Saturday, April 16, 2016

Duncan Keith ... the perfect defenseman

By Larry Wigge

Six games without hockey.

That is like being locked up and having the key thrown away for Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith.

Keith's six-game suspension for high-sticking Minnesota's Charlie Coyle March 29 put the Chicago Blackhawks All-Star defenseman for the final five games of the 2015-16 season and Game 1 of the first-round of their St. Louis playoff series.

The two-time winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman rails at the suspension, though he decided not to appeal it. He felt six games was a little hard ... but he is honest to himself.

You see, the tenacity and fearlessness are a part of Keith's game.

"It's tough sitting out and watching games and not being a part of it," Keith explained. "I compete hard. I'm not going to go change," Keith said. "It's not the first big game I've played in.

"It's a game and we want to get the win, so do what we can to find a way to get that win. But as far as dealing with somebody trying to get a reaction out of me, I take hits all the time. That's all a part of it."

When he returned to the game Friday night, Chicago was down 1-0 in the series and trailed in Game 2 1-0. But ...

With a faceoff deep in the St. Louis end and the clock ticking down in the second period, Jonathan Toews drew it back to Patrick Kane, who sent the puck back to the blue line to Keith.

Keith unleashed a slap shot through a screen that deposited high into the net with just five seconds remaining in the second period.

Later Keith also set up an empty-net goal as the Blackhawks evened the series 1-1 after Chicago's 3-2 victory.

"He comes up big in those moments," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "He can be quiet for 55 minutes in a game and all of a sudden he's putting one into the back of your net. He's a calm guy back there. He does a great great job of breaking them out of their zone. You notice when he's not in the lineup and it's something we have to be ready for because he's a big part of their team."

Keith has three Stanley Cups, two Norris trophies, two Olympic golds and one playoff MVP award.

He dared to be himself ... and it has worked out pretty well.

Chicago's big-minute defenseman Keith remembers that his parents never pushed him to be a lawyer or doctor, an electrician or a fireman. They told him to just find a career path he liked and go for it.

No pressure.

It wasn't unusual for a youngster in Fort Frances, Ontario, just across the border from frigid International Falls, Minnesota, to choose hockey. After all, everything was frozen around town for months.

"I'd like to say I got the athletic genes from my mom or dad, but I guess that comes from my grandpa, Wilf, who was a soccer player in England," Keith laughed. "As far back as I can remember, there was nothing other than hockey that I wanted for my career."

Keith's dad, David, is a bank manager and his mom, Jean, is a nurse's aid.

And even though he was a tiny kid, the diminutive youngster overlooked the barriers he faced and made it to the NHL. He's grateful to his parents the figure skating classes they enrolled him in when he was just a tot. Experts will tell you that being so good at one part of the game often gives a kid the opportunity to catch up with the rest of the pre-requisites needed to play hockey at at high level. And that's the story of Keith's rise to stardom.

"It may sound funny, but I remember checking almost every day to see if I had grown," Keith said with a twinkle in his eyes. "I may have only been 5-3 when I was 14, but I had big plans. I knew I could skate. I knew I had talent."

Blackhaws coach Joel Quenneville says, “His energy rubs off on everybody, he's just a complete player.

"What can I say, he’s a horse."

"He's all over the rink, jumping into plays. He makes the game easier for everyone," said Toews.

"He's one of those guys you kind of take for granted because he's back there every night and does pretty much the same thing," Kane said. "Whether it's shutting down the other team, or creating offensive chances, or jumping in the rush, or how fast he skates, or how good he is defensively with his stick ... he does so many things that you can name and really is huge for our team."

You could say he was always measuring the future, measuring his pathway to success.

"A guy like Duncan Keith is fearless," Montreal Canadiens executive Rick Dudley told me. "He will go back and get the puck under duress. It used to be the bigger defenseman would have to hold up and you couldn't get a forecheck, but now under the new rules you need more character because you are going back with the threat of being hit almost all the time now.

"So whether you are a defenseman big or small, you have to have character and quick feet, and character is what Duncan Keith is all about."

To a layman's eye, the first thing you notice about Keith is his speed. He parlays that talent into an enormous positive, being able to take a chance offensively and still recover to be back in position defensively.

"I'll never forget a play last year against Nashville where Dunc was up the ice creating an offensive opportunity in a 4-on-4 situation in overtime and in an instant the play went back the other way," Florida GM Dale Tallon said, shaking his head (Tallon was with Chicago at the time Keith was drafted). "David Legwand, who has some of the best wheels in the NHL, was off ... and Keith gave him a head start and he still caught him before he could get off a shot at the other end of the rink."

Duncan is also remarkably durable, having missed just one game in his five NHL seasons. He credits his work with weights for improving his size and plyametrics and speed sprints with making him leaner and faster and all the stamina he needs to play the kind of minutes the Blackhawks have given him the last couple of seasons.

Keith, who was a late bloomer because of his lack of height, came on fast after three seasons of Tier II hockey at Penticton in British Columbia and 1 1/2 more nondescript seasons playing at Michigan State University. Still, the Blackhawks thought enough of him to select him in the second round, 54th overall, in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.

"When we drafted him, he was 5-11 and 160 pounds," recalled Tallon. "Now, he's 6-0 and 190. That commitment to his growth physically and as a player shows me he has an unbelievable desire to get better."

Duncan Keith was a business major at Michigan State University. Weightlifting and mountain biking are his hobbies. When he was growing up, he was a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs. His favorite players back then were Paul Kariya and Pavel Bure, which probably helps to underscore his flair for the dramatic on offense. That plus the fact that he was both a forward and defenseman until he was eight or nine when he was put on defense for good.

"I liked defense right away -- getting the opportunity to control more of the game back there," he told me. "I always believed in myself. All I needed was to find a way to make it."

The offense was always there -- in Fort Frances, Penticton, Michigan State and Kelowna, but a driven Duncan knew there were other parts of his game -- can you say defense -- that needed work.

"I wouldn't be here today without the help I got from Rob McLaughlin, my bantam coach, who helped improve his skating stride using plyametrics," Keith acknowledged. "I noticed improvements on the ice right after just a week with Rob. It was like I had gained an extra step or two that I didn't have before.

"The same was true when I went Michigan State and Ron Mason taught me about systems and being responsible at both ends of the rink. Then, when I went to Norfolk (American Hockey League) and played for (former NHL defenseman) Trent Yawney, he really taught me how to play the position -- the responsibilities I had in my own zone, how to match up with a speedy forward or a power forward and win the one-on-one battle. I'll never forget how nice it was to have somebody at that point in my career willing to take the time to teach me how to be better."

"He's got great skills. The kind you can't teach," remembered Mason.

After Keith began to play on defense full-time, he switched his idols from Kariya and Bure to a mix of three of the greatest defensemen of the last few decades -- Bobby Orr, Brian Leetch and Nicklas Lidstrom.

"I've watched old tapes of Orr and, well, everything he did on defense, plus I liked how Leetch jumped up and anticipated the play to get open for a shooting lane or pass. And how can you not like Lidstrom's calm on the ice and the way he controls the play," Duncan explained. "Right now, I'd say I'm more of a puck-control defenseman. I'd rather try to make a pass and break it out, then go on the rush."

You don't have to go far from Bobby Orr, Brian Leetch or Niklas Lidstrom to get to Duncan Keith ... watching him/them on replay ... or in your dreams.

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