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Prashanth Iyer The Hockey Writers

Published on Friday, June 5, 2015





Duncan Keith – Top Defenseman Of The Salary Cap Era?

After watching another virtuoso performance from Chicago Blackhawks’ defenseman Duncan Keith, I was shocked to come across this tweet from colleague Mark Scheig.

I couldn’t believe that Keith went only 54th overall and was the 16th defenseman drafted in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. I started to think about other elite NHL defensemen and where they were drafted, and realized that this is not an uncommon occurrence in today’s NHL. Kris Letang – 62nd overall in 2005. Shea Weber – 49th overall in 2003. Zdeno Chara – 56th overall in 1996. P.K. Subban – 43rd overall in 2007. In fact, of the last 10 distinct Norris Trophy winners, five were drafted in the mid-2nd round or later.

Scouting Elite NHL Defensemen

Scouting of elite NHL-defensemen has always been a challenge. Back in 2011, ESPN’s Alvin Chang attempted to quantify this (requires ESPN Insider access). He looked at the top-20 forwards and top-20 defensemen drafted between 1990 and 2011. The median draft position for the elite forwards was 3.5 compared to 44.5 for the defensemen. Essentially, the elite forwards were identified appropriately and taken very high in the 1st round while the elite defensemen fell to the mid-2nd round.

At the time of the draft, most NHL defensemen look very similar. Very few have a complete game and most don’t have a command of all the intricacies of the NHL game. Elite NHL defensemen are made between the time they are drafted and the time they reach the NHL. It’s so hard to project how that development will play out which is why there are so many later picks that blossom. It’s why a team like Detroit was able to pluck Nicklas Lidstrom with the 53rd overall pick in 1989.

Nicklas Lidstrom – The Perfect Imperfection

If you were to show Lidstrom’s career accomplishments to a non-hockey fan and then ask them to tell you where he was drafted, chances are they’d say first overall, no doubt. Nope, Lidstrom was nabbed with the 53rd overall in the 1989 NHL Draft. He was the 19th defenseman selected in the 1989 draft. I’ll let that resonate with you for a second. Why did he fall so late? What if I told you that in Lidstrom’s draft year, the 18-year-old scored zero goals and two points for his VIK Vasteras HK team in 20 games played? Would you take him first overall, let alone in the first round?

Just three years later in 1991-1992, Lidstrom put up 11 goals and 60 points in 80 games played as a 21 year-old rookie for the Detroit Red Wings. The development of Lidstrom between 1989 and 1991 is something that scouts have been trying to predict for years. Somehow in three years, Lidstrom went from an overmatched 18-year-old to a defenseman that took the NHL by storm. Another example of this is what we are seeing now with the Blackhawks’ Keith.

Duncan Keith – Late Blooming Superstar

In Keith’s draft year, he put up a mediocre three goals and 15 points in 41 games for the Michigan State Spartans. He was largely overshadowed by teammate John-Michael Liles who put up 13 goals and 35 points and earned a spot on the All-CCHA First Team.

(Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports)

(Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Keith continued to develop at a steady rate, spending two seasons with the AHL Norfolk Admirals before finally joining the Blackhawks for the 2005-2006 season. Within two seasons, Keith was named to the NHL All-Star Team.

However, Keith didn’t quit working once he was named to the NHL All-Star Team. Instead, Keith has continued to grow, winning two Norris Trophies, two Stanley Cups (a potential third on the way this season), and two Olympic Gold Medals. This got me thinking, has Keith done enough to be earn the honors of top NHL defenseman of the salary cap era?

Identifying The Top Defenseman Of Cap Era

When thinking about the top defenseman of the cap era, the simplest thought is “who won the most Norris Trophies?”. Below is a table showing the winners of the Norris Trophy in the salary cap era.

Player Number of Norris Trophies Seasons
Nick Lidstrom 4 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011
Duncan Keith 2 2010, 2014
Zdeno Chara 1 2009
Erik Karlsson 1 2012
P.K. Subban 1 2013

As you can see, Keith still trails Lidstrom in terms of total Norris Trophies. However, Norris Trophies aren’t the best way to assess excellence as sometimes a player’s name can sway voters to pick a player as was likely the case in 2011. Instead, let’s focus on level of play. At 31 years of age, Keith is in the midst of the most impressive postseason run by a defenseman since Chris Pronger in 2006. He’s playing 31:27 a night this postseason which would be the most by a defenseman since Pronger in 2000-2001 (minimum 10 games played).

However, he’s not just out there eating up minutes and playing average hockey. No, of the 44 defenseman who have played at least 150 minutes at even strength this postseason, Keith ranks #1 in 5-on-5 Corsi For% at 55.25%. Oh, and by the way, he’s doing that while starting 50.66% of his shifts outside of the offensive zone and facing an opposition that has a 5-on-5 Corsi% of 51.33% which is 10th toughest.

(Icon SMI)

(Icon SMI)

This postseason is demonstrating that Keith is rapidly moving into rarified air. Of the 114 defenseman to have played 300 or more minutes at 5-on-5 in a single postseason since 2005, only nine defensemen have managed to record a higher 5-on-5 CF% than Keith this season. Keith is one of those defenseman, having recorded the third best 5-on-5 CF% mark of 58.57% in 2012-2013. Only Keith, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Brian Rafalski have managed to record multiple postseason runs with a 5-on-5 CF% of 55% or higher having played a minimum of 300 5-on-5 minutes. Pretty good company if I do say so myself.

I’ll leave you with one last piece of statistical information. Since the start of the salary cap era, 200 defenseman have played at least 4600 regular season minutes at 5-on-5. Keith ranks 9th in CF%, 8th in Points/60, and 4th in individual High Danger Scoring chances. He’s managed all of this while facing the 7th highest Corsi Competition%. He’s truly an exceptional talent.

Scouts are starting to get better at identifying potential talent earlier as we’ve had more recent success stories with Aaron Ekblad, Seth Jones, Morgan Rielly, Hampus Lindholm, and Jacob Trouba. The fact remains that all 30 teams passed on Keith at least once. The Blackhawks have him locked up through 2022-2023 at a bargain cap hit of $5.5 million. There are 16 defensemen who have higher cap hits than Keith, but he has few peers when it comes to production. Keith is setting himself up well to be remembered as the top defenseman of the salary cap era.


Advanced Stats from War-On-Ice


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