The undisputed leader of the Chicago Blackhawks’ defensive core is Duncan Keith. At 37, he is also the oldest player on their current roster. That doesn’t grant him an excuse for providing less than the elite level of play the Blackhawks need out of him, nor justify what he failed to provide this postseason.
Chicago had the youngest average age of any team involved as of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. That doesn’t illustrate just how inexperienced most of their roster is, though. They have eight players that are 25 or older, which brings their mean much higher than it otherwise would be.
Keith has the earliest birthday on the roster. Corey Crawford, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane are all in their 30s, alongside him. What these players also have in common is that they are looked to as leaders who embody work ethic, production, and results. As the most accomplished veterans throughout Chicago’s roster, they are mentors for what it takes to succeed.
Chicago’s First-Round Failure
After fighting through their qualifying series to make it into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Blackhawks were simply unable to handle what the Vegas Golden Knights brought forth in the first round. As the lowest seed from the Western Conference, Chicago was matched up against a Vegas team that took over the top spot as a result of their round-robin success.
Chicago was quickly down 3-0 in the series, facing a sweep for the second time in as many postseason appearances. Game 4 saw an elevated effort from the Blackhawks and they earned a 3-1 victory to force a Game 5. Crawford played outstanding, which was a welcomed consistency for the team the whole round.
Failing to show up in the same manner for the following game, the Blackhawks lost 4-3 in Game 5. After earning a quick two-goal lead, they didn’t do enough to sustain it and prolong their postseason. Ultimately, whether fair or not, blame gets directed towards those who lead a locker room.
Need More Goals For, Not Against
Looking at Chicago’s player stats from the playoffs, the names you’d expect to see sit at the top. Toews, Kane, and Dominik Kubalik, who has continued to impress since joining the organization, also took the top three spots on the team in point totals throughout this past season.
The Blackhawks aren’t lacking in offensive ability. That includes those who have proven track records of success, along with youthful talent already showcasing their prowess. However, with that said, they let in more goals than they scored for the third year in a row.
Chicago’s defense leaves much to the imagination as far as what it may ultimately be capable of. It’s not that there aren’t veteran names like Calvin de Haan playing alongside promising rookies like Adam Boqvist. The recipe just hasn’t effectively mixed together in the way the team requires.
Where the Blackhawks should always have the added advantage is in the play of their most accomplished and elite-level defenseman. For as impactful of a player as he’s always been, Keith needed to do more to help his team this postseason.
Unmatched Levels of Endurance
Keith is renowned for his athletic abilities and fitness levels. He’s continually shown that he’s one of the highest-endurance players throughout the league. Yet, there was still room available for him to have stepped up and provided more of what his team was lacking these playoffs.
Eight years beyond their next oldest defenseman, and 17 between him and the youngest, Keith maintains a key leadership role. He’s a mentor for the organization, let alone those on the back end alongside him. His sturdiness adds an important piece to Chicago’s defensive puzzle.
However, Keith is also looked at as a producer. He’s part of a core group of players on this roster who are expected to adapt throughout any in-game scenario that requires it. Beyond their regular duties, players like Keith, Toews, and Kane are responsible for lifting up the lineup at all times.
Less Ice Time Lowers Results
Throughout the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Keith accumulated the lowest average ice time per game since his rookie year. At only 25:27 per match, it didn’t provide the duration necessary for a player of his stature.
Although coaches dictate who plays and when, Keith needed to showcase that he deserved more time. Had he continually proven that it was to the Blackhawks’ benefit to keep him in the action, he could have built an argument for more minutes. Not enough was done during the time he was given.
Through nine contests this postseason, Keith only accumulated five assists. Although offense is not his primary function, those point totals don’t illustrate that he’s the intimidating defender who has also become an influential force throughout important games.
How His Numbers Stacked Up
Not putting up the type of points he’s been known to throughout Chicago’s deepest playoff runs, they needed him to take charge in other ways. Unfortunately, his numbers lacked in crucial areas beyond just goals and assists.
Keith averaged just over two blocked shots per game, which was actually slightly higher than his career postseason amount in that respect. Those totals weren’t the problem.
Plus/minus doesn’t always tell the whole story, but ending with a team-worst minus-seven certainly did not illustrate that Keith was helping more than hindering. Clearly, his defending was not as effective as is required for success in the playoffs.
He averaged less than one hit per game. Although not known for his physicality, Keith needed to be more involved in this aspect to make his presence felt. Instead of competing to win a race, using his body could have proven beneficial through such battles to force control back in his favour.
Had Keith controlled more possession, it could have directly correlated with improvements in these areas. With the puck on his stick instead of an opponent’s, he wouldn’t have had to block as many shots, his team would have been scored on less, and landing more hits would have proven unnecessary.
Additionally, with increased opportunity to coordinate play, Keith would have had more chances to end up on the scoresheet. Even though he’s not as prolific as he once was, a Keith slapshot from the point at a pivotal part of any game is still something the opposition fears.
Age Doesn’t Have to Limit
Being realistic about what to expect from any athlete as they grow older, age sometimes does play a natural factor in what their bodies will let them do. Keith, though, is still capable of more than he displayed.
It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that he needed extra ice time, as that could ultimately have aligned with collecting even worse results. However, Keith’s play history illustrates that he strives when he has more opportunity to impact the game.
He’s now participated in 10 postseasons. 2010, 2013, and 2015 concluded with Keith hoisting the Stanley Cup. He averaged over 28:00 of ice time throughout those years, which also saw some of his best totals in points, blocks, plus/minus, hits, and takeaways. Clearly, with added time to do so, Keith responds in a productive fashion.
As any player progresses through the phases of their career, the best ones know how to shift their focus to the strengths that will prove them invaluable. Keith still has the skillset and attributes necessary to be an effective defenseman in a number of ways.
He simply did not earn the ability to demand added ice time, which could have elevated his overall impact to the level he’s known to bring it. Chicago needed more of him. Unfortunately, he just didn’t provide when it mattered most this year.
Stats courtesy of: Hockey-Reference.