As expected, Duncan Keith has been one of the Chicago Blackhawks‘ best players this season. Somewhat unexpected, however, has been his undeniable return to genuine contention for the Norris Trophy as the NHL‘s best defenseman.
After winning the award in 2010, Keith’s play declined in 2011 and 2012. While he was still one of the league’s better number one defensemen during those two years, he was also a clear (albeit very small) step below the perennial Norris contenders such as Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber.
Keith edged back toward his 2010 form last season and had an unbelievable playoff run en route to his second Stanley Cup victory; indeed, Blackhawks fans almost unanimously agree that the Conn Smythe Trophy should have gone to either him or Corey Crawford rather than Patrick Kane. Still, there was nothing truly spectacular about Keith’s 2012-13 campaign, and he thus largely stayed out of Norris conversation once again.
This season, of course, has been a different animal. Chicago’s No. 2 is on track to nearly match his career-high in points (69) and currently ranks fourth in the NHL in assists, trailing only Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton and Nicklas Backstrom. He sits second among all league defensemen in points behind only Erik Karlsson.
Keith’s defensive play has been as outstanding as ever. The key cog in Chicago’s quick-hit transition game, he is among the league leaders in takeaways among defensemen, and likely possesses the best first pass of the bunch.
The one criticism of Keith is that he and his defensive partner Brent Seabrook have not been used in a shutdown role this season. That job has instead been given to Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya, Chicago’s second pairing. Still, it would be specious to blame him for what is purely a coaching decision; Joel Quenneville has made no secret that he thinks Keith played too many minutes in 2010-11 and 2011-12, which caused him to wear down late in the year.
Giving the shutdown responsibility to another pairing reflects this, and it is the second straight year in which Quenneville has chosen to do so. Evidently, his choice had and has significant merit, as Keith had enough left in the tank to put together the aforementioned fantastic 2012-13 postseason that he did.
There is not another defenseman in the NHL this season that can match Keith’s combination of offensive and defensive excellence. Barring a major surprise, the Norris Trophy is his for the taking.