The first major, long-term ailment of Duncan Keith’s career struck during the 2015-16 season, and the Blackhawks are going to be careful with their star veteran defenseman going forward.
When Chicago Blackhawks blueliner Duncan Keith missed 10 games due to a knee injury in late 2015, it was the longest continuous absence due to injury in his entire 11-year NHL career. As the season nears, though, Keith isn’t worried about his health hindering his ability to suit up.
Keith played in his first game of the pre-season Tuesday against the Detroit Red Wings, registered two assists in 19:41 of action and was named the second star of the contest. Not bad for his exhibition debut, and Keith said that despite not having played in full-speed game action since the Blackhawks elimination from the post-season back in April, his knee feels full recovered despite it requiring him to pull out of the World Cup in late August.
"It feels good," Keith said, according to NHL.com’s Brian Hedger. "I think it was a good test getting back in a game situation, so I was happy with it. There's always going to be plays and things that you maybe want back in certain situations, but we all make mistakes and there's nothing there that's going to be stemming from my knee or whatever. It feels good, and I think it's going to be good going forward.”
Regardless of Keith’s feeling about his knee, though, there’s a possibility the injury could be a sign for both he and the Blackhawks. This is a team that has had a seven-year run as one of the league’s top squads, and is about to enter an eighth year of expected Stanley Cup contention. The once young pup Blackhawks are aging, and that’s incredibly evident when breaking down the average age throughout the league.
Take a quick guess — no cheating — where this Chicago roster would land among the oldest in the league. Even after the run on top, it’s hard not to feel like this roster boasting Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin is still a relatively young team with more to prove. So one might figure the Blackhawks rank somewhere in the middle, say between the 10th and 15th oldest team in the league?
According to EliteProspects, though, Chicago’s expected roster will make them the second-oldest club in the league. Only the Anaheim Ducks, with an average age of 28.74, are expected to be older.
The age of the Blackhawks is a somewhat staggering realization, but less so when you consider Keith, whose run as one of the league’s best defenseman has lasted as long as the Blackhawks’ time on top, turned 33 during the off-season. Chicago seems well aware of the fact that a workhorse such as Keith is going to eventually need a break, especially as he ages, or else these injuries could be a more common occurrence.
Limiting Keith’s minutes has never been easy, though, and the blueliner has been a constant source of safety for coach Joel Quenneville. However, with Keith dealing with his first major ailment, assistant coach Mike Kitchen told the Chicago Sun-Times’ Mark Lazerus in late-September that the plan going forward is to scale back Keith’s minutes.
Keith has averaged upwards of 25 minutes in all but one season — the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season — and has been above 26 minutes three times in his career. That won’t be the case this campaign, Kitchen said. At least, as long as the Blackhawks can’t help it.
“Instead of being up at that average of 27, 28, maybe dropping him back there to 24. However, when you get a player like him, though, he likes to play,” Kitchen told Lazerus. “It’s like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, they like ice time. It’s hard to take away. They look at you, they say, ‘What are you doing? What did I do wrong?’ But I think it’s something we’ll be very conscious of.”
And with Keith coming back from a knee injury, and with the two-time Norris Trophy winner arguably remaining the backbone of the Blackhawks, it’s time for the Blackhawks to start paying more attention to keeping him healthy. He got the rest heading into the season, and now Chicago will do their best to keep him fresh as the year wears on.
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