Admittedly, if Duncan Keith comes into the 2021-22 NHL season and kicks things off on the right foot — producing in a second-pair role, playing sound defense, and keeping up with the play for 17-19 minutes per night — few will care about how he got introduced (and introduced himself) to the team. That said, his transition to the Edmonton Oilers from the Chicago Blackhawks has been anything but seamless.
Keith may be the most polarizing player to ever join the Oilers from another franchise and on Friday, he took another step towards dividing the fan base. Those who are defending him will likely continue to do so. Those who were opposed to the Oilers acquiring him got more ammunition after his first day at training camp.
The Duncan Keith Backstory
Before Friday’s comments to the media, there was plenty of reason to be divided about the Keith acquisition. He’s an older player, he’s an expensive player and he’s not necessarily capable of playing top-pair minutes on a championship team. Sure, Keith is the type of NHL veteran who has proven people wrong for most of his career, but he’s certainly entering the Edmonton market (an extremely passionate market) with a lot to prove.
During the 2020-21 season, his underlying numbers in Chicago weren’t good. Whether it was because he played with inexperienced blue line partners or he was just out on the ice too often, if you look at his stats, his career was certainly trending downward. Despite all of that, when he decided he wanted to be closer to his son in Penticton, Oilers general manager got a call from the Blackhawks about Keith’s availability and Holland began to salivate over the idea of adding a defenseman with Keith’s resume to the roster.
Keith only wanted to come to Edmonton. Still, Holland was willing to pay full price to make the trade work. The Oilers retained no salary while giving up Caleb Jones as part of the deal. Strike one.
A Perceived Strike Two for Keith
It was then learned that Keith was going to be late to training camp. He was among the few players who had a tough time deciding about whether or not to get the vaccine. Ultimately he did, but he traveled to the United States to get his shot and as such, was forced to quarantine for 14 days upon his return to Canada. Friday was his first day at camp.
The reality is, Keith getting less time at camp isn’t a huge concern. He’s such a pro that he’ll probably be fine. However, one of the attributes Holland said he was looking for from Keith was the ability to be a leader for this team. Some fans took his absence as a sign he wasn’t putting the organization and his new teammates first.
These fans will argue that Keith should be the first guy on the ice and the last guy off. They’ll suggest he should set the example in the gym, demonstrate how to properly diet, show the youngsters how to think like a champion, and teahc everyone how to be accountable, putting in your best effort when it matters most. I’m of the opinion that his being late doesn’t suggest he can’t or won’t provide this kind of leadership. Not a lot of people agree.
Were His Comments On the NHLPA Strike Three?
On Friday, Keith skated with the members of the roster who didn’t travel to play the Seattle Kraken. He led the stretches, looked good on the ice, and was finally part of the team. He noted in his post-practice media avail how excited he was to be part of the group and said he believes there’s something special here. Other Oilers said good things about him and most of the media said he looked ready.
But, when it came to the subject of being vaccinated, a lot of things changed for fans.
Keith was asked if he was comfortable talking about the subject. He called it frustrating that he had to get the vaccine just to play hockey and noted he’s spent his entire career keeping himself in ideal shape, including spending a ton of of his life focused on his immune system. Fair enough.
When he elaborated on why he ultimately decided to get the shot, he said he felt pressure from the NHLPA to adhere to the rules to play. Had he not been essentially forced into getting the vaccine, he made it sound like he wouldn’t have. In the end, he realized he’d have missed too much time and couldn’t have been part of the team had he not gone with the program. “It is what it is he said.” He added it would have been nice to get some more support and push back from the NHLPA for players who were making that personal choice.
What to Make Of All Of This Keith Talk
In the end, Keith got vaccinated, he’s at camp and he’s now a part of this Oilers team. There’s every likelihood he’ll perform better than some are expecting and he could be a key part of the team’s overall success this season. He did what was right for the organization and did so in order to continue playing.
Still, he’s got an uphill battle ahead. His entry into this organization and introduction to the fan base has been rocky, at best. Many fans don’t like the trade. Others hate the price tag. Some don’t like the example it sets that he was late to camp and others don’t agree with his take on the vaccine policy. Frankly, this is about the least ideal way to join a franchise.
The question now will be, can he turn those who doubt him into believers? He probably doesn’t care and he’ll do his job to the best of his ability regardless of what the fans think. It will just make his life a lot easier if he’s not being booed when he hits the ice for the first time.
Jim Parsons is a senior THW freelance writer, part-time journalist and audio/video host who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes NHL news and rumors, while also writing features on the Edmonton Oilers. He’s been a trusted source for five-plus years at The Hockey Writers, but more than that, he’s on a mission to keep readers up to date with the latest NHL rumors and trade talk. Jim is a daily must for readers who want to be “in the know.”