If you’re a Hawks fan, it might feel like you’re stuck in a bit of a time loop. Last year around this time, the Hawks were running smooth, with 48 points instead of this year’s 51. That didn’t have them in first, as the Stars were binging on everything at the table at that point, but really the Hawks aren’t too different from what we saw last year. Which is strange, because the holes on last year’s team seems so much more obvious.
The formula remains the same. The Hawks are getting other-worldly goaltending from both Crawford and Darling. Whoever is skating with Panarin, as he’s been paired with more guys this year than last, is doing most of the scoring. The power play is doing just enough. And yet, just like last year, there’s a feeling that the rug could slip out from under the Hawks at any point. That’s mostly because their underlying numbers, which would be said rug, just aren’t impressive and at some points are straight up bad.
And they center around two players, two players who have formed the pillar of everything the Hawks have done for close to a decade now. Jonathan Toews’s struggles have been well covered at this point. But it’s time to come to terms with the fact that Duncan Keith just hasn’t been very good either.
Oh sure, from space everything looks fine. He’s binging on assists again, just like he did in his second Norris season of ’13-’14 when he threw up 55 of them. And again, it’s a lot of power play assists and secondary assists, which doesn’t exactly speak to playmaking abilities which Keith hasn’t really ever had in spades. Three seasons ago, it was his defense that was springing the forwards ahead of him into action. This year, it’s mostly just playing behind Kane and Panarin the most of any forwards.
Look any deeper than that though, and it’s not just worrying, it’s fucking ugly. It’s fugly. It’s goddamn fugly.
Take a deep breath, and we’ll try and take this slowly. Right off the bat, Keith’s possession-monster ways have disappeared. It was only two seasons ago that Keith nearly put up a 55% Corsi-percentage (54.6). This season that has dropped to 48.6%. You would be tempted to attach some of that to the team’s overall drop in possession, but this is the firs time since 2013 that Keith has been below the team rate. And he was only below the team rate then because the entire 2013 squad was festooning their bed chambers with the guts of whatever opponent was unfortunate enough to be across from them on a given night.
Oh, we’re not done. Not by a damn sight. Staying in just attempts, it’s on both sides. Keith is on for more attempts against and less for, seeing his CA60 go from 51.2 last year to 56.0 this year. As for attempts for, it’s 61.6 last year to 52.9 for this year.
When we move deeper, it doesn’t get any better. When it comes to xGF%, which gives us some idea of the actual chances that Keith is on the ice to help generate and the ones he’s giving up, it’s an unsightly, 44.2%. Just last year, that was 53.3%. And again, just like his Corsi numbers, the xGA has risen and the xGF has dropped. The only reason this hasn’t resulted in utter disaster is that Keith is seeing the best even-strength save-percentage behind him of his career at .944. The previous best was that 2013 season of .930. He’s going to owe Crawford and Darling a lot of Rise Against shows.
If you want to look at scoring chances, the story is no better. His scoring chance percentage this year is 43.1%. This is a massive dip from last year’s 49.1, which you’d barely find acceptable in the first place. Even more worrying is that Keith’s scoring-chance against per 60 has gone from 8.4 last year to an even 10 this year.
While I would be tempted to try and explain this away by saying he’s taking harder shifts against harder competition, that just isn’t the case. There is virtually no change in Keith’s zone starts (if you believe in those or not) or quality of competition. I’d also be tempted to try and explain some of it away with Keith having to bounce between Campbell as a partner early in the year (who also just hasn’t been as good as hoped) and now Hjalmarsson for the most part. And with Hammer the amount of attempts against per 60 do calm down but just a bit, but the goals-against per 60 go up. That could be attributed to him and Hammer always facing the toughest competition where he and Campbell most certainly did not.
It hasn’t really played out with the Hawks record, as the Hawks are 11-6 when Keith has a “plus” possession game, which we’ll call above 52%. Meaning they’ve been better when he’s actually been getting skulled. But anyone who has watched this team over the years know that Keith has basically been the bellwether, and only if Crawford and Darling can keep this ridiculous level up are they going to be able to survive Keith not being Keith.
The reasons could be a few things. Keith could be pacing himself, as he knows more than most what really matters. Or it could be he’s still figuring out what his game looks like with a knee that doesn’t allow him to be quite the high-wire act he once was and he’ll get there. Or it could be that this is his 12th NHL season, and no matter one’s age and condition that exacts a toll you can’t avoid. Scott Niedermayer, who we most like to compare Keith to, saw a decline in production right about age 34, which Keith will turn next summer. He was retired by 37. Paul Coffey, while playing in an entirely different era (than the late 90’s), was never the same past 34. Brian Rafalski, who is the first similarity score on HockeyReference strangely, dropped off at 35 but he didn’t even start his NHL career until 26. It might just be that d-men who rely on their feet either have to make a wild adjustment to their game in their 30s, or they’re simply not what they were. Ryan Suter is going through an underlying number drop at 32.
It doesn’t make for light reading.