Under-the-radar Keith not unappreciated in Chicago

Monday, 05.13.2013 / 11:31 AM
Brian Hedger  - NHL.com Correspondent

CHICAGO -- Patrick Kane was nearly done talking with reporters after a practice on Saturday afternoon when he was asked about Duncan Keith, the Chicago Blackhawks' top defenseman.

The question was about how Keith continues to go somewhat overlooked when the conversation turns to the NHL's best at the position. Names like Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Erik Karlsson roll right off the tongue, while Keith only seems to make national headlines while he's embroiled in some sort of controversy.

"He's one of those guys you kind of take for granted because he's back there every night and does pretty much the same thing," Kane said. "Whether it's shutting down the other team, or creating offensive chances, or jumping in the rush, or how fast he skates, or how good he is defensively with his stick … he does so many things that you can name and really is huge for our team."

It's true that Keith's numbers have dipped since winning the Norris Trophy in 2010, the same season Chicago ended a 49-year Stanley Cup drought, but he's still in the prime of his career at 29 and is still the Blackhawks' top blueliner. He also remains one of the best in the League, even if he does fly under the radar a bit.

As he listed all of Keith's responsibilities and tools on the ice, even Kane started to sound a little surprised at just how much Keith does for the Blackhawks, who racked up 77 points in 48 games to win the Presidents' Trophy. Chicago used a noticeably improved defensive effort this season to stay so consistent, and Keith's three goals, 24 assists and plus-16 rating led the way.

Kane even compared him to Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews -- who doesn't necessarily rack up a ton of stats, but consistently does many things at an elite level.

"It's kind of like Johnny," Kane said "You kind of take for granted, maybe, some of the things he does because he does the same thing every night."

One thing that has changed for Keith from the previous three seasons is his ice time. It's gone down.

During the regular season, Keith averaged 24:06 and nearly 29 shifts per game this season as compared to 26:53 and 31 shifts a game a year ago. His time during the Stanley Cup Playoffs also dropped during the Blackhawks' Western Conference Quarterfinal series victory against the

Minnesota Wild.

He averaged 23:21 and 31 shifts in five games against the Wild, which was down quite a bit from the 30:15 and 33 shifts he logged per game in a first-round loss to the Phoenix Coyotes last year.

The decreased ice time is by design.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville tried to keep his team's legs as fresh as possible during the shortened season, which was packed with back-to-back games and sets of three games in four nights. He knew how important a refreshed Keith would be, so he stuck to a plan that cut back his top defenseman's minutes and shifts by roughly three a game.

Keith had become known for his desire to absorb minutes, but the new plan hasn't bothered him. In fact, he said he's barely noticed being on the ice less. While Suter and rookie Jonas Brodin logged some eye-popping amounts of ice time for the Wild, Keith was content with the amount he got.

"I don't really notice it, to be honest with you," Keith said. "When you think about it, it's only one or two shifts less in the course of a game. Sometimes maybe it's two or three minutes, but it's really only one or two shifts or one shift less a period. It's not that much. Every year's kind of different. This year we have (more defensemen) that can play and there's no need to play those minutes that maybe Suter was playing. I think it's good for the team, too."

Keith's stamina in that opening series did get tested, though. His wife, Kelly-Rae, gave birth to their first child, son Colton, last Wednesday morning prior to the fourth game of the series. Keith had already flown back to Chicago for the birth on Tuesday and flew back to the Twin Cities, without sleeping, for the game. After playing a team-high 23:57, Keith realized he'd been awake for about 48 hours -- and didn't really care.

"I definitely feel more responsible to look after a little guy," Keith told NHL.com on Saturday. "My wife's doing most of the work right now, though. I don't want her thinking that I said I'm doing all the work. Her mom's in town and she's helping out a lot, so we're thankful she's been able to help out and be here."

The other thing on Keith's mind, of course, is the playoffs.

As of Saturday afternoon, the Blackhawks still didn't know if they'd be facing the Detroit Red Wings or San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Semifinal round. For Keith and defense partner Niklas Hjalmarsson, that question also meant wondering what star's line they'd draw as an assignment -- Pavel Datsyuk or Joe Thornton.

Keith and Hjalmarsson, who were paired together midway through this season, led the way in shutting down the Wild's Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise in the first round. They did it, according to Keith, with a simple formula -- hard work plus teamwork.

"It was just trying to play good defense, having a good gap in the neutral zone, eliminating the second and third chances and [goalie Corey Crawford] doing a good job, too," Keith said. "It's not two guys who do it. It's not three. It's not one line of forwards. It's a team game."

Nobody on the Blackhawks understands that more than Mr. Under-The-Radar himself.

"He's been so good, for so long, that I think after a while you just take it for granted what you see from him," said Crawford, who often has a front-row seat. "He's definitely a special player. The plays he makes sometimes … it looks easy, but when you're on the ice you appreciate the talent he has and what he can do for us."

Crawford then laughed before adding: "I think that's enough for pumping his tires. I don't want his head getting too big, but I think he knows how good he is. He's an awesome player."

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