In his prime, Duncan Keith was a nightmare for opposing teams, particularly the Vancouver Canucks.
Keith won two Norris Trophies as the NHL’s best defenceman and added a Conn Smythe as MVP of the playoffs in 2015. In many ways, his puck-moving abilities from the back-end were the straw that stirred the drink for the Blackhawks’ quasi-dynasty that won three Stanley Cups in six years and formed the dragon the Canucks needed to slay in the 2011 playoffs. With his slick feet and preternatural sense for danger, Keith seemed impossible to hit, stymying the efforts of forecheck after forecheck and turning the puck up ice.
Fortunately for the Canucks, Keith isn’t that player anymore. Even more fortunate for the Canucks, Keith is now in the Pacific Division after the Edmonton Oilers traded for him.
It had been rumoured for a couple of weeks that Keith was looking for a trade to the west. It was thought that Seattle or Edmonton were potential destinations for Keith, who has a full no-movement clause in his contract.
On Monday, the Oilers made the trade, sending 24-year-old defenceman Caleb Jones and a third-round pick to the Blackhawks for Keith. Incredibly, the Blackhawks retained none of Keith’s salary in the deal.
This is a baffling trade for the Oilers, who acquire a 38-year-old defenceman, who is well past his prime, at the full freight of his $5.5+ million cap hit for two more years. On top of that, the Blackhawks had zero leverage — Keith wanted out and was only willing to go to a small handful of teams — and they still got a young player with potential on a bargain-basement contract and a draft pick without taking back a bad contract or retaining salary. That's a tidy bit of business for Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman.
As an added bonus, the Oilers will now need to protect Keith in the upcoming Seattle Kraken expansion draft. What in the world is Oilers’ GM Ken Holland thinking?
Keith was one of the worst defencemen in the NHL last season
The simple truth is that Keith has been on the decline for years. That shouldn’t be a surprise — he’s getting older. He was the third-oldest defenceman in the NHL last season. If Zdeno Chara retires, he’ll be the second-oldest next season. Unlike wine, elite athletes don’t get better with age.
Analytics don’t look kindly on Keith’s defensive play. Among defencemen with at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5 last season, Keith was on the ice for the highest rate of expected goals against and shots on goal against and second-highest rate of shot attempts against, according to Natural Stat Trick.
More advanced metrics suggest Keith was one of the worst defencemen in the NHL last season, particularly defensively.
Keith was in the first percentile of defencemen by TopDownHockey’s WAR metric, which means 99% of NHL defencemen were better than he was.
Evolving Hockey’s WAR model is in agreement. Keith provides a little bit of offence, but his disastrous defence drags him down.
The evaluation of Keith from Micah Blake McCurdy of HockeyViz is similarly scathing.
Judging by the analytics, the Oilers just got a lot worse defensively and, instead of treating Keith’s contract like a cap dump and acquiring a pick or prospect to take on his cap hit, they paid for the privilege of getting worse.
A bounce-back season is unlikely
There’s a chance, of course, that Keith bounces back after getting away from the Blackhawks and head coach Jeremy Colliton, whose system seemed to exacerbate Keith’s worst tendencies. Perhaps he’ll play better when he’s not being asked to play 23+ minutes per game (assuming the Oilers don’t fall into the same trap as the Blackhawks and put Keith on the top pairing too).
Expecting a 38-year-old defenceman to bounce back is a massive risk, however, and even a bounce-back season would be unlikely to make Keith worth his $5.5+ million cap hit. It wasn’t just that Keith was mediocre or even below-average — by multiple different analytical models, he was one of the worst defencemen in the NHL.
Jeff Chapman put it bluntly at Oilers’ site Copper and Blue, when considering a potential Keith trade.
“The best Duncan Keith deal looks like Holland blocking [Bowman's] number,” said Chapman.
“If the Oilers just gotta have a 38-year-old defenceman on their roster,” he added, “the best deal is a conditional draft pick with Chicago holding half of his 5.5MM cap hit, then another club holding half of that number (like, 1.375MM of the remaining cap hit) so that Keith can play sheltered minutes on the third pair.”
Instead, the Oilers will be taking on Keith’s entire cap hit and are likely to use him in a significant role.
Keith on the Oilers can only improve Canucks' playoff chances
This is good news for the Canucks, whose best chance at making the playoffs next year is that they’re playing in an exceptionally weak Pacific Division.
The Canucks only finished ahead of seven teams in the NHL last season. Three of them were from the Pacific Division — the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, and Anaheim Ducks. What was once a terrifying trio of Californians has settled into the dregs of the league. While those teams could get better next season — the Kings, in particular, have the best prospect pool in the NHL — the rest of the Pacific isn’t great either.
Just two Pacific Division teams even made the playoffs this year. The Vegas Golden Knights had the second-best record in the NHL, then the Oilers were 11th. After that, there’s the Calgary Flames at 20th in the NHL, the Arizona Coyotes at 22nd, and the Canucks at 24th.
Since three teams from each division automatically make the playoffs, it’s easy to see the Golden Knights and Oilers being the first two teams in the Pacific and the Canucks battling for that third spot. Perhaps Podkolzin provides a burst of energy, Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes bounce back from lacklustre seasons, and Thatcher Demko shuts the door in net to get the Canucks back into the postseason.
The Oilers making a trade for Duncan Keith to make their defence worse and tie up cap space can only improve the Canucks’ chances. The Oilers should still be a good team — no matter how many anchors you tie to Connor McDavid, he still seems to float to the surface — but they might no longer have that second spot in the Pacific locked up.
The biggest benefit of the Keith trade to the Oilers, of course, is that it wasn't to the Canucks. Keith wanted to play in western Canada and it doesn't get any more west than Vancouver.