The popular thesis on Duncan Keith, who reportedly is retiring after 16 seasons, was that he was a product of the “new” NHL, after the Great Bettman Lockout II in 2005. The thought was that someone his size would never have survived in the clutch n’ grab n’ hogtie era that came before, given that he was barely 5-10 and 180 pounds. That’s not necessarily true, as anyone with the instincts of Keith could have played at any time, and he was certainly no peach to forwards in the corner or in front of his own net (ask Daniel Sedin). He was no less pleasant than a Pronger or a Stevens to play against, even if he didn’t incapacitate quite as many.
But the flurry of rules changes that opened up the game after that lockout, especially the removal of the red-line and the two-line pass, meant that defense had to be played in a different way. In a lot of ways, Keith was a grouping of contradictions. He piled up a lot of points without being all that skilled with the puck. He was one of the fastest skaters in the league while having one of the more awkward and choppy looking strides around. And he was a defenseman whose best work came before an opposing forward even entered Keith’s defensive zone.
Since 2005, with the red line gone, more and more teams were happy and planned to streak through that neutral zone instead of dumping the puck in. Stretch passes over half the length of the ice became commonplace, and the game sped up exponentially. When teams could gum up the neutral zone through traps and holding, forwards were basically sitting ducks for any defenseman and also couldn’t generate much speed to retrieve pucks that had been dumped in. It’s why they resorted to trapping, conceding that retrieval and trying to force turnovers later. With all the momentum they could gain without a red line, those races to the puck behind the goal line were suddenly a viable way to attack.
Keith, and the Hawks, rose to prominence by making sure those races never happened in the first place. Sure, teams could try and dump the puck in behind Keith, but he was too quick and would get there first every time. But Keith’s main skill was having the foresight to jump up ahead of his line, cut off the play before that dump-in or play at the blue line or that forward could receive a pass. He shrunk the ice, forcing wingers and centers into decisions far sooner than they were used to making them. He could do that thanks to his recovery speed, but he rarely needed it. He was aided by the Hawks’ forwards and their dedication to backchecking back then. They would push opposing puck-carriers into the rocks that were Duncan Keith. The prototypical play was Keith forcing a turnover just outside his blue line, poking the puck ahead to start a rush, and ending up with a secondary assist. Hell, Eddie Olczyk got him a second Norris Trophy by harping on those secondary assists on every national broadcast he could (35 of his 55 assists in that 2013-2014 were secondary). It’s how most of his points were accrued.
Keith’s masterpiece was the 2015 playoffs, the Hawks’ third Cup, when he averaged 31 minutes a night in the postseason as the team was reduced to using only four d-men per game thanks to Michal Rozsival’s injury and the inertness of Kimmo Timonen after his acquisition. Not only did Keith turn his side of the ice into a DMZ, but he chipped in 21 points in 23 games including the Cup-winner in the Final. It filled his trophy case with yet another trinket, a unanimous Conn Smythe to join the two Norris Trophies, the two Gold Medals, and the three rings.
Eventually, much like any star corner in the NFL, teams just gave up trying to enter the Hawks’ zone on Keith’s side. It came down to getting past Brent Seabrook on the other, which generally meant some degree of physical punishment for whoever chose that task. It was the ultimate compliment to Keith.
Keith was never Makar or Hedman, but he was the bridge to them. Sure, Nicklas Lidstrom was more graceful and played a positional game that squeezed off space without anyone realizing it until he’d stripped the puck away. Keith’s was more frantic, looking to essentially use jam or bump-n-run coverage and end things as quickly as possible. Except Keith never had to run, because generally his first engagement won possession with opposing forwards caught up the ice.
Eventually, most teams in the NHL tried to defend that way, trying to dam a faster and faster moving river through the neutral zone. Now the best d-men in the league can do that and carry the puck out of their zone on their own, as there isn’t much time to complete a pass or ring-around.
Hockey almost always moves too fast and too randomly to be cut down the way Keith did. But watching those Hawks every night it was plain to see how the ice was just half the normal size when Keith was out there. Not because he was a threat for a big hit, though he could become unhinged without too much prodding. Opponents didn’t fear for their safety so much as fear that he would always turn the play around with them unprepared for the Hawks forwards in open ice.
The biggest compliment you can get is when the other team just stops trying you.