Keith’s play solid, though clearly an all-star by default

Local hockey fans should enjoy Duncan Keith’s all-star status while it lasts because a selection like that may not come again for a while.
That’s not to condemn Keith for having yet another solid season on the Chicago Blackhawks’ blueline.
And it’s certainly not to say the 24-year-old assistant captain doesn’t deserve the honour, although there are many in the hockey world that would say he is the least deserving of all the 2008 all-stars.
It’s simply to say that the selection was both political and improbable, and taking a quick glance at the numbers Keith has put up in his previous two campaigns in Chicago, there’s little to distance this season from either of the last.
Keith, who was born in Winnipeg, raised in Fort Frances until the age of 14, and matured in Penticton, B.C. (meaning that for all hockey rosters, statistics, and all intents and purposes, he’s from Winnipeg, of course), is one heck of a solid player for the Blackhawks and a workhorse for the Chicago defence—even as young as he is.
But the word “star,” and definitely “all-star,” is a stretch.
His five goals and 12 assists in 43 games are significant for a defenceman (and to put a fine point on it, miles ahead of what anyone responsible for this column could muster in the NHL), but neither the tops of the league nor the conference.
As of last night, Keith was ranked 40th among NHL defencemen with his 17 points, and 17th in the Western conference (and second among Chicago defencemen, behind Dustin Byfuglien’s 19 in just 33 games).
His +14 rating rates him a respectable eighth in the NHL, but ties him exactly in goals, assists and plus-minus with Dallas’ Matt Niskanen, a fellow no one is claiming to be an all-star.
Interestingly, only one defenceman on the list ahead of him is from the East (Ottawa’s Joe Corvo), meaning he’s seventh in the West.
So, even if we judge players simply by plus-minus (Keith’s best stat), he’s still heading to Atlanta in a suit, not a uniform.
Keith’s plus-minus is the only thing that sets his current season apart from his past, when he earned a minus-11 in 2005-06 and an even zero in 2006-07, even if his scoring looks to be a mix between the first two years—on pace for the nine goals from his first year and the 31 points from his second.
But that plus-minus only can be attributed so far to Keith’s play when you consider the Blackhawks team around him has played much, much better this year than the previous two, with a goals for-goals against ratio of 125:135 so far this season, compared to 195:251 in ’07 and 209:279 in ’06.
Keith was taken because the NHL has decided to follow Major League Baseball’s lead of representing each team in the league with a player in the all-star game, which is a good idea.
What’s a little unbelievable is that the NHL felt they couldn’t bring anyone else from the Blackhawks to the game.
On a team that features marketable young stars like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Sharp, it seems strange that Keith could be Chicago’s lone representative.
But the NHL seems to have a harder time finding defencemen to take to the game (see Tomas Kaberle’s invite on behalf of Toronto instead of Mats Sundin, 10th in Eastern Conference scoring and one of hockey’s biggest stars of the decade, for crystal clear evidence of this).
Duncan Keith is an all-star, and yes, a Fort Frances-produced all-star. He was named to the game—and no one and nothing can ever take that away from him.
But for his sake, let’s hope he gets named again for a stellar year instead of the shoulder-shrugging decision the NHL made with this one.

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