Norris Candidate: Duncan Keith

NHLHS writer David Strehle takes a look at Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith’s development into a potential-Norris Trophy candidate.

At age 26 and in his fifth NHL season, the Chicago Blackhawks’ Duncan Keith has developed into an elite defenseman and has made a strong case for Norris Trophy candidacy, as the NHL’s best defenseman in the present season.

Along with defensive partner Brent Seabrook, Chicago boasts the premier shut-down pairing in the league.

While Keith’s road to the NHL was not nearly as quick as that of another potential Norris contender, 20-year-old Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings’, the extra seasoning he received may have made him a better player in the long run.

Selected by Chicago in the second round (54th overall) of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, the Winnipeg, Manitoba native attended Michigan State University, where played parts of two seasons in the CCHA for the Michigan State Spartans.

In his sophomore year in 2002-03, Keith left the Spartans after 15 games to play for the Western Hockey League’s Kelowna Rockets. In 37 games with the Rockets Keith registered 11 goals and 35 assists for 46 points, with a +32 rating.

Keith signed a contract with the Blackhawks before the 2003-04 season, and joined the Norfolk Admirals of the American Hockey League. In his first year as a professional, Keith scored 7 goals and added 18 assists in 75 games.

Heading into the 2004-05 season, Keith had a chance of making the big club. But the owner’s lockout of the players that cancelled the entire year dashed any hopes of his NHL debut.

Keith spent a second year in Norfolk. That season, Keith continued his development and finished with 9 goals and 17 assists in 79 games.

Keith made the Blackhawks in training camp prior to the 2005-06, and he quickly became a mainstay on Chicago’s defense corps. In 81 games that season, Keith recorded 9 goals and 12 assists, and was a -11 for a team that was still a couple of years away.

His average ice time of 23:25 and 119 blocked shots led the team, and his ice time ranked second among NHL rookie defenseman. The Blackhawks rewarded Keith by inking him to a four-year extension after the season.

During the 2006-07 campaign, Keith’s goal total dropped to just two, but he set personal bests with 29 assusts and 31 points.  He once again led Chicago in ice time and blocked shots.

The slick-skating defenseman had a breakout year in 2007-08.  Keith began the season playing alongside of Seabrook as the team’s top pairing, and their outstanding play earned them even more playing time.

Keith led the ‘Hawks in ice time again, and he repaid them with a career-high 12 goals and 32 points.  He also led Chicago with a +30 rating, which was second among NHL defenseman and fifth overall in the NHL.

Keith’s play earned him a spot as the Blackhawks’ lone representative at the 2007 NHL All-Star game, the first selection of his career.

Keith’s role as a leader was becoming more and more evident on a young and promising team.  Prior to the beginning of the 2008-09 season, Keith was named an alternate captain.

And Keith responded with his best year, with eight goals and career-bests in assists (36), points (44), and +/- (+33) in 77 games.

Chicago made the playoffs.  For the first time in his career, Keith would play in the postseason.

Keith was integral as the Blackhawks dispatched the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks before falling to the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Finals.  In 17 games, Keith registered six assists.

Keith and Chicago carried that momentum into the current season, and the team has been near the top of the Western Conference standings for the entire campaign.

As Keith’s game has continued to improve, talk has become more and more prevelant of his ascension to the upper stratosphere of NHL rearguards.

Through the Blackhawks’ first 74 games, Keith has already set career-highs for goals (13), assists (53), and points (66).  His 66 points ranks second on the team to only Patrick Kane.

Keith also played for Team Canada in February and won a Gold Medal at the Olympic Games in Vancouver.  Originally set to be teamed up with ‘Hawks partner Seabrook, Keith ended up being paired with Doughty and formed Canada’s top defensive duo.

Poised and humble, Keith praised Doughty in an interview with the Toronto Star during the Games:  ”I mean, I was in the American (hockey) league when I was 20 years old.”

Some guys can mature faster than other guys and he’s obviously a great player. To do the things he does at such a young age is pretty incredible.”

Ironically, it just might come down to these guys as the top two deserving candidates for the Norris Trophy.  With both Keith and Doughty being young, it could be a running battle for many years to come.

And the scary thing is we almost certainly have not seen the best out of either player yet.

To make sure that Keith doesn’t get away, Chicago locked him up with a 13-year, $72 million extension in December.

It was the richest pact in club history, and made it evident just how important the Blackhawks felt it was to keep him in the Windy City for the duration of his career.

At just 26 years of age, Keith already owns an Olympic Gold Medal.  With Chicago’s continued development, a Stanley Cup may not be too far off in his and the team’s near future.

Neither should the James Norris Trophy.  And this just may be Keith’s year to add both.

David Strehle
NHLHS Flyers Correspondent / NHL Writer
Twitter: @PhilaDAVEia