TAMPA, Fla. — It’s hard to know when Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith is kidding.
Keith has such a dry sense of humor and such a deadpan delivery that it’s hard to know when he’s serious, when he’s sarcastic, when he’s angry and when he’s just messing with you. Teammates, staffers and reporters alike have found themselves at one point or another just staring blankly at him, waiting for some kind of confirmation that he’s joking.
So when he was asked about his heavy ice time at age 34, Keith looked a reporter right in the eyes and said, ‘‘I want to play till I’m 45.’’ And when he recognized the familiar blank stare, he quickly added, ‘‘Honestly.’’
‘‘Eleven more years,’’ he said. ‘‘I feel like I’m 22 right now; I do. I’m 34, and I feel great. I feel better than I did at times when I was 27, 28.’’
Only five players have played an NHL game at age 45 or older. Gordie Howe played until he was 52 and Chris Chelios until he was 48. Goalies Maurice Roberts and Johnny Bower played at 45, and Jaromir Jagr is 45 and still going strong with the Flames.
If anyone can join that list, it’s Keith. He’s a fitness fanatic who is signed through the 2022-23 season, when he’ll be on the verge of 40.
‘‘I could see it, the way he takes care of himself and his conditioning level,’’ coach Joel Quenneville said. ‘‘I don’t think he’ll be playing these kinds of minutes, but I like his ambition.’’
This will be the 13th consecutive season in which Keith leads the Hawks in ice time, dating to his rookie campaign in 2005-06. Going into the Hawks’ game Wednesday against the Lightning, Keith was averaging more than 25 minutes.
By the time they hit their mid-30s, most players start playing fewer minutes to preserve their bodies for the grueling season. The Hawks don’t have that luxury, not with a patchwork blue line that’s just now starting to find its way. Quenneville is leaning on Keith harder than ever in terms of matchups and important minutes.
And that’s just fine with Keith.
‘‘I have a lot of fun, and I feel good,’’ he said.
Keith’s fitness level is part of what allows him to keep logging so many minutes 1,059 games (regular season and playoffs combined) into his career. But his veteran savvy is another big part of it.
‘‘His smarts go a long way,’’ said Cody Franson, Keith’s defensive partner. ‘‘He’s very efficient in the way he plays. He never really puts himself in a bad spot, so you never see him having to necessarily exert a lot of energy. The way he sees the game, he makes plays that allow him to not spend a lot of time in his own zone, which goes a long way in being able to play big minutes like that.’’
Keith said he learned that from watching some of the NHL’s all-time great defensemen, a group he is working his way into.
‘‘You look at [Nicklas] Lidstrom and [Chris] Pronger, those guys weren’t always skating 100 miles an hour every shift,’’ Keith said. ‘‘It was being smart and being in good position and skating hard when you had to.’’
Keith has changed his training, nutrition and game-day preparation to stay on top. But he said that has less to do with his age than with hockey itself. The game has changed quite a bit since Keith broke into the league in the mid-2000s. The plodding, trapping pace of play has given way to a speed-oriented style, with burners on seemingly every line.
What the league will look like 10 years from now is anybody’s guess. But Keith fully expects to be there to find out. Nobody who knows him is betting against it.
‘‘He’s just a horse back there,’’ winger Patrick Kane said. ‘‘And it seems like he’s still as good as anyone out there on the back end.’’
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.