CHICAGO — Duncan Keith has nothing to prove. He has won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman. He has won Olympic gold with Team Canada and the Stanley Cup twice with the Chicago Blackhawks, and he wasn’t just one of the guys. He was a catalyst.
Still, he needs to prove something. It is hardwired within him, his default setting. It is what pushed him to college to junior to the minors to the NHL, from a 152-pound draft pick to a 200-pound fitness freak, from a kid who couldn’t make it to an elite player. To this day, at an accomplished age of 30, it is why he skates and scowls and smiles.
“That’s the thing about Dunc, if you don’t know him,” said Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman. “He’s always had a chip on his shoulder, because when he was younger, he was always told, ‘You’re too small. You’re never going to play in the NHL.’ He would just train like mad to try to prove everyone wrong. ‘I’ll show you I’m going to do it.’ ”
If you’re that kind of athlete – a Martin St-Louis, a Duncan Keith – you don’t stop once you do it. In your mind, you’re never done.
“Win one thing,” Keith said, “and you just want to prove it’s not a fluke, show them that it wasn’t a fluke.”
Them? Who’s them?
Does it matter?
Ask anyone around the Blackhawks – coach Joel Quenneville, Keith’s teammates and even Keith, as much as he loathes talking about himself – and they will tell you Keith is playing better than ever before. He is the frontrunner for the Norris at this point and will play on the top pair for Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics.
Keith has 44 points in 49 games, second among defensemen and well ahead of the rest of the pack, on pace for a career high of 73. He quarterbacks the NHL’s fourth-ranked power play. Both he (57.1) and partner Brent Seabrook (57.9) rank in the top five among defensemen in Corsi for percentage at 5-on-5, meaning the Blackhawks attempt more than 57 percent of the shots when they are on the ice at 5-on-5, meaning they help the ’Hawks have the puck much more than their opponents.
“I would argue they are the best pair in the league,” Bowman said. “I mean, what they can do offensively and defensively, it’s really hard to rival it.”
It is not fluke. It is a combination of work, skill and context. It is because of how Keith plays, with whom he plays and how much he plays.
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Keith was a second-round draft pick in 2002 out of Michigan State. He split the 2002-03 season between the Spartans and the Western Hockey League’s Kelowna Rockets, then spent two full seasons in the minors before he made the NHL. He endured struggles and losing at first in Chicago.
But the Blackhawks were building – drafting Jonathan Toews third overall in 2006, taking Patrick Kane first overall in 2007, adding pieces here and there – and as Keith willed himself to be a top player, the ’Hawks became a top team that could make the best use of his abilities.
Keith is not big. But he’s fast, intense and hard to play against. When he doesn’t have the puck, he can take it away by closing quickly, positioning himself and using his stick.
“What I’ve learned most from him is how good he is at jumping on guys and making them make a different play, making them decide sooner than they want to,” said defenseman Nick Leddy. “He influences the play.”
When Keith has the puck, he’s dangerous. In the defensive zone or neutral zone, he doesn’t always make the simple play – just giving it to the centerman, just throwing it off the glass and out. He holds onto the puck. He draws opponents to him. He doesn’t panic. He feeds a forward flying up ice, or he finds his partner so Seabrook can do the same.
“It’s not easy to do that, because the more you hold onto the puck, the more pressure you bring,” Bowman said. “You’ve got to have that calmness to still thread the needle and make those passes.”
“I think he knows no matter what, he can skate himself out of trouble,” Toews said. “If he gets kind of stuck in his own corner in our zone, he can kind of spin off a guy and keep the puck and not just have to throw it away like some guys would. He can draw so much attention on himself and open up guys and find them breaking and skating with speed out of our zone.”
“We’ve got speedy forwards, guys that want the puck, guys that want to score,” said winger Patrick Sharp. “It’s a lot easier to do that when we’ve got guys like Duncs giving us pucks in good areas.”
The Blackhawks’ defensemen also are free to join the rush and skate below the dots in the offensive zone. They might do it more than any other team’s defensemen in the league. Keith is always active on the point – moving to open passing and shooting lanes, sometimes taking off and confusing opponents.
“They look back, and there goes Keith,” Leddy said. “ ‘Where the heck did he go?’ ”
Now his teammates find him.
“He’s such a great skater that he’s tough to cover,” said Edmonton Oilers winger Jordan Eberle. “He moves the puck well. He’s always got his head up ice. It just seems they have such good forwards, they always find a way to get him the puck.”
“Keith, Seabrook and all their defensemen are always in the offense,” said Colorado Avalanche coach Patrick Roy. “They’re cycling. They’re down low. They’re going back up. The game is changing, and you’re attacking as a unit of five, and you’re defending as a unit of five. I think this is where the game goes.”
On a lesser team, Keith’s skills might not shine as brightly. But Keith has teammates who can think and execute at his level, and he has a coach who encourages this style, not a safer one. Keith knows where his longtime partner is going to be. He knows that his forwards are looking for those passes and can take advantage of them. He knows when he gets open he’ll get the puck or when he takes a chance someone will cover for him.
“I think Johnny Oduya said it best one time: ‘The team fits the player, and the player fits the team,’ ” Keith said. “We have a bunch of skilled guys on this team that like to hang onto the puck and make plays, and for me, I enjoy playing that type of hockey. I think definitely having those good forwards makes me look good if I break up a play and move the puck up and they score a goal a lot of times. It makes me look better.”
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Keith won the Norris and his first Cup in 2010. He put up 69 points in 82 games in the regular season, second-most among NHL defensemen. He also averaged 26:35 of ice time per game, second-most among NHL skaters.
The Blackhawks parted with half their championship team in a salary-cap purge afterward, and they kept leaning on Keith. He averaged 26:53 each of the next two seasons, first among skaters in 2010-11, tied for first in 2011-12. Their play dipped. So did his.
But the Blackhawks rebuilt their supporting cast – adding pieces here and there – and then came the lockout. Though Keith had always trained hard, he used the time to push himself even harder.
When the lockout ended, Keith felt like he was in the best shape of his career. At the same time, the Blackhawks didn’t need to lean on him as much. Oduya, a trade-deadline acquisition in 2012, clicked so well with Niklas Hjalmarsson that the second defensive pair could take some of the tough assignments and hard minutes from the first. Keith averaged 24:06 last season, as much as 2-1/2 minutes less than he had been, and he can do more with less.
“He’s not pacing himself,” Bowman said. “If you’re playing 28, 30 minutes a night, it’s hard to be up, joining the rush and being involved when you know you’re going to play every other shift. It’s good that his minutes are a little lower.”
Keith didn’t put up big numbers in the 2013 regular season or the playoffs – 27 points in 47 games, then 13 in 22. But the Blackhawks struggled on the power play, and he was a main reason the ’Hawks cruised to the NHL’s best record and went on to win the Cup.
This season, Keith said, “is just a carryover.” He’s still in great shape. He’s averaging 24:33, about two minutes less than he used to. One difference: the power play has been much better. That has helped him look better; Bowman thinks maybe it has made him more confident in general. Keith has 17 more points though 49 games than he did in 47 last season, seven more on the power play.
If Keith wants to show his Norris was no fluke, he’s doing it.
“I think he wants to be known as the best defenseman in the league,” Bowman said. “Maybe it’s not a consensus that he is. There’s people that say it’s P.K. Subban, Shea Weber, Zdeno Chara, these guys that are great. I think he’s saying, ‘I want to be the guy.’ ”
“That’s what I want to do,” Keith said. “It’s not easy.”