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Photo Credit: © Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The Layers of the Duncan Keith Trade

The great part about the NHL is you rarely see full agreement on a player, a trade, a signing or a topic. Outside of Wayne Gretzky and Connor McDavid winning the Hart trophy unanimously, there will always be varying opinions on signings, trades and draft picks, but usually none can be proven accurate until later on. Every year on the day after the NHL entry draft, you can read hundreds of draft report cards. Some teams get an A, others a B and so on. But most of it can’t be proven accurate or incorrect until many years later, yet we digest it yearly. It is a crazy tradition that often goes unchecked years later to see which report cards were accurate or not.

Player trades are similar, but usually we can find out the results sooner than seven years later like most drafts. And that leads me to the Duncan Keith trade. The Oilers acquired Keith and AHL prospect Tim Soderlund from Chicago for Caleb Jones and a conditional 2022 third round pick. If Edmonton makes it to the Stanley Cup Final next season and Keith is top-four in TOI among D-men in the first three rounds, the picks becomes a second rounder.

If that condition is met, then obviously the trade was worth it for Edmonton. But realistically the odds that happens are quite low. So let’s call it Jones and a third for Keith. Soderlund has one year remaining on his ELC. He scored 0-5-5 in 23 AHL games last year. He is a long shot prospect at this point.

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I think Edmonton got the best player in the trade. I don’t think there is much debate on that. However, they also inherited his entire $5.5m cap hit. The actual money owed is irrelevant to me. The salary cap is about AAV, not actual cash, and Keith is a 5.5m cap hit for the Oilers. Chicago retaining none works in their favour. I think it is unrealistic to suggest they would have retained 50%. I think 20% would have been plausible making Keith a $4.4m cap hit for Edmonton.

I’m not big on hyperbole. I believe two things can happen simultaneously. It doesn’t have to be one or the other all the time. Edmonton needed to upgrade its left defence. They did that in this trade, however, they also took on a lot of cap space. Far from ideal. Now, someone could argue if Keith plays poorly at $4.4m or $5.5m it doesn’t really matter. Fair point. So maybe I’m stuck on the optics of it, but my main critique of the deal is no retention.

There is one caveat for those who loathe the deal. Courtesy of Puck Pedia.

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What if Father Time has caught up to Keith, and he struggles mightily this season and decides to retire? If he opts to walk away rather than play when he is owed only $1.5m in actual money, then Chicago has a massive recapture penalty. Edmonton made the trade expecting Keith to play both seasons, but the possibility he struggles does exist and this is pretty good protection in case that occurs. Odds are low, but I found this an interesting twist.

Cap hit is very important in a salary cap era, so Keith needs to play well for the deal to work out for Edmonton. Whether he was at $4.4 or $5.5m might not matter. If he struggles the deal will not be good. Edmonton, and Keith, believe he will good

“I feel I have a lot left. Once we hit the ice we will see who is a step behind. I’m not one for talking, but we will see what happens when we get on the ice,” said Keith when asked how much game he has left.

Holland offered this.

“The cap number is a liability if he doesn’t play well. Right now everyone is speculating. Analytics can give you a guide. Stats can give you a guide, but no one knows for sure how players will react. At this stage of his career he’s a second pair defenceman.”

CAN HE PLAY WELL?

Mar 20, 2021; Tampa, Florida, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith (2) against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the first period at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I can’t say for sure. No one can. We can all project based on previous seasons, but this will be a new season, in a new city on a new team with a new partner and new teammates. Anyone who claims they know for certain what will occur is insincere. We can project, but projections and actual results are often different. I think Keith has more left in his game than some of the charts state.

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There are some things that are irrefutable. Keith turns 38 on Friday. Every player slows down eventually. Some sooner than others. The question I have is how poor was Keith in Chicago?

The Blackhawks were arguably the worst 5×5 team in the NHL last season. Here is where they ranked as a team in these five categories.

CF% FF% SF% GF% xGF%
30th (45.8) 31st (44.9) 31st (45.6) 24th (44.4) 31st (43.9)

It would be difficult for any player to have solid numbers based on those team totals. Some have suggested the issue with Keith was that his D partners were better without him. I looked it up via Natural Stat Trick. Here are his stats with his most common partner, rookie Ian Mitchell.

**Keith with Mitchell (with M), without Mitchell (w/o M) and Mitchell without Keith (M w/o K)

with M w/o M M w/o K
CF% 41.6 47.2 46.6
FF% 40.4 44.7 46.5
SF% 43.6 46.0 44.9
GF% 47.3 50.0 31.5
xGF% 39.4 43.5 45.9

Keith had better numbers in every stat without Mitchell, while Mitchell only had two stats better without Keith. The struggles the Keith/Mitchell pairing had jive with the evaluation I received from a West division scout last season.

“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.” You can read the rest of his evaluation here.

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Edmonton was middle of the pack in xGF% and GF% last season. Keith should have better partners in Edmonton and for sure will have better centres to play with. Chicago’s most used four centres last season were Pius Suter, David Kampf, Carl Soderberg and Dylan Strome. Kirby Dach played 18 games. Jonathon Toews played none. Playing with better players will benefit Keith.

However, he might not play with Adam Larsson.

WAS KEITH TRADE A SIGN?

Dec 18, 2019; St. Louis, MO, USA; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Adam Larsson (6) looks on during the second period against the St. Louis Blues at Enterprise Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

I believe a small part of the Keith trade was due in part to the uncertainty of Adam Larsson’s future. Edmonton wants to re-sign him, but right now Larsson seems intent on at least testing the free agent market. Maybe after conversations with other teams, he will opt to stay in Edmonton, but if he goes to free agency there is no guarantee he will sign in Edmonton and that would leave a big hole. Tyson Barrie is also likely to test the market, so Edmonton will lose two of their top-four D-men in TOI from last season.

Losing Larsson would be a huge blow, and Keith will not replace him directly, but filling out a defence corps requires multiple additions. If Jamie Oleksiak gets to market Edmonton will make a strong push for him, but so will other teams. I still think Dallas will re-sign him after the expansion draft so he might not even make it to market. Jake McCabe is another solid option, but he is American, and if recent free agent signings are any indication, he likely signs in one of the 25 US markets instead of Canada.

Since 2018, Alex Galchenyuk, Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis signed in Ottawa and Winnipeg. But Thompson and Lewis signed for league minimum while Galchenyuk signed for $1.05m. None of them were highly ranked. The odds of McCabe signing in Edmonton are slim. And now that Ryan Suter is set to become a UFA, after getting bought out by Minnesota, the odds of landing him would be equal to McCabe.

If Larsson does leave, and Oleksiak re-signs in Dallas, the market for top-four D is very slim. Edmonton could go after Dougie Hamilton, but they’d be in a bidding war and there is no guarantee they land him. With Larsson leaving and Oscar Klefbom destined for LTIR that frees up $8m to make a strong pitch for Hamilton.

I wonder how much the defensive options, or lack thereof, played a factor in the trade.

OTHER TRADE OPTIONS…

We know Seth Jones, Jack Eichel, Vladimir Tarasenko and Evgeny Kuznetsov are available, and in some cases have asked for a trade. Frank Seravalli outlined, in his Trade Targets at DailyFaceoff.com, another 21 names who are prime targets to be moved.

The challenge for the Oilers is they don’t have a lot of organizational depth to offer up in trades. Let’s be realistic: How many legit trade pieces does Edmonton have?

Evan Bouchard, Philip Broberg, Dylan Holloway and Jesse Puljujarvi are the top-tier, followed by Dmitri Samorukov, Ryan McLeod, Rapheal Lavoie, Kailer Yamamoto and Ethan Bear.

Edmonton likely doesn’t want to trade any of the players in the top-tier, and while Bear would garner the most interest in the second pair, I don’t see him as the main piece in a deal that would return any of the top players available.

They got Keith because they were willing to take on his contract. We can debate if that was a good decision or not, but Jones wasn’t landing you an Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Rasmus Ristolainen, Vince Dunn, Nate Schmidt or any of the other blueliners on Seravalli’s list.

So the “make another trade” isn’t as easy or as realistic as some think.

I’ve said and written many times it would take years to overcome the horrific trades of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and the first and second round picks in 2015 for Griffen Reinhart. And in the summer of 2021 you are seeing the ripple effects of those trades. Edmonton only has Larsson to show for those deals, and he has yet to re-sign. If he doesn’t, then the pain of those deals keeps mounting.

Holland didn’t make those deals, but he inherited the mess and now has to try and fix it. Not an easy task. The Andreas Athanasiou trade didn’t pan out. Part of that was out of his control due to COVID, but it was a deal he made and it backfired. It cost the organization some trade capital. The picks themselves weren’t going to help their on-ice product this season or in the three, but regardless of what happened after, that trade didn’t help the team.

It isn’t nearly as devastating as the Hall, Eberle or Reinhart trades, but it still hurt the organization.

Duncan Keith is better than William Lagesson, Kris Russell or Jones. Jones is the only one who might become better, but that is unlikely. I have a bigger concern Keith won’t give you value at his cap hit, rather than Jones being better than Keith the next two seasons.

The challenge for Holland is he doesn’t have enough quality assets to make deals for some of the players available in a trade. Could they make a package that would entice the Rangers to send them Pavel Buchnevich? Or get Tyler Bertuzzi out of Detroit? Even Rickard Rakell out of Anaheim? Who could Edmonton offer, that they want to trade, that those teams would accept?

And how many other D-men are available to acquire? I don’t think Edmonton was in a massive position of power in the Keith trade. I would have liked to have seen some salary retention, but looking at the roster on the blueline, and potential tradeable assets, I don’t see how Edmonton could realistically get involved in other deals to acquire legit top-four defenders.

Players like Tyler Benson, Cooper Marody and Ryan McLeod don’t have the trade value some Oilers fans feel they do. They won’t be landing you a proven, legit NHL player. Which leads me to the UFAs.

FREE AGENTS…

Newly acquired forward, Oiler Milan Lucic and GM Peter Chiarelli before talking to the media in Edmonton, Friday, July 1, 2016. Ed Kaiser/Postmedia

Free agents make more sense for Edmonton because they don’t have to surrender any assets to acquire them. However, overpaying for free agents is never a good option. And Cup contenders aren’t built through free agency anyways. If you try to build through free agency you will be grossly disappointed.

If they do sign some UFAs, short term is the way to go. Mike Smith has signed consecutive one year deals, and both were solid value. Tyson Barrie was arguably the best free agent signing the Oilers have made in decades. It was also a one-year deal and they got great value in return. If you think Barrie was only productive because he played with Connor McDavid, you are grossly underrating his production. If it was is so easy to produce with McDavid and Draisaitl, how come none of the Oilers wingers, outside of Puljujarvi, could do it last season? Suggesting Barrie wasn’t a good signing makes little sense to me.

But he has been the outlier for Edmonton in free agency. Their track record on free agent signings hasn’t been good, and it has been horrific on deals of three years or more.

2011:
Eric Belanger. Three years at $1.75m. Played two years. Was bought in final year of his deal.

2013:
Boyd Gordon, three years at $3m. Played two seasons. Was traded in the final year of his deal to Arizona for Lauri Korpikoski.
Andrew Ference four years at $3.25m in 2013. Played two seasons. Spent final two years of his deal on LTIR.

2014:
Mark Fayne, four years at $3.625m. Played two seasons in Edmonton, then two years were spent in the AHL.
Benoit Pouliot, five years at $4m. Played three seasons in Edmonton. Missed 66 games due to injury. Was bought of final two years of his deal.

2015:
Andrej Sekera, six year at $5.5m. Played two full seasons in Edmonton, then 36 and 24 games in years three and four. Bought out of final two years of deal.
Mark Letestu, three years at $1.8m. Scored 60 points over the first two seasons, and was traded in March, 2018 for Pontus Aberg. Easily the best of the 3+ year deals.

2016:
Milan Lucic, seven years at $6m. Played three seasons in Edmonton, then traded to Calgary for James Neal.

Under Holland’s watch none of the free agents signings have been crippling. Kyle Turris did not work out last season. Maybe he shocks people and rebounds, but if he doesn’t he will be in the minors and cost $525K against the cap. Not good, but compared to many of the previous signings Turris is minimal damage.

The Oilers have some cap space to get involved in free agency, but I caution to tread lightly. And it isn’t just the Oilers who err in free agency. Most contracts which are 4+ years often end poorly. Some players are productive for the first few seasons, but often tail off in the final years, while others are overpaid from day one.

Edmonton should focus more on short-term deals in free agency, until more of their young players are ready to handle important minutes and roles. They need to ensure the players they sign or acquire can give them enough juice to keep improving.

Edmonton has four years to become a legit contender. If they don’t, Leon Draisaitl and then Connor McDavid will walk in free agency. The Keith trade improves Edmonton’s left side, but the cap hit makes it a risk. Edmonton has many holes to fill and waiting for ideal trade options isn’t easy or very realistic.

The Keith trade presents one valid concern — value equal to the cap hit. Some will hate the deal. Others will call it risky. Others will say ballsy and some will like it.

Only time will tell who is right.

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