simply put, very few players 40 percent of their team's 5-on-5 ice time with any kind of great regularity, and Keith has done it in all but four of Chicago's playoffs games.
However, this is not usage that is uncommon to him, specifically. Back in 2009-10, the first year Chicago went to the Cup Final under the current regime, he was used even more heavily in terms of the share of minutes played (although he got far fewer minutes per night overall because that team didn't insist on going to so many overtimes in the first three rounds). But the other thing you can say is that there seems to be a correlation to the amount of use he gets and the detriment seen in his work:
Again, it's difficult to blame Quenneville for using Keith in this way, given the constraints put in front of him by this thinned-out D corps. But it's clear that with less use comes better results. And indeed, Keith is still turning in eye-popping numbers regardless, but could they be better? This suggests that the answer is yes. It also suggests that it probably doesn't matter, and Quenneville likely has no alternative except to rein in his special teams minutes, which is a non-starter for obvious reasons.
The team with Keith on the ice is much more effective than it is without him. That is illustrated very clearly here:
That's correct: 70 percent of all of Chicago's high-quality chances in this postseason, and 60 percent of its goals, have come with Keith on the ice. It's astonishing, really. Yes, this also means he's seeing a larger percentage of the shots, goals, and scoring chances against. But the first and last of these three are to be expected given that he's playing with basically everyone on his team at this point, and he's doing it against the most heavily relied-upon competition in recent memory. And the fact that all those chances and attempts aren't ending up in the back of the net speaks to how well he continues to control things. It's also reflected in his goals-for percentage.
Basically, for a team that is current headed back to Tampa for Game 5 tied in this Cup run, despite basically using four defensemen for the vast majority of the playoffs — thanks to the Michal Rozsival injury — the fact that so much of what it does runs not through an elite, Sidney Crosby-level forward but a defenseman is remarkable. When he's on the ice, Chicago is all but unstoppable. When he's off, things get real dicey real fast. And they've gotten this far anyway.
All of it leads any rational observer to one simple conclusion: Win or lose, if you have a Conn Smythe ballot in front of you as the final game winds down, the only name you can reasonably write on it is “Duncan Keith.”
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