Duncan Keith’s new power-play role paying off for Blackhawks

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DALLAS — Duncan Keith’s dad wanted him to be a forward, and why not? Keith was always one of the fastest guys on the ice, and he’s always had good offensive instincts. As a 15-year-old winger for the Penticton Predators in British Columbia, his last season of Midget hockey and his last season as a forward, he posted 51 goals and 57 assists in just 44 games.

Well, 11 seasons into an NHL career in which Keith has established himself as one of the top defensemen in the game, his dad is getting his wish. Sort of.

Since returning from knee surgery in mid-November, Keith has taken on a new role on the Blackhawks power play. After more than a decade on the point, Keith is now something of a rover — roaming the ice and looking for open space, for rebounds, for quick passes, for one-timers, for pucks to deflect and for clearing attempts to prevent. Essentially, he’s a fourth forward, only with free reign.

With Brent Seabrook manning the blue line, Patrick Kane on the half-wall, Artemi Panarin on the one-timer side, and Artem Anisimov in front of the net, Keith basically has carte blanche to do whatever he wants. On any given power play, Keith can be spotted manning the point, or cycling in the corners and behind the net, or crashing the goalmouth, or setting up as a trigger-man in the slot.

The slot has been his primary spot, where his forward’s instincts, deft hands and quick thinking have helped make the Hawks’ top power-play unit one of the best in the league.

“It’s kind of a new challenge,” Keith said. “I’ve never done that position before, so I was actually excited to try it out. It’s a position where I have the ability to roam around and support and freewheel a little bit. I’m kind of all over the place.”

A perfect example of Keith’s new role — Keith wasn’t sure exactly who came up with the idea, but assistant coach Kevin Dineen runs the power play — came last month in Toronto. With Seabrook holding the puck in the middle of the blue line, Keith wandered into the slot to create a 1-3-1 look for the power play. Seabrook fed Panarin for a one-timer on the left side, with Anisimov perched at the top of the crease as a screen. Leafs goaltender James Reimer made the stop, and Anisimov chased the loose puck behind the net, with Keith following him for support. Anisimov quickly passed to Kane, who fired a cross-ice pass for another Panarin one-timer, while Keith smartly assumed Anisimov’s usual spot, expertly screening Reimer as he backtracked. Keith then spotted the rebound as it skittered past a Leafs defenseman, and quickly reached out and swatted a brilliant pass to Kane for an easy back-door tap-in.

In just nine seconds, Keith moved into the slot, behind the net, and back in front of the net — three places you usually don’t find a defenseman — to create a goal.

“He’s really good at it,” Kane said. “He has the capability to find the loose pucks in areas and get them back to open space, where we can maybe set up a play or get a shot. And you’ve seen him score a few goals in the middle there, too. For a first-timer, it’s pretty impressive the way he’s handled that position. He’s been great.”

Keith has three power-play goals and seven power-play assists since he assumed his new role, and despite a recent funk — the Hawks are 0-for-11 on the power play in their last three games, dropping to seventh in the league at 20.6 percent — the combination of Keith’s new role, the lethal Panarin-Anisimov-Kane line, and Seabrook taking Patrick Sharp’s old spot on the point has turned the Hawks’ power play from a weakness to a strength.

For some players, getting taken out of your comfort zone after 10 years in the same spot could be tough. Hawks coach Joel Quenneville always has given his defensemen the green light to join the rush and go to the net, but this is an entirely new position for the Hawks, and for Keith. But Keith has embraced the challenge, and his newfound offensive freedom.

“I ended up scoring my first game in that position,” he said. “It gives you a lot of options, so I like it. I can skate around and try to use my quickness and get on pucks. It’s fun to try to keep plays alive, and pressure guys when you know they’re trying to clear it. It’s fun to make them panic a little bit. It’s something different, something new, and so far, it seems to be working.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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