A year ago, Duncan Keith seemed surprised by questions about his advancing age and the possibility of slowing down. And you couldn’t blame him. At 33, the Blackhawks’ two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman still was fairly close to the top of his game. While his shooting percentage (3.3) was less than half the previous season (6.9), his 53 points were the third-highest of his career. And he was fourth in the Norris Trophy voting. He was still Duncan Keith.
But now, even Keith has to confront the reality that his stellar career is at a crossroads after a difficult season where by almost any measure — offensively, defensively, plus-minus, the eye test — he was not the elite player he has been during the Hawks’ run of nine consecutive playoff appearances and three Stanley Cups. Making a mockery of Ryan Kesler is one thing. Taking on Father Time is another.
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“I feel good,” said Keith, who will turn 35 in July. “I know I’m not getting any younger. But at the same time, I don’t feel old. I know I have a lot left in the tank. I know that question kind of comes up as you go along. It’s something to be expected — especially in a year where you don’t have the success you want, that kind of gets magnified.
“I’m looking forward to having a good summer of training … try to be in the best shape of my career and give me the best chance to feel good and do the things I want to do out there.”
Keith scored just two goals this season, with a paltry 1.1 shooting percentage. His 32 points were the lowest since his third year in the NHL in 2007-08. But more than that, his defensive prowess diminished noticeably. He was beaten to loose pucks, outskated on opposition rushes and committed glaring turnovers that turned into goals against.
“Obviously it wasn’t the year that I expected. It was frustrating in a lot of ways,” Keith said. “It just seemed like there’s a lot that went wrong. When you’re a successful team, everything seems easier. Little plays, you know our habits — we’ve got to get back to that.”
It remains to be seen if Keith just needs to play with more urgency or if he’s lost a step he cannot get back. But the Hawks are counting on Keith returning to his previous form.
“I don’t think he’s lost a step,” general manager Stan Bowman said. “A lot of it was just the execution wasn’t there this year for some of our top guys. I don’t know if it was necessarily a physical attribute. Sometimes you’re not at the top of your game.
“I know Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown in Los Angeles had big seasons and Zdeno Chara — he’s  — had one of his best seasons in recent memory. It’s not that unheard of for a player to play better than they did the year before. In Dunc’s case, I don’t want to say he’s a freak of nature, but he’s physically gifted in terms of training and his commitment to being a top athlete. The age for him is not really a concern at all. It’s just more [about] execution.”
Keith works out diligently every summer. But he knows he’ll have to step it up this time.
“The training has to be high end, as hard as I can go and push the limits and come back in great shape,” he said. “We played a lot of hockey in our own end this year. You’re going to have to train for that and make sure you’re prepared to go above and beyond what maybe I’m used to. I’m looking forward to that challenge and the challenge of being at my best and turning it around.”