We did Corey Crawford last week, and then I opined that either he or Keith will be the most important Hawk this season. But Keith is pretty much the most important Hawk every season. When he’s good, the Hawks are one of the best teams in the league. When he’s bad, the Hawks suffer. When he’s other worldly, the Hawks can do things like win a Stanley Cup playing with four d-men, taking out offensively gifted teams like Anaheim and Tampa in a row.
Two Norrises, two gold medals, three Cups, and now a Conn Smythe, and yet it feels like when discussions in the national press come up of the best d-men in the league, I still see names like Weber, Suter, Subban, Karlsson more often than I see Keith’s. That’s ok, we know the truth here. And last spring’s utter dominance probably shifts that discussion. No one would argue that Keith is a surefire Hall of Famer now, and he might even be first ballot.
What does that leave in store for Keith this year? Let’s dig in…
Last Season: 80 games, 10 goals, 35 assists, 45 points, 20 PIM, 55.6% Corsi (+4.0 Relative), 50.6% Corsi of Competition
Playoffs: 23 games, 3 goals, 18 assists, 21 points, 4 PIM, 55.1% Corsi (+6.0% Relative), 51.8% Corsi of Competition
What’s funny about Keith’s last season is that in a lot of ways it was just as good if not better than his previous, second Norris-winning season the year before. While his overall possession numbers weren’t as high, they were higher relative to what the team as a whole was posting (3.4 Relative vs. 2.0 in ’13-’14). He shot a higher percentage, his goals-against per 60 minutes was lower, and the ratio of shots the Hawks took while he was on the ice was higher. What he didn’t get this time, other than Eddie Olczyk leading his own parade from November on this time, was the avalanche of secondary assists that he got in ’13-’14. Which you’d have to say isn’t really his fault, because a secondary assist needs a teammate to make another pass and then another teammate to finish off the chance. The Hawks’ shooting percentage last year when Keith was on the ice was 7.4%, vs. the 9.1% they were the year before. That’s probably most of the difference.
The one thing other premier defenders have on Keith is that he continued to not see the toughest competition on the Hawks. Once again, Oduya and Hjalmarsson played the role of mine-sweeper and letting Keith blitz whatever was left, a formula that has seen the Hawks rack up a ton of success the past three seasons. It’s not that Keith’s a bum-slayer, because he still sees the second best teams have to offer and a lot of teams in the West throw two or three scoring lines at you. He’s just not seeing the toughest. And as a huge part of the Hawks’ game is predicated on Keith breaking up the play early and turning it around in the neutral zone up the ice as quickly as possible, or escaping his own at pace, letting him do it against slightly easier competition makes sense.
As for the playoffs, there’s not much more I can add to what we said in the spring, where Keith basically put on the best playoff performance the Hawks have had from any individual in the Quenneville Era. I’m not even sure it’s close. While the world marveled at Victor Hedman in the Final, Keith had been doing that for four rounds for 30 minutes a night at least. It was only fitting he netted the winner in the clincher (self-anointed pest of the world Cedric Pacquette is still looking for him) because the Hawks wouldn’t have been there without him.
’15-’16 Outlook: There’s always a concern what a long run in the spring will take out of a player. Keith is coming off three consecutive. However, the last time he was coming off a parade, he won the Norris the following season. Obviously, he wasn’t 32 then, and we’ll hear all about Keith’s super human conditioning and endurance. At some point, the miles have to start making a dent in this machine, though it doesn’t feel like it will be this season quite yet.
Even if Q wanted to back off of him a bit to start the season, that’s going to be awfully hard to do with the current jumble that the Hawks’ blue line is. And because of that, Keith might have to actually face the toughest assignments out there again. We don’t know how that would affect his contribution to the Hawks’ drive up the ice, but you’d have to think a little. And even a little causes major ruptures in the whole structure.
Or… we could see Hjalmarsson and Seabrook paired to keep Keith concentrated on driving play again, but that brings into question of a trusty partner. Keith saw some time with TVR in the beginning of last season to good effect. But we don’t know if that works over the long haul, and that leaves Daley to play with Rundblad and for you to drink until you can’t see straight so you don’t have to watch it. While you can pretty much bank on what Keith will give you, there are certainly questions around him to be answered.
If the Hawks are looking to cut his minutes in some way, I’ve been advocating getting him off the power play during a portion of the season for years. Quite simply, he’s not that good of a PP QB, as his passing up the ice isn’t always sharp and he has a tough time getting shots through traffic. This is something Daley can do well, and probably a better fit on the 1st unit. The second unit would still need a QB though, but perhaps that can be solved through whatever other d-man is yet to arrive.
Whatever the case, no Hawks fan should worry about Keith until there’s evidence that we should. Haven’t seen anything like that yet.