LOS ANGELES — Duncan Keith’s hands are fidgeting beneath the table, palms pressed together, fingers interlaced, knuckles turning white as he squeezes and twists and squirms. It’s All-Star weekend media day, and he’s being asked about his least favorite topic: Duncan Keith.
But when asked if it bothers him to toil in the considerable shadow of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, Keith loosens up a bit.
“I don’t have to talk to media as much,” he said with a chuckle. “I don’t mind it. I think Kane and Toews deserve what they get. They are what they are. … I don’t feel like I need more, or that I’m not getting what Kane and Toews are getting as far as recognition. I’m totally fine with that. It’s not what I play for. It’s not what I’m all about.”
For a guy who’s won three Stanley Cups, two Norris Trophies, a Conn Smythe Trophy and two gold medals, Keith somehow still flies under the radar — at least, compared with his more famous teammates. Casual observers seemed almost surprised he was named one of the 100 greatest players in NHL history on Friday night, when his résumé is easily the most impressive among current Hawks. Really, he was the only shoo-in on the team.
It’s understandable why he’s not always the first guy fans think of when they think of the best defensemen in the world. He doesn’t have a signature characteristic, a trademark move, a style all his own. But ask his teammates, coaches and opponents about him. To the people who’ve been lucky enough to play alongside him, or unlucky enough to go against him — people that really know, who really see, who really understand the game — Keith is as good as it gets.
“Not knocking fans or anything like that, but there are maybe some things that they don’t see,” said Carolina’s Justin Faulk. “He brings it all. You saw in the playoffs, he can play damn near the whole game. And he plays well at that level. It’s not something you see every night from a normal defenseman. He’s just able to bring it every night.”
Keith doesn’t have the booming slap shot of Montreal’s Shea Weber. He’s not a point machine like Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson. He doesn’t score goals at the remarkable rate of San Jose’s Brent Burns. And he doesn’t have the personality and on-ice flair of Nashville’s P.K. Subban.
But there are no holes in his game.
“I think that’s what makes him so good,” said Columbus’ Seth Jones, who had his battles with Keith during his years in Nashville. “He doesn’t have the hardest shot and he might not be the fastest, but he does everything just as good as everyone else. He’s so smart with the way he plays the game, as well. He never put himself in a bad situation. He always seems to make the right play, make the right read.”
Jones called Keith “a pain, man.” Burns called him “feisty.” Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman called Keith a role model. But the word that kept popping up among the league’s elite defensemen was “consistency.” Keith logs heavy minutes in all situations, and rarely is off his game.
“He’s as steady as they get,” Kane said. “You look at your defense, and if you ever take him out of the picture, things are looking a lot thinner back there.”
But what really sets Keith apart, according to Subban, is how much better he makes the players around him. Subban recalled a conversation he had with Keith shortly after he won his first Norris Trophy, and before Subban won his.
“I said, ‘Wow, you won the Norris, what’s it like?’ ” Subban recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, look at the team that I play on. … And for me, it clicked that he understood the importance of playing with great players, and using players around him. He’s an amazing player, he’s going to have success regardless of who’s around him. But his ability to understand how to use the guys around him, and conserve his energy, is what makes him so great.”
Of course, Keith’s not hurting for accolades or recognition, even if he’s still somehow underrated and overshadowed. He’s the most decorated and accomplished defenseman of his era, which is why he was a no-brainer for the NHL 100.
But even Keith said he was completely surprised by the call from commissioner Gary Bettman that he was named to the list. Maybe he doesn’t think of himself in that way, and maybe casual fans of the sports don’t, either.
But for those on the ice with him, those that know him and the game best, Keith is already an all-timer.
“He’s obviously elite,” Weber said. “He’s been elite for a long time, and he continues to play at a high level. He’s one of those guys that does everything well. There’s not that one thing that really stands out, but he does everything. Everything about his game is always good and solid.”
Follow me on Twitter