ATLANTA -- Chicago Blackhawks
defenseman Duncan Keith
admits he became a bit anxious after being summoned to the general manager’s office earlier this month.
”I didn’t know what was going on and, at first, was a bit surprised since it’s not every day the general manager wants to speak with you, so I was kind of nervous,’’ Keith admitted. “But, it wasn’t that long of a walk to his office, so I really didn’t have too much time to think about it.’’
Once he arrived at Dale Tallon’s quarters, however, that uneasy feeling quickly subsided.
”Mr. Tallon was smiling, so once I saw that, I was loose,’’ he said.
It was then the third-year GM informed Keith he would be the lone representative of the Blackhawks in Sunday’s NHL All-Star Game here at Philips Arena (6 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio). Additionally, he’ll be the only first-timer among Western Conference defensemen.
”I do feel as though I’ve earned this opportunity, but, at the same time, I’m a little surprised since I feel I’m still a young guy and, as a defenseman, things take a little longer,’’ Keith said. “When I look at the other defenders I’m with, it’ll be pretty remarkable having Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer by my side. It’s going to be a great experience and it’ll be fun to be out on the ice with these guys.’’
Unless you’re a fan of the Blackhawks, Keith is a relative unknown. Following two seasons with the Norfolk Admirals of the American Hockey League, however, he made Chicago’s roster out of 2005 training camp and immediately established himself as a true workhorse as an NHL rookie. He averaged over 23 minutes of ice time in 81 games and was awarded a five-year contract extension. For the 2006-07 season, he performed in all 82 games, led the Blackhawks in ice time (23:00) and blocked shots (148) and finished with a career-high 31 points (29 assists).
The added minutes have benefited Keith to the point that he now treats every shift as if it’s his first.
”I think gaining that extra time on the ice is a confidence booster,’’ Keith said. “When you make a mistake, you learn from it and get right back out there. It’s important to show confidence and work through those tough stretches, something I do every day.’’
A second-round pick (54th overall) of the Blackhawks in 2002, Keith is once again leading the team in average ice time (24:53) and shifts (27.1) per game this winter. He was actually on the ice for over 34 minutes in a 4-3 setback to the Montreal Canadians on Jan. 8 when he also dished two assists. The 24-year-old native of Winnipeg, MB, Canada, is second on the team among defenseman with 17 points (12 assists) through 50 games and his plus-16 rating is tops on the club.
”I’ve been given a good opportunity in Chicago to improve each season,’’ Keith said. “The more you play, the more experience and confidence you’re going to get. I think I’ve had a lot of good coaches along the way and have learned a lot the last two years. That combination has certainly helped in my becoming a better player. Having said that, I feel I still have a lot to improve on and maybe one day can become the player that Scott Niedermayer is today.’’
Keith, who grew up admiring Niedermayer and Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers, said breaking into the league at his position is an extremely tough chore.
”I think defense is one of the toughest positions to play, other than goalie, because you’re the last man or the second to last man back, so if you make a mistake, the puck will end up in scoring position,’’ Keith said. “If a forward makes a mistake, you have the defense to bail you out. I think it’s definitely a critical position and takes some time to master.’’
With the assistance of former Blackhawks coach Trent Yawney, who was replaced by Denis Savard on Nov. 27, 2006, Keith was able to perfect his craft along the blue line.
”When I went to college (Michigan State), I really concentrated on offensive play and jumping in as much as I could,’’ Keith said. “I wasn’t too concerned with defense. But when I turned pro, Coach Yawney (a former Chicago defenseman) pulled me aside and taught me everything I needed to know about being a pro defender. I appreciated what he did for me and it was nice to have a guy, at that point in my life, teaching me the proper technique. I feel there isn’t any situation I’m not comfortable with now and I have a solid foundation.’’
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.