Danny DeKeyser was one of the most sought after NCAA free agents in recent memory, and less than two full NHL campaigns later it appears that was with good reason.
DeKeyser, 24, hasn’t just become an NHL regular, he’s become a standout for Detroit. DeKeyser, a Michigan native, was sought after by several teams before finally inking a two-year deal with the Red Wings, and is rounding into a solid defensive player who can contribute offensively while covering up for the inefficiencies of his teammates. Now in the first season of his second two-year deal with Detroit, it appears DeKeyser’s destiny is to become the number one guy on the Red Wings blueline.
DeKeyser was never really an incredible offensive contributor in any of his three seasons at Western Michigan University – his highest scoring seasons coming on a pair of 5 goal, 17 point campaigns – but he this season he finds himself on pace for a career-high 32 points. With two goals and 21 points already, DeKeyser is only two points off of his previous career high, set last season when he tallied 23 points in 65 games.
And while the offensive output is nice, what’s more impressive about DeKeyser is how well he’s adjusted to the defensive side of the puck so early in his career. In an era where young defenseman are often sheltered and brought in slowly, DeKeyser was thrown to the wolves. In his first full season on the Red Wings blueline in 2013-14, DeKeyser was second in average ice time for rearguards (21:38), behind only veteran Niklas Kronwall (24:18). Even then, he averaged only one fewer shift than Kronwall per game.
DeKeyser, then 23, also played the fourth most minutes shorthanded of all Detroit defensemen and the third most on the power play. He did this all while playing in front of one of the most brilliant coaching minds of this generation, Mike Babcock, and earning enough of his coach's trust and respect to garner the playing time. This season, it has only increased.
He’s leapt over Kyle Quincey in shorthanded playing time, and only Kronwall plays more time on the power play than DeKeyser. His average ice time is down, but only slightly to 21:09, a smaller decrease than Kronwall, who plays 41 seconds less per game this season that he did last.
All of this would mean nothing if Detroit was porous defensively, showing only that DeKeyser is the best of a bad bunch. But that’s not the case. No team allows fewer shot attempts against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time than Detroit. And at 5-on-5 with the score close, only Tampa Bay is better, even then by less than half a shot per 60 minutes. Detroit has the best 5-on-5 Corsi For percentage in the league with the score close (54.8 percent), and is tied with Chicago for second in the league at 5-on-5 at all scores with 54 percent.
But just because DeKeyser plays a lot of minutes doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a star. What does indicate that, however, is that his most frequent partner, Quincey, sees a 4.5 percent dip in his Corsi For percentage at 5-on-5 when he’s separated from DeKeyser. On top of that, when Quincey is on the ice without DeKeyser, only 21.4 percent of his starts have been in the defensive zone. DeKeyser, on the other hand, is deployed in the defensive zone 35.4 percent of the time. That doesn't just make him a possession driver, it makes him a heavily relied upon two-way blueliner used in key situations by one of the smartest coaches in hockey.
DeKeyser is one of the 173 defensemen in the NHL that has played 500 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this season, and he ranks 17th in Corsi For at 54.7 percent. Of the top 20 defensemen, he’s the only one who has a relative zone start figure of lower than -4 percent. His relative starts are nearly twice as low (-7.5). That means of all the faceoffs Detroit takes at 5-on-5, DeKeyser starts in his own zone nearly eight percent more often than his teammates. That's a lot of time playing out of his own zone.
Add to it that there are only 89 defensemen in the NHL this season that have played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey with the score within a goal in the first and second periods. Of those defensemen, DeKeyser has the 12th lowest offensive zone starts relative to his team at -9.7 percent. What that means is when the score is tight and Babcock wants to put a reliable defenseman on the ice, he opts for DeKeyser more than any other rearguard in his arsenal, and that includes Kronwall.
A number of high profile undrafted free agents have come out of the NCAA in recent years, including names like Justin Schultz, Andy Miele and Drew LeBlanc. But none have panned out like DeKeyser, who plays at the hardest position for young players to pick up. None of those players – not even Schultz, who lit up the AHL for 48 points in 34 games during the 2012-13 season – have panned out in the NHL quite like DeKeyser.
When the Red Wings signed him to his first two-year deal, there was hope he would become a steady defenseman for years to come. DeKeyser has become more than that, though – he’s become the rising star on the Detroit Red Wings blueline and he’s only getting better.