Above: you can check out anytime you like but you can never leave
I’ve written about how many teams have crashed and burned by using the same illogic as the Montreal Expos of my youth — when your team with a strong core of talent fails because it’s filled out by sub-replacement-level randos, you blame your best players rather than actually trying to get them the help they need. This line of thought is 1)transparently stupid and 2)is responsible for countless trades that make teams far worse, but a lot of sportswriters and fans still think it’s the height of wisdom. The slightly more respectable version of this argument is to say that an underachieving team needs more “leadership” (as opposed the boring concept of “more good players.”) Hence the Expos trying to solve their problems by signing a 130-year-old Pete Rose. This failed spectacularly because Rose couldn’t play anymore and his leadership couldn’t make Doug Flynn or Angel Salazar into major league players or stop pitchers Bill Virdon had throw huge numbers of innings from burning out.
Which brings us to Duncan Keith. He’s had a great career, arguably the best player on a 3-time champion in the cap era. But at 38 he’s completely washed, and the Blackhawks were stuck with the tail end of his contract. Worse for Chicago, he demanded a trade to a team near his son’s home in British Columbia, and by all accounts Seattle had little interest and Calgary and Vancouver none — not surprising, since Keith is expensive, has two years left on his contract, and was one of the worst regular defensemen in the league last year — leaving the Blackhawks with only Edmonton as a trading partner and hence no leverage. If Chicago was going to dump this contract, you’d think, they’d have to play big.
But enter the Edmonton Oilers, who have managed to parlay backing into the greatest player to enter the league since Sidney Crosby and another superstar (and, when this began, another young future MVP who they traded for nickels on the dollar) into one playoff series win in six seasons. This has happened because the Oilers are run by the kind of doddering old farts who look at a team that looks great when its two stars are on the ice and gets its brains beat out when they’re not and sees the problem as McDavid and Draisaitl lacking “leadership.” And so, you ask for a miracle, I give you Ken Holland:
Duncan Keith, traded to EDM, has put up hideous results for the past several seasons in a steady decline consistent with a player in his late thirties. The Oil are praying that a smaller role will spark a huge improvement – it’s a major gamble. #LetsGoOilers pic.twitter.com/28bksotACz— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 12, 2021
The Keith decline has been going on for years, including before the Blackhawks were an awful team. Players get older and decline, that’s just the way it goes. pic.twitter.com/TH29U4bXZu— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 12, 2021
Caleb Jones (traded to Chicago with some picks) is an average nhl defender. Duncan Keith (in return to Edmonton) is a liability to his team on offence at 5v5, a liability on the powerplay, a liability on the penalty-kill, a severe defensive liability at 5v5, and a poor shot. pic.twitter.com/ruLIbB7pwP— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) July 12, 2021
Amazingly, Stan Bowman was able to unload one of the worst contracts in North American pro sports in exchange for a cheap young defenseman who was better than Keith last year and a draft pick and didn’t have to retain any salary at all! (Just today, the Wild had to buy out a younger and better left-shot defenseman because they didn’t think there was a trade market.) Not only that, but Keith still has a no-movement clause, so the Oilers have to protect him in the expansion draft, which will cost them yet another asset. Just an astoundingly bad trade. It’s true that Keith might put up somewhat better results playing fewer and more sheltered minutes, but you don’t need to make a large investment in cap space and assets to find a defenseman who can look OK when deployed carefully (indeed, the Oilers included one in the deal who has more upside at this point in his career.) And have I mentioned that the Oilers get absolutely caved in when one of their two stars isn’t on the ice and have tons of holes to fill?
Now, you might think the local media would be calling for blood over this, but despite an endless stream of mismanagement Edmonton has one of the most sycophantic local media groups in the league. And hence the real reason for this post, which I assure you is a real thing published by the city’s largest newspaper:
A few years back, I went to see The Eagles live in concert. I had seen the guys before, but a friend of mine in the music industry told me “Kurt, these guys still have it”. And so off I went. And as Don Henley launched into the very first verse of Hotel California, it struck me as I stood there in awe that “wow, this is still almost like listening to the album”. When Don Felder and Joe Walsh started to trade licks on arguably the most iconic guitar solo in popular music, it became clear that these guys could still shred, too. It was a phenomenal performance. What I’ve learned in my industry (which is my day job, actually) is that most acts who make it to the very top get there for a damn good reason: They’re just better than most everybody else. And so almost 40 years later, because the band had taken care of itself and kept up its chops, their commitment and raw talent still made them a reasonable facsimile of what they were in 1977. So, what does this have to do with Duncan Keith?
It’s an example of how I think some are missing what the value of having Duncan Keith would be. The comparisons between Keith and other signings by Edmonton front offices aren’t comparable. Pedigree matters. Those other guys were never as good as Keith. And most of them haven’t kept themselves in as good of shape as Keith either. So, not only did they start from behind in terms of pure skill. They didn’t close the gap with hard work and commitment. But Duncan Keith has. He too can still shred. People with no horse in the race but who work in hockey at a high level for a living say so.
We know Keith isn’t as good as back when Chicago was winning Cups. If he was Chicago wouldn’t trade him. Don Henley’s voice isn’t exactly as it was in the late 70’s, either. But it’s still “that voice, singing that song”. As a result, it’s still worth your hard-earned dough for a ticket to go and see him do it again. From most anyone else, you just won’t get the same quality, the same experience, the same knowledge, the same special touches.
“People say that Duncan Keith is done, but I saw the Beach Boys at the Stampede a few years ago and they’ve still got it checkmate nerds!” (Also, the google indicates that Felder was fired from the band in 2001, making the analogy even more hilariously maladroit than it already was.)
Sportnet’s lead Oilers reporter, OTOH, favors a slightly younger and more Canadian reference to defend the ludicrously indefensible:
It’s hip to hate on the Duncan Keith deal.
Tragically, the only Hip going on in my world is coming out of my Bluetooth speaker.
Well, it’s the lede that column deserves.
Honestly Justin Trudeau should use his emergency pandemic powers to redistribute McDavid and Draisaitl to organizations that aren’t run by total numbnuts, covered by reporters who insist that the buck-naked management is wearing Armani.