Of all the improvements, changes and maturing that went on with the Chicago Blackhawks
between last season and this season, the evolution of defenseman Duncan Keith
into a Norris Trophy contender might be the biggest reason the Stanley Cup now resides in the Windy City.
The 2002 second-round draft pick made strides in each of his first four NHL seasons, slowly growing into a steady, puck-moving defenseman that not only could start the offense from the blue line but contain the top stars on other teams. Keith's 1 goal and 6 assists led all defensemen during the six-game Final and cemented his status as one of the game's best blueliners.
"He's a great player," said Brent Seabrook
, who gets to see Keith's talents first-hand as his defense partner. "He finds ways to get his shots through. He's so quick that if he gets caught in a tough spot, he seems to really be able to get his feet back under him and find himself back in the play helping out. He's a great defenseman. He's a got a lot of fire under his belt. And he's fun to play with."
The leap Keith made during the 2009-10 campaign left him on the short list of those who could be called the best defensemen in the game. Without faltering on his responsibilities in his own zone, Keith set career-highs in goals (14) and assists (55) to make him the front-runner for this year's Norris Trophy. It was quite the jump from his 8-goal, 44-point performance in 2008-09.
His emergence was so great that it caught the eye of Steve Yzerman
, who was tasked with deciding Team Canada's roster for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Keith rewarded Yzerman's faith by posting 6 points in 7 games and logging a team-high 20:44 per game for the gold-medal winning squad.
Keith continued his outstanding play during the playoffs, where the difference in his game between last season and this season was as wide as the gap he currently has between his teeth.
The 26-year-old had just six points -- all assists -- in 17 playoff games last year. This year, he had 2 goals and 15 assists in 22 games, and along with Seabrook, shut down the likes of Vancouver's Henrik and Daniel Sedin and San Jose's Joe Thornton
-Dany Heatley-Patrick Marleau line.
Keith also lost seven teeth after taking a Marleau clearing attempt in the mouth during Game 4 of that series. That's just the price he's willing to pay -- and has to pay -- over the course of such a long, demanding season.
"It's been a long year, but it's been a lot of fun," said Keith, who averaged about 27 minutes of ice time in 110 regular-season, Olympic, and Stanley Cup Playoff games. "To win championships it takes a whole team effort. I've been lucky enough to be on good teams and surrounded by good people. It's just a pleasure to be part of it."
Just how good is Keith? Leave it to teammate Adam Burish
to provide the perfect description.
"He's right up there at the top," Burish said. "I play against him every day in practice and he makes me look like an idiot every day. He embarrasses me, he takes the puck from everybody. He's borderline unbeatable. The way he can skate, the way he plays with his stick, he's a freak. He doesn't get tired. I don't know how he plays as many minutes as he does.
"Best d-man I ever played with."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DLozoNHL