Everything Else

As Sam goes on his Duncan Keith Appreciation Week, I asked him if I could jump in on the fun, because we all need to express more appreciation for Duncan Keith. Sam has already gone through a lot of praise and declarations about Duncs the other day. Everything Sam said was A). correct, and B. awesome (Adam is on many drugs. -ED). Duncan Keith has meant more to this franchise and the decade of success we as fans were able to experience with them than a lot of people realize, and maybe even more than Keith would want credit for. What he has meant to the team is almost difficult to put into words, and yet Sam has done it well time and time again.

I am here to talk about what Duncan Keith means to me, which is just as sappy and emotional as it sounds.

Unlike most of the others around these parts, I did not grow up with the Blackhawks. I was born in 1994 (please don’t yell at me for bringing that up), so I grew up in Dollar Bill era of Blackhawks history. They were never on TV. The most exposure I got to the Hawks as a kid was using them in NHL 2K4 on my PlayStation 2. To give you an idea of how little that meant, Tuomo Ruutu was one of the best players on the team in that game, and he was a rookie. It had Eric Daze listed as the captain, and when I learned later that he was never the captain of the team I felt betrayed.

So when the Hawks went to the Western Conference Final in 2009, that was the first real exposure I got to the team. I had watched hockey sparingly prior to that, usually just the Stanley Cup Final, so I didn’t know who Patrick Kane or Jonathan Toews were; all I knew was what some of my friends were telling me – these guys are the truth and the future. The first Hawks game I ever watched all the way through was the clinching game against Vancouver that year, and then a few of the WCF games against Detroit. The only names I really recognized on the TV were from the Wings.

But my interest was piqued, so I started watching the Hawks regularly in the 2009-10 season. That season was also the first time we saw the full beauty and ascension of Duncan Keith. He was brilliant throughout the whole season and finished second on the team in points with 69 (NICE) in 76 games, which from the blue was a point total at the time that was seemingly reserved for Nick Lidstrom. He was the best player on the team in that playoff run – despite Toews’ team-record breaking production that ended up winning him the Smythe that Keith deserved – and the best defenseman in the NHL, and deservedly won the Norris Trophy over Lidstrom.

I played sports my whole life, and I was always more of a defensive player regardless of the sport. I was a shortstop and catcher, drawn to the positions because of how important they were to the defensive side of baseball. My 8th grade basketball coach always made me the primary defender on presses. I only played football one year, but I was a cornerback. Defense was my thing. So it was easy to be drawn to Keith, who was playing defense better than anyone else at the time.

I was a sophomore in high school (again, please don’t kill me for saying that) when the Blackhawks won that 2010 Cup, still young enough to play backyard sports with friends and at least pretend you were one of the players from your favorite team. A bunch of my buddies took to hockey because the Hawks were the talk of the town, and we had a whole ring of street hockey players (this is your only chance to make Jeffler jokes at me). I was a righty, but I still always imagined myself as Duncan Keith.

The next two years of Blackhawks hockey were not the best, as they bowed out of the playoffs in the first round in back-to-back years, but as I was finishing high school, the Hawks were one of my only reliable escapes from the typical bullshit of being a teenager, and Duncan Keith was the steadiest presence through all of it. He only missed eight games through those two years. And despite his best efforts, he wasn’t quite his dominant self.

Skip to me starting in college. There was no hockey for my first semester in 2012, which was probably a blessing, but once the lockout ended and we had that shortened 2013 season, what we got to experience was the most dominant three years of hockey Hawks fans had known to that point, and quite possibly will ever know. My memory of specific moments is sincerely awful, but there was never any secret that Duncan Keith was always the straw stirring the Hawks drink in that run, and as I was growing the most I ever had as a person, the Hawks were doing the most they ever had as a franchise because of him.

And let me tell you a bit more about this play that Sam talked about earlier today. I have to tell you guys, when Duncan Keith scored that goal, I almost jumped through the ceiling, and then had to keep myself from crying like a baby.

I had nearly died about three months earlier, after falling through a glass table in a truly exquisite show of idiocy – there wasn’t even alcohol involved in the incident, if you can believe it. My lung was punctured and collapsed, and over the next month (between March and April of 2015) I spent a total of 11 days in the hospital over different spans and ended up needing a surgery called a Thorocotomy which involved, as the surgeon described it, peeling scar tissue off my lungs like an orange peel.

I missed the rest of my college semester and was unable to do a lot of things I normally would’ve been able to do. The only normal thing in my life over those few months was the Blackhawks, and thus Duncan Keith being dominant. That playoff run kept me from falling into a dark place. Duncs’ goal in Game 6 let me release months of frustration and pain. Sports matter, guys.

I didn’t grow up with the Blackhawks through my youth, but I did grow up as a man with them, and I almost mean that literally because they were growing up as a team as I was growing up as a person. And as much as it must’ve been so beautiful for people like Sam, Matt, Slak, and others to get to watch it all happen as adults after slogging through the bullshit years, being able to grow up with this team was special. And Duncan Keith was a huge part of that for me.

So Duncs, even though you will probably never see this, ahead of your 1000th game, I wanted to write this and thank you. I might not be who I am today without you.

Everything Else

Let’s continue Duncan Keith Week with a video:

I could talk about this goal for hours, probably. One, I’m not sure I’ve ever yelled louder at a sporting event than this one, and you can ask former editor Matthew Killion to confirm. There was a lot going into this night for all of us, and me especially, but we don’t have to get into that here. Surface level, the Hawks had a chance to clinch the Cup at home for the first time since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. A scoreless first period only built up the tension, and the fact that much like the rest of the series, the Hawks were kind of outplayed up to this point. Corey Crawford had to stop Steven Stamkos twice on the same breakaway, they didn’t create much, and slowly what seemed a certainty began to be a question.

And much like the rest of that run, Duncan Keith decided he’d simply had enough. Usually, when there are four opposing skaters back in the zone is not the time to go shotgunning up the ice if you’re a d-man. But Keith has never continually bent to logic, and what made his game so special is that he didn’t and it usually worked. After all, Kane had the puck, so if he could find a pocket of space, chances are Kane would find him.

Maybe my favorite part of this is Keith simply streaking around Cedric Pacquette for the rebound, as Pacquette didn’t shut his yap for the first half of the series amidst all the press about how he was the ultimate checking center and pest, especially after the Lightning’s Game 3 win. They didn’t win another game and we didn’t hear much from him after that. Keith left him with his dick in his hand and that’s all he’d win after this.

In the building, it happened in slow motion. The rebound we never expected to see lying there, practically teasing everyone, because Keith’s initial shot wasn’t all that strong. The arc he took around Pacquette at a speed that didn’t seem possible, and the realization, “He’s going to get there.” And that he would have an open look from three feet (and one you’ll recall he whiffed on in 2011 against the Red Wings that would have gotten the Hawks into the playoffs, which they backdoored into anyway). It’s the amount of separation he gets from everyone else at this moment. No one would have caught him with a jet engine up their ass.

One of the few things Eddie Olczyk and I agree on is that the United Center has never been louder than when this puck flipped up over Ben Bishop. Sure, it was only the second period, but the Hawks weren’t giving up that lead. The catharsis at the moment in that building was real. Clawing back a dream we’d had all our lives. Mostly because they had Duncan Keith and the Lightning didn’t.

That 2015 run is not only Keith’s masterpiece, you’d be hard-pressed to find another playoff performance in this city anywhere that doesn’t involve the words “Jordan.” Both the Cubs and Sox World Series runs were basically team-efforts. The Hawks’ two previous runs were the same, though Keith was among the standouts in those. I guess we’ll have to wait until Khalil Mack’s 10-sack run to the Super Bowl sometime soon.

He scored three goals in that run. One was the OT winner in Game 1 against Nashville. The second was the series clincher against the Predators, and the Hawks desperately needed both or at best they would have been facing a Game 7 on the road. The third was this. That’s certainly making them count.

In between, Keith averaged 31 minutes a night. He gobbled up 44% of the team’s even-strength time, a number only topped by Kris Letang in ’16 for a team that went beyond the second round in the last seven years (fun note: the hightest TOI% of a playoff year is also Keith’s, which was 47% in 2016’s first round). His relative-corsi in the spring of ’15 was +5.4. His relative-xGF% was an unholy +8.7. When Keith was on the ice the Hawks were dangerous and dominant. When he wasn’t, they were clinging with their nails to the side of the dock.

You don’t need the numbers to know how good he was that spring. Thanks to Kimmo Timonen being dead and Michal Rozsival’s ankle becoming a modern art piece against Minnesota, the Hawks only had four d-men for the last two rounds. They had to survive them, and I’m not quite sure how they did other than Bruce Boudreau’s team playing with both hands around its neck again when the lights were brightest and Keith and Crawford at their best in the Final. If it seemed like Keith was never off the ice in the last 13 games, it’s because he wasn’t. The least he played in the last two rounds was 27:23 in Game 5 against the Ducks. Against the Bolts it was never less than 29 minutes. And again, he was utterly dominant in those.

It was barely controlled fury. It was more than the usual Keith-stepping-up-into-the-neutral-zone shit. He was on both sides. He was up the ice and then back. He was stripping someone behind the net, calling Kesler a fuckwad, and then joining the play, seemingly in one motion. You can only play four d-men in a game if on is insistent on being two or three at the same time.

This goal was kind of a microcosm of all 23 games. Keith deciding he’d had enough, streaking somewhere you never figured him to be and no one able to get in his way. Whether it was a goal to be scored or a forward to be dispossessed, Keith was on it like a pissed off bowling ball. Keith basically decided the Hawks were going to win a Cup. And then he did almost all of the heavy lifting.

We know that Keith will never do that again, and maybe that tapped all the reserves for good. I know it was worth it.

 

Everything Else

Let’s jump ahead about two and a half years or so. Basically, the ’20-’21 season. It doesn’t really matter what the Hawks fortunes are then, though it will have an influence. During that season, barring a major injury before, both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will play their 1,000th regular season game.

Now imagine the build-up to both. How long do you think it is? A week? Maybe more? Certainly more than a few days. Clearly, a couple national publications will get in on the fun. There will be reminiscing of the Hawks’ glory days, and a rehashing of the debate about where they rank in the pantheon of all-time great teams. Certainly it will be an event, two of them actually, and assuming you can ignore the particularly grossness of one of them, you won’t be able to miss it. The team’s best ever winger and perhaps it’s second or third greatest center getting a silver stick.

So why isn’t there more of a buzz about the player who was more important than both of them?

Duncan Keith will play his 1,000th game on Saturday night. He is the best Hawks d-man of all-time. Of this there can be little debate. Two Norris Trophies, a Conn Smythe (unanimously won, and really should have been a second for him after 2010), two gold medals. There is no Hawk who can come close to matching this haul of silverware. Three rings to go along with it, as well, and a couple more Conference Final appearances.

You could only make an argument for Chris Chelios, really. Two Norris Trophies as a Hawk, a World Cup winner’s medal, one Conference Final appearance and one Final appearance. And folks, let me tell ya, Chris Chelios is not Duncan Keith.

Some may bristle at the notion that Keith was the most important Hawk. You can if you’d like, except you’d be wrong. When Keith was good, the Hawks were good. It was that simple. When he was quite simply Daredevil right in front of his blue line, the Hawks did no worse than a conference final in ’09, ’10, ’13, ’14, ’15. When his play dropped off, so did the Hawks’. Patrick Kane has played his best hockey the past three seasons. The Hawks have three playoff wins. When Keith played his best hockey, they were at least in touching distance of the Cup.

I know why Keith hasn’t gotten even the buzz that Seabrook did. Seabrook’s night came at the end of a lost season, and the Hawks needed anything to glom onto to make fans feel good. Keith’s night comes at the beginning of the season when the Bears are still very much on everyone’s mind and interest in the team is low overall.

Seabrook has always been more media friendly than Keith. Keith has been prickly at times, outright dismissive at others, and is still the only Hawk who has occasionally raised a middle finger to John McDonough’s media policies (such as always wearing a Hawks hat during scrums, and this only endears him to me even more). Keith has a couple ugly suspensions on his record (he should have gotten way more than he did for trying to behead Charlie Coyle). Though I suppose Seabrook trying to turn David Backes into plaster in ’14 is a blotch as well (though it’s something we’ve all dreamed of, and strangely led to the best two games of Sheldon Brookbank‘s career. The world is indeed strange).

We probably can’t ignore that Keith was somewhat front and center of the first off-ice controversy of this Hawks run, you may remember it as “Patrick Sharp And His Lack Of Traveling Pants,” though he was more an innocent bystander. Tellingly, it was Seabrook who took the lead on trying to quash that in the dressing room. Keith remained silent, which is basically how he’s always preferred it.

Keith has never been the pivot in the Hawks’ ad campaigns or marketing drives. He’s left that to Toews and Kane or Sharp. It just hasn’t mattered to him. He’s had his charity and his fundraising nights, but even those were a little more underplayed than Brian Campbell‘s or others’. That’s another reason you don’t hear as much as you might think about his upcoming milestone.

But on the ice, Keith was the Hawks when they were rolling over the league night-in and night-out. It was his ability to step in front of traffic before the line that was the root of their entire game. To turn around the play before it ever got dangerous, and get the puck quickly to the forwards in space and with the opposition caught.

Keith’s unnatural quickness and physical condition allowed him to do things no other d-man could get away with, and to do it for 25 minutes a night at least. He could travel outside the circles to dispossess a forward or chase behind the net, because A. he was on them so quickly he almost always won the puck before anyone had time to calculate what to do and B. he could recover in time to get away with not doing so. Those skills have gone now, but they were vital to everything the Hawks did.

What’s funny about Keith is that he’s not nearly as talented as some. He’s never been a great passer. He’s nowhere near the puck-handler that Karlsson or Subban are. You know about his shooting skills. He’s not particularly big, though he’s far stronger than you’d think. What he was wasn’t just fast, but fast-twitch like no one else. Keith’s entire game, his instincts, were basically a constant, “Fuck it, I’m going.” And he’d get there. Every damn time.

He was the anchor for the only three Cup teams almost all of us have ever known. The picks and development of Henri Jokiharju, Adam Boqvist, Nicholas Beaudin…are all meant to try and replicate what Keith was.

And it’s not like Keith’s dead. He’s looked better given a partner who can do some of the stuff he used to, when it’s not dependent on only him to do it. He’s 35 now, and while he’s always been a conditioning freak, who knows how much longer he wants to do this. He’s backed off his claims of wanting to play until he’s 45, though given his fitness he probably could have made a run at it.

Perhaps the most rewarding thing for fans is that we got to watch the whole arc of Keith. He didn’t come up anywhere near the finished product like Toews or Kane or even Seabrook was close to being. Those first two years under Trent Yawney or Denis Savard, it was like watching Nightcrawler on a coke binge (what can I say? I’m in a Marvel mood. Blame the Spider-Man game). He was flashing everywhere, and most of the time is was where he wasn’t supposed to be. And he was doing it in front of no one. You’d see an amazing play about once per game, and then he’d spend the next period on the wrong side of the ice pointed the wrong way and all four of his limbs flailing away like he was drowning in sewage. Which he mostly was.

Given a real coach though, who only had to put light harnessing on it all, and Keith took off. Suddenly that raw power and speed was pointed in the right direction, without taking away from it, and no one could live with it. We saw the whole arc. Keith went from uncontrollable, festering energy to the league’s best. So did the whole team.

Keith’s the best to ever do it in the Red and White from the blue line. He doesn’t chase or probably want the acclaim. But he’s going to get it here. He should be getting it from everywhere.

So thank you, Duncs. None of this happens without you, whether you care or not if anyone knows that.