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Photo Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Acquiring Duncan Keith: Good Move or Bad Move?

The Edmonton Oilers have more holes to fill than many want to believe. They are not one or two players away from winning the Stanley Cup. There is no quick fix, but there is a clear dilemma.

The Oilers want to win a few playoff rounds and become more competitive over the next four and five seasons of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid’s contracts. But they also need to develop young players and long-term those holes need to filled internally. But the issue is they won’t fill the spots internally this year. They need two more left wingers, a third line centre, a second pair left defenceman and figure out what to do in goal. If they re-sign Mike Smith, then next summer the Oilers could have no NHL goalies under contract when Smith and Mikko Koskinen’s contracts expire. That is a scary position to be in, and I’m curious to see how Oilers GM Ken Holland navigates that situation.

There are some quality free agent goalies available that he could sign to a multi-year deal. Linus Ullmark is the best option (I assume Grubauer resigns in Colorado), and the only concern is his ability to stay healthy. I’d still acquire him, but like most free agent signings or trades there is some risk involved.

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In order for the Oilers to become a legit contender they will need more draft picks to develop. Evan Bouchard will play this season, and I sense he will play significant minutes. Ryan McLeod will play and might start as the 4th line centre. If he plays well and pushes the third centre (still undetermined who that will be) that is a good problem, but I’d plan for McLeod to be the 4C at best and ensure I have a 3C ready.

Dmitri Samorukov will compete for a spot in training camp. He is close to being NHL ready, and I expect he will play some games this season. Philip Broberg should start in the AHL, and like Oscar Klefbom early in his career, Broberg could get a recall near the end of the season. Although when Klefbom was recalled the Oilers were a bottom-feeder. Edmonton should be in a playoff spot late in the season, and the D corps will be better than 2013/2014 team Klefbom played 17 games with. Edmonton also has Michael Kesselring, Markus Niemelainen and Vincent Desharnais in the AHL. In the coming seasons if one of them can emerge as a legit third pair defender Edmonton will be in a good spot prospect-wise.

But expecting any of the aforementioned defenders to fill the second-pair left defence spot for this coming season is unrealistic.

And that’s where the Duncan Keith trade rumours come in. Here is what I know about the situation.

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  1. Chicago has now granted the Oilers and other teams interested the opportunity to speak with Keith and his agent Gerry Johannson. Chicago did this in the hopes they can get more in return for Keith, and get a true sense of how Keith views their team.
  2. Edmonton is interested. But the cost will be the deciding factor if a deal will be made. They have spoken with Keith’s camp. That doesn’t mean a trade is imminent, just that they have spoken.

WOULD IT BE WISE?

Apr 23, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith (2) looks to pass the puck against the Nashville Predators during the first period at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve seen the posts about Keith’s WAR numbers. They aren’t good, but no single chart tells the entire story. It is one aspect that will be part of the equation. Teams have to dig deep on those stats, then watch the video and analyze scouting notes.

One thing that stood out to me the past two seasons for Keith was his defence partners. Continuity for blueliners is key, and Keith didn’t have any consistent partners the previous two seasons. This year his most common partner was the pride of Calahoo, Alberta rookie Ian Mitchell. But Keith only played 275 minutes with Mitchell; which equates to 29.6% of Keith’s 5×5 ice time.

Keith played 929 minutes at 5×5 and played 275 with Mitchell, 220 with Adam Boqvist and 172 with Connor Murphy. That was still only 72% of his total 5×5 time. The final 28% was filled by playing short stints with six different defenders. A lack of continuity was a factor in Keith’s numbers and having young partners didn’t help due to Keith’s style of play. More on that later.

For comparison, Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox played 70% of his 5×5 time with Ryan Lindgren. Dougie Hamilton played 81.1% of his time with Jaccob Slavin. Cale Makar played 45.6% with Devon Toews and another 37% with Ryan Graves or Samuel Girard. Darnell Nurse played 63.% of the time with Tyson Barrie and 22.3% with Ethan Bear.

Over the past two seasons, Keith played 2029 minutes at 5×5 (54th most among D-men) and his top-three most common partners were: Boqvist (29.4%), Murphy (18.4%) and Mitchell (13.5%). Less than 50% of his time was with his top-two partners. Among the top D-men I looked at none had their top-two partners under 50% of their 5×5 TOI.

His most common linemate in each of the past two seasons was a rookie. I get the theory that you want rookies to play with veterans, but theory and practicality often don’t jive.

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SCOUTING REPORT…

Admittedly I haven’t watched enough Blackhawks games the past two seasons to give an accurate assessment of Keith. I thought he was really good in games one and three against Edmonton in the playoff bubble in 2020, but small sample size is never a good evaluation tool, so I reached out to a pro scout who watched the West division very closely this year.

“His skating is still very good,” said the scout. “He is always in the play. He is aggressive. He defends by attacking and I think he is better suited to play with a veteran partner who assesses situations quicker and better than rookies. Veterans often adapt better when playing with an aggressive partner.”

It is also important to note that Keith today isn’t the Norris-trophy winning Duncan Keith. He is one of only 13 D-men in NHL history to win the Norris twice. Between 2009-2017 Keith finished top-nine of Norris voting seven times. In his prime he was elite and one of the best defensemen in the NHL. He isn’t that player now, but how much of that skill remains in his game? I asked the scout.

“Like I said, his skating is still very good. His conditioning is top-notch, he said. “He can play 23 minutes, although you’d be better served playing him fewer minutes. If you acquire him to be your top guy you will be disappointed. My one concern is can he handle not being the top guy? Keith wasn’t the top PP guy this year. Boqvist was and I think Keith struggled a bit with that. I never spoke to him, and I’m just basing that off what I saw. It is difficult for elite players who were the Alpha for so long to suddenly not be that guy. Whichever team acquires him probably won’t have to deal with that, because on a new team, in a new situation, he won’t have that same feeling of being the guy.”

Interesting evaluations. Boqvist logged 119 minutes on the PP, while Keith had 135, but Boqvist missed 22 games. Even missing 22 games he played more PP time with Patrick Kane. The scout’s comment about Keith’s reduced PP time caught my attention. How much of that was a factor in his overall play? No eye-test or chart will accurately tell us. That is the challenge of evaluating players is there are often things beyond what we see or read that impact the outcome on the ice.

In Edmonton Keith likely won’t get much PP time. Evan Bouchard and Darnell Nurse will be the main defenders on the powerplay. If I’m Holland that is part of my conversation with Keith’s camp. Is he okay with that? I’d agree with the scout, that Keith not being on the PP in Edmonton will impact him differently than it would in Chicago. He was never the PP guy in Edmonton, while he was in Chicago. Change is difficult for any of us, and if it impacted him negatively a bit I don’t hold that against him. It is human nature to struggle when change is presented.

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WHAT I THINK…

Feb 11, 2020; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl (29) and Chicago Blackhawks defensemen Duncan Keith (2) look for a loose puck during the third period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s start with the obvious. There is a risk in acquiring Keith. Maybe he can’t help, or maybe he can in the proper role. Elite players, and Keith was elite, have more room for error when their game erodes. I saw someone suggest acquiring Keith would be similar to Andrew Ference. No offence to Ference, but in his prime he was not remotely similar to Keith. Keith was a legit #1 for many years and if he is only 70% of what he once was, he is still has more runway than when players like Ference, who was a solid #4 for many years, start to age.

If Edmonton acquires Keith, then he should play with Adam Larsson or Ethan Bear. I don’t play him with Bouchard for the exact reason the scout outlined. Keith’s aggressive style is not a fit with a rookie. Don’t ask Keith to change his style. He is who he is, but Edmonton has to recognize this and play him with a veteran who can read the play and react accordingly.

You could start the season with Nurse-Bear, Keith-Larsson, and then when Bouchard is ready for more minutes he plays with Nurse and Keith can play with Larsson or Bear, depending how things go.

If Keith only had one year remaining on his contract, the trepidation in acquiring him would be extremely low for me. The second year of his deal is a concern. And of course the big question is cost. Right now I sense GM Stan Bowman and the Blackhawks view Keith in the overall scope of his career, and not the current status. Keith has played the most games of any defenceman in Blackhawks history (1,192) and only Stan Mikita played more games with Chicago.

Keith was a major part of their three Championship seasons. He was a main contributor.

In 2010 he played 28:11 minutes/game. Four more than Brent Seabrook and 7:13 more than Jonathon Toews.
In 2013 he averaged 27:37/game. Four more than Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson and six more than Toews.
In 2015 he averaged 31:07/game. Five more than Seabrook and Hjalmarsson and 10 more than Toews.

He was a superstar for the Hawks.

Chicago will be hesitant to just give him away, so of course their asking price today is higher than what teams want to pay. The truth is Keith wants out of Chicago for family reasons and hockey reasons. It wouldn’t be ideal to have him return to Chicago, knowing he doesn’t want to be there.  So teams looking to acquire him can be patient and wait for the price to drop. He has a full no-movement clause so Chicago has to protect him in the draft in the expansion draft. Exposing him means Seattle could claim him and give up nothing.

The challenge for Chicago is Keith’s career stats and reputation are elite, but his current status isn’t. I get why they don’t want to just give him away, because there is a realistic chance Keith can still be a solid contributor on a new team.

I’ve seen many suggest he isn’t good based on WAR. Again, it is one statistic and there are many factors to consider. Teammates, situational use, confidence, frustration and others. Some who believe strongly in certain graphs claim Keith is for sure done, but they said the same thing about Mike Smith last summer. Some claimed last off-season Darnell Nurse would never be a top pair defenceman. There is no exact science in evaluation, and making extreme statements often leads to incorrect evaluations either good or bad.

It is important to remember that no one, me included, knows for sure how well Keith will play on his new team. It is valid to say the numbers are a concern. I’d agree with that, but the over-the-top claims of him being horrible and no good I disagree with.

We have witnessed many cases of players going to new teams and having much more positive impacts than we expected based on their play and statistics when with their prior team. Maybe Keith will get a jolt on a new team. Maybe he won’t, but elite players are playing better into their late 30s than ever before. Smith just had his second-best season ever at 38 years of age. Remember Ron Hainsey, who had arguably the best four years of his career from 36-39. And he was never as elite as Keith.

I see the concern having two years on his deal. I understand the concern about recent results. I also consider that the scout I quoted earlier and two others said they see Keith as one of those players who can be productive until he is 40.

There is risk in acquiring Keith, but there is also a chance of some solid rewards. He is a future Hall-of-Famer who can still skate. He thinks and sees the game at a high level and I could see him helping a team as long as he isn’t your #1 left defender.

QUICK HITS…

Mar 15, 2021; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Adam Larsson (6) skates against the Calgary Flames during the second period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

— The Oilers and Adam Larsson’s camp continue to talk. I sense this is about Larsson just taking his time to ensure he makes the best decision. It is the first time, and likely the only time he will be this sought after as a free agent. There is a lot to consider, so he doesn’t need to rush. The talks have been positive, and both seem to be in the same ballpark when it comes to term and AAV. It is a major decision for Larsson, and so I get why he is taking his time. There is risk for both sides if he goes to market. Edmonton can lose him, which would create a big hole on the right side, while Larsson risks he might not get the same offer from a team he wants to play for. Once free agency opens, Edmonton can’t just wait and hope Larsson signs. They’d have to explore other options just like he would be.

— Holland will talk with Oscar Klefbom later this week or early next week to see how he is doing. I don’t see a scenario where Edmonton protects him in the expansion draft. He has been rehabbing for the past few months, but has yet to train like NHL players need to train. He won’t be able to tell Holland he is 100% ready to start the season. The risk to protect Klefbom and lose a healthy player to Seattle doesn’t make much sense. Right now the best case scenario is Klefbom returns next season and finds out if his shoulder can handle the stress and rigours of the NHL. I sense it is 90% likely he doesn’t play again. There is always a chance he can, but it seems low at this point.

— Edmonton has until June 26th to decide if they will qualify Jujhar Khaira or let him become a free agent. I think they’d like to re-sign him, but more at $1m instead of the $1.3m he needs to be qualified at. Based on last year’s market I don’t think he would command $1.3m on the open market.

—  If Jamie Oleksiak makes it to free agency, I’d take a long look at him. He shoots left, but he can play the right side. He is versatile, has really grown into his massive frame and I think he is going to be a force in the coming years. He is a prime “late developer” and if I was his agent I’d recommend he test the market.

— It is important to remember that free agency is not where you build a contender. You can make some astute signings to complement your group, but your main pieces usually come via the draft or via trade. If Edmonton is going to become a legit contender it will be when more of their already-drafted players emerge and can help, or Holland makes some impactful trades. He isn’t doing his job if he isn’t talking to Bowman about Keith. It doesn’t mean he should just pay any price and throw caution to the wind, but I’m a big believer in acquiring players with high skill pedigree. Even if they are a bit older.

The fact he won three Cups is a bonus, but I will always look to add players who were main contributors when they won, over players who just played a solid role on the team. Keith has elite NHL skill, even if it has eroded a bit. At the right price, I’d look at him, because I believe at 37 he can give you more than Jones, William Lagesson, Samorukov or Broberg can this coming season. And if in 2022/2023, Keith is in your third pair because Samorukov or Broberg have surpassed him then your team is better.

I don’t believe Edmonton is desperate to land Keith at any cost. Holland has been in discussions with Bowman, and has spoken to Johannson to try and get as much information about Keith and his desire to play in Edmonton. I’m told Keith wants to be on a competitive team and sees Edmonton as a team that is improving.

Now the dance intensifies. Will Chicago get the return they want, or will Edmonton or another team get a deal more to their liking?

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