Despite quiet ending, Duncan Keith’s 16-year Blackhawks career a triumphant story

With three Stanley Cup rings, two Norris Trophies, one Conn Smythe Trophy, four All-Star Game selections and two Olympic gold medals, Keith will go down as the best defenseman in Hawks history.

SHARE Despite quiet ending, Duncan Keith’s 16-year Blackhawks career a triumphant story
Duncan Keith, traded to the Oilers on Monday, is the Blackhawks’ all-time leader in games played by a defenseman.

Duncan Keith, traded to the Oilers on Monday, is the Blackhawks’ all-time leader in games played by a defenseman.

David Zalubowski/AP

On one hand, the end of defenseman Duncan Keith’s long tenure with the Blackhawks — via trade to the Oilers this week — was the most fulfilling of the many departures the Hawks have experienced recently.

He and the Hawks moved on from each other satisfied and on good terms. Keith wanted to be closer to his 8-year-old son in British Columbia; the Hawks wanted to free up salary-cap space and accelerate their youth movement on defense.

None of the other major departures in the last year or so have been so mutually voluntary, much less so mutually desired.

Goalie Corey Crawford was upset the Hawks wouldn’t re-sign him, then backed out of a new contract with the Devils days into training camp to retire. Defenseman Brent Seabrook and forward Andrew Shaw were forced into retirement by injuries after valiant comeback attempts failed. President John McDonough abruptly was fired in April 2020. At least Keith left Chicago amicably.

On the other hand, the end of Keith’s tenure with the Hawks arrived, happened and passed strangely quietly.

Sure, the team published an emotional tribute video, Keith made a long Instagram post and fans mourned on all platforms, but the whole thing didn’t feel fittingly earth-shaking for a player of his stature.

Perhaps the nostalgia of the fan base already had been exhausted by the retirements of Crawford, Seabrook and Shaw, the seasonlong absence of captain Jonathan Toews and the expectations of an imminent breakdown similar to the one of the Cubs’ core.

Perhaps the two pending sexual-assault lawsuits have formed a dark cloud over the Hawks’ offseason and memories of the 2010 Stanley Cup.

Perhaps the pandemic — the very thing that separated Keith from his son and ultimately pushed him to request a trade — also separated the memories of the player Keith once was and the team the Hawks once were from how both are viewed now.

Keith’s last action in a Hawks sweater turned out to be May 6 in Carolina, where a linesman’s knee crushed his face, causing a concussion and a goal against. He then missed the last two games of the season, meaning not a single Hawks fan watched him play live at the United Center this past season.

His last goal with the Hawks, April 27 against the Lightning, cut a 6-2 deficit to 6-3. He barely reacted when the puck went in.

His last interview with the Hawks, after a 4-1 loss April 15 in Detroit, mattered just as little.

‘‘The goals they scored we didn’t make them work as hard [for] as we had to for ours,’’ he grumbled over Zoom that night. Three months later, no one remembers any of those goals.

All those things seem too trivial to count as lasts at all, much less for someone like Keith.

His individual decline during the last few seasons certainly mirrored the Hawks’ overall decline, even if his pride prevented him from accepting or acknowledging it. There’s a reason the Hawks were thrilled to receive a young, third-pairing defenseman (Caleb Jones) and third-round draft pick for him Monday.

But the sterile, somber irrelevance of this past season — which wasn’t his fault whatsoever — nonetheless wrote an unrepresentative final chapter for Keith’s time in Chicago.


Keith led all three Blackhawks Stanley Cup teams in ice time.

Sun-Times file photo

In truth, Keith is the best defenseman in Hawks history. Once the trade analysis ceases, the two years left on his contract expire, his No. 2 is retired to the rafters and the Hawks’ 2010s dominance is considered in historical context, that will be hard to dispute.

Keith’s hardware alone makes a convincing case. He has three Stanley Cup rings, two Norris Trophies, one Conn Smythe Trophy, four All-Star Game selections and two Olympic gold medals. Those are some rarefied accomplishments.

It’s difficult to assess a defenseman’s impact accurately through counting stats, but Keith fares well in that regard, too. He finished his time with the Hawks with 105 goals, 520 assists, 1,628 blocked shots and 2,447 shots on goal in 1,192 career games — in the regular season alone.

He’s the Hawks’ all-time leader in games played by a defenseman. He ranks second to Doug Wilson, who played in a much higher-scoring era, in points by a Hawks defenseman.

Blackhawks defensemen: All-time leaders
Games played leaders Points leaders
1. Duncan Keith — 1,192 GP 1. Doug Wilson — 779 pts.
2. Brent Seabrook — 1,114 GP 2. Duncan Keith — 625 pts.
3. Bob Murray — 1,008 GP 3. Bob Murray — 514 pts.
4. Doug Wilson — 938 GP 4. Chris Chelios — 487 pts.
5. Pierre Pilote — 821 GP 5. Pierre Pilote — 477 pts.

He also led the Hawks in time on ice for 15 consecutive seasons and nine consecutive playoff runs, an almost-unfathomable streak in the youth-oriented league of today.

In fact, although the NHL has kept time-on-ice data only since 1997, Keith ranks fourth all-time in regular-season minutes played (29,732) and third in postseason minutes played (3,781). He has averaged 24 minutes, 57 seconds per regular-season game and 28 minutes per playoff game and missed only 50 total games to injury.

NHL time-on-ice leaders (since 1997)
Regular season Postseason
1. Zdeno Chara — 37,940 min. 1. Zdeno Chara — 5,082 min.
2. Ryan Suter — 29,993 min. 2. Ryan McDonagh — 4,001 min.
3. Jay Bouwmeester — 29,913 min. 3. Duncan Keith — 3,781 min.
4. Duncan Keith — 29,732 min. 4. Kris Letang — 3,428 min.
5. Drew Doughty — 25,607 min. 5. Victor Hedman — 3,308 min.

And Keith’s immeasurable impact as a person, teammate and leader cements his claim.

He entered the NHL as a rookie in 2005-06 and immediately initiated and led the Hawks’ on-ice transformation. Even when Toews became the captain and wing Patrick Kane the greatest star, Keith’s steadiness kept the Hawks’ dynasty moving.

His scraggly, weathered, occasionally toothless appearance became iconic, in part because of how perfectly it exemplified how he played. He never let the success go to his head, not for fear of arrogance — he possessed just the right amount of that — but because refuting others’ doubt fueled him.

‘‘I’ve been an underdog my whole career, my whole life,’’ he said in a rare introspective interview last season. ‘‘You can take any type of mentality, even if you’re expected to win. I never felt we were expected to win series, even if we had two Stanley Cups under our belt. It is what it is. You try to do your job. [It] doesn’t matter what people say [or] think. Just perform in the moment.’’

Even in recent years, when he was asked to devote just as much of himself to leading and mentoring the Hawks’ next generation as to his own career, Keith played a huge part in the development of Adam Boqvist, Ian Mitchell and others.

This summer was probably the right time for Keith’s departure. The Hawks’ defense needs to enter a new era, one led by Connor Murphy, Boqvist, Mitchell and possibly Seth Jones or Dougie Hamilton. Meanwhile, the jury remains out on how much the just-turned 38-year-old has left to give the Oilers.

But Keith’s 16-year run in Chicago, even as it fades, deserves nothing less than the highest accolades.

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