A couple weeks ago, our colleague and probably the most flowing lochs in the Hawks blogosphere Chris Block gave his state of the Hawks post. There’s a lot in there, some of which you might not have known, but there’s one part of it I’ve been meaning to dive deeper into. I do encourage you to read the whole thing though, and then give Chris a hard time for bailing out of doing Wrestlemania with me even though it was his idea.
At the end of this, Block ruminates on whether or not the Hawks should at least kick the tires on moving Duncan Keith this summer. The reasons are pretty clear. The Hawks have to get out from under some of their ridiculous contracts (although Keith has been worth every penny, any contract that runs 13 years has to be considered ridiculous). Keith is getting older. While the hit remains the same the actual salary starts diving next year making him even more affordable than he already was. And Keith is aging, and not all that gracefully at that.
We’ve talked about it a few times over the years, but looking for Keith precedents in previous players is a hard thing to do. Few d-men have dominated games and seasons simply on quickness and instincts, as Keith did for far longer than he had any right to. One name we have used is Scott Niedermayer. He retired after his age-36 season (Keith will be entering his age-35 season next year). And Niedermayer was more offensively gifted than Keith and by some distance. The hands don’t go away even if the feet do. Keith has no such attributes to fall back on.
Yes, Nick Lidstrom played until he was 41, and comedically won a Norris at 40 simply because voters didn’t know they could vote for anyone else. But Lidstrom’s game was much more calm than Keith’s, sort of letting things come to him and simply being ahead of everything in his mind. There was no high-wire with Lidstrom. Keith’s game has been all high-wire since the moment he arrived and looked like a kindergartner who got hold of Jolt Cola (dated reference alert).
Watching Keith this year has been mostly an uncomfortable experience. You can see his computer trying to recalibrate with how to play knowing he can’t take all the risks and be as aggressive as he used to be. Keith could actually do a lot of things wrong in the past and his quickness would allow recovery to see him get away with it. He could venture outside the circles in his own zone, he could chase more in to the corners or behind the net, he could skate into more traffic with the puck and squirt out. He can’t really do all of those things anymore, but the internal mechanism is still saying he can too often. His instincts and brain constantly seem to be at odds.
That doesn’t mean Keith is useless or a complete anchor, as say Seabrook has been at times this season. He hasn’t been anything like a ghost like Sharp has been on most nights, to use two his contemporaries. To me, the worst case scenario with Keith is that he can be an effective second-pairing d-man, and probably can for a couple more seasons. And I think he could do that in a couple of ways. Against easier competition he could still push the play up the ice as he used to. Or you could just use him as a human shield as Oduya was used here, or Dan Hamhuis is used in Dallas right now, or Pesce and Slavin are used in Carolina, or a few other examples. You’d ask no offensive or puck-moving responsibility of him, and just have him basically keep the puck out of his net against top lines while whoever is designated for the top pairing role can simply run over what they see.
But therein lies the problem. Whichever you choose to do with Keith, you then have to solve your top pairing problem. I’m one of the few who is comfortable with Connor Murphy as one half of that, but you need the other half and that’s the half that has to be the possession monster. That’s the half that has to get up and push the play, join the offense, and score. And right now, that’s nowhere near in the Hawks system. Unless by some miracle they think Henri Jokiharju can do that next season. I suppose Ivan Provorov went straight from the WHL to the Flyers, so it can happen. But he wasn’t asked to play on the top pairing either. We know it ain’t gonna be Gustav Forsling either.
Keith would still have value to other teams, if he were to waive his NMC. Off the top of my head, the Islanders, Leafs, Flames, Oilers, Canadiens are all teams that have defensive depth issues that want to win sharpish. We could probably figure out a couple other teams that would at least make a call, even with Keith’s age and expense.
But still, does Keith get you back a young, top-pairing potential d-man? Skeptical of that. If you’re just swapping him out for more mid-pairing or bottom-pairing flotsam, I don’t know that moves you forward. Yeah, if you can get the Oilers to give up on Nurse, go right ahead. And I guess they’re capable of any kind of stupidity.
For the Hawks, Keith is almost certainly the most movable of “the core.” They wouldn’t ever dare move Toews or Kane, given how their entire marketing strategy has been built on them, problematically at times, for going on 11 years now. Seabrook’s play has made his deal immovable. Keith has never had the connection with the Hawks that the two forwards do. You don’t see him on the Chevy ads or the posters, and that’s mostly because he doesn’t have much interest. Keith is also the only one you see openly flouting McD’s rules about how to be presented during interviews and such. He clearly just does not give a fuck about that aspect of being a pro hockey player, and honestly more power to him. While on the ice Keith has been the most important cog to the Hawks success (and he has, don’t even play), he hasn’t been nearly as important to the Hawks off it. And don’t think that wouldn’t play a role.
Still, I doubt the Hawks and Stan Bowman would do this unless they got some offer they couldn’t refuse. But it seems more plausible than it did even just a month or two ago.