The first time Duncan Keith played in the Olympics, he returned to Chicago with a gold medal and then helped the Blackhawks win their first Stanley Cup in nearly 50 years while averaging about 27 minutes of ice time in 104 total NHL games between the regular season and playoffs. Last year he earned his second Olympic gold with Canada and would have won his third Cup had the Hawks not lost a heartbreaking Western Conference final to Los Angeles (admit it, New York…). You would think the compressed NHL schedule in those Olympic years would be tough to shoulder, but Keith sees things the opposite way.
“Personally I like it the other way around where we’re playing every other day and there’s fewer practices," he said. "I find practices tire me out more than games. You’re on the ice longer, you’re out there more…I’d just rather play games.”
If it's work that Keith wants, it's work he will get. Once again he's a top minute man in the NHL, ranking seventh overall at 25:45 per game and that's not likely to change in future seasons. If there was one franchise that did not want to hear about the salary cap staying put at around $69 million next season, it was Chicago.
The Blackhawks have become a powerhouse in the West thanks to their enviable core, which includes Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp up front, with Keith and Brent Seabrook on the back end. But fellow blueliners Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson are quite valuable too and log tough minutes for the team.
Looking at the Hawks' cap situation, it's practically a foregone conclusion that Oduya will be gone in the summer and even then, Chicago is in a stew. The team has approximately $3 million of cap space and restricted free agents Marcus Kruger and Brandon Saad both need deals – and Saad in particular won't come cheap.
And that vaunted blueline gets a little less daunting if Oduya's gone and not replaced by someone of similar experience. Younger players such as Trevor van Riemsdyk, David Rundblad and Adam Clendening have seen time with the big squad this year and Ville Pokka could be a nice rookie insertion, but there have already been rumblings that Seabrook and his big contract will have to be moved. While I didn't ask Keith to parse his team's financial state, he did comment on how that breadth of talent has helped the team in the past.
“You need that depth defensively, especially if you’re going to make a good run in the playoffs," he said. "You need a lot of good defensemen who can step in at key times and fill a void if need be.”
As it is now, the Blackhawks are still a powerful team with the highest of playoff aspirations. Sure, they only sit third in the Central Division, but that's where they ended up last year and they still skunked St. Louis in the first round of the playoffs and came out of the division after besting Minnesota. Like the Kings, it doesn't really seem to matter where they finish in the standings: Get in and they can win.
“I don’t really think too much about it, other than it’s nice to have home-ice advantage," Keith said. "You’re going to play good teams every series and it will be hard no matter who you play.”
And if Keith is playing a lot, he's happy.