EDMONTON — It was a fair question, but not one a player of Duncan Keith’s pedigree is accustomed to hearing.
“What do you have left as a player?” Keith was asked. “Where is your game?”
Keith had, for the first time in a 16–season National Hockey League career that has included two Olympic Games and three Stanley Cup wins, jumped to a new team at his own request. It was a trade his no-movement clause allowed him to orchestrate, but if he was paying any attention to social media — and we do not know if he does — he would have found a vocal portion of his new fan base panning the trade.
Some said that the Oilers gave up a better player in Caleb Jones, which is distant from the truth. Others said Keith would struggle to be a third-pairing defenceman in Edmonton, another sign that a Twitter account does not automatically make you smart.
However, as Keith turns 38 on Friday in a hockey world where his experience can not be charted numerically — but every pass, shot and defensive event can be — the people want to know:
Can he still play?
To this point, Keith had given rather expansive answers. Not this time, however.
“I feel like I have a lot. Once we hit the ice, we’re going to see who’s a step behind out there,” he said. “I’m not much for talkin’. We’ll see what happens when we get on the ice.”
One line of that answer stood out for me:
“Once we hit the ice, we’ll see who’s behind out there.”
Ken Holland is as accessible and affable a general manager as hockey can provide. Self-deprecating and realistic, he knows that not all contracts and trades turn into wins, just as no hockey team goes 82-0.
He’ll tell you last year’s Andreas Athanasiou was a swing and a miss, but even Vladdy Jr. strikes out once in a while.
“I could just sit on my hands and do nothing,” Holland often says. “Then I’d have a perfect record.”
On this day he fielded questions about giving up a third-round pick and Jones to acquire Keith. He has agreed to take on Keith’s $5.5-million cap hit for the next two seasons, unable to pawn off a Mikko Koskinen or engineer a deal that saw Chicago retain some of Keith’s number.
A sharp, young reporter took him to task on why he couldn’t have made a more favourable deal.
“Did you want me to get him for free?” Holland asked. “You wanted a lesser price? You didn’t want Caleb Jones (included in the trade)? You didn’t want the draft pick? You want them to retain 50 percent? Which would you like me to do?
“I’m asking you: Did you want me to try to get them to retain money or did you think I paid too high a price with Caleb Jones and a third-round pick?”
This isn’t the Ken Holland we usually see. It is clear that he believes he has made what he thinks is a necessary and successful hockey deal to help his team gain some playoff chops. That he has found a more-than-capable replacement for Oscar Klefbom, whose chances of playing this season are “slim and remote,” Holland would later note.
Yet people were focussed on the cap hit. His deal was getting crushed.
The armchair general managers would have found a better deal. As always.
“We took on a cap number,” he said, “but we’re getting a veteran defenceman. A leader. A guy who’s been in many, many important situations: Stanley Cup playoff time, international hockey, bringing leadership, played 23-plus minutes a night last year for Chicago…”
Finally, after a parade of general managers and the vaunted Decade of Darkness, Holland has Edmonton winning in the regular season. The Oilers have finished second in their division for two straight years, yet they have lost seven of their last eight playoff games, and got swept this spring by Winnipeg.
Holland took over a 25th-place team three seasons ago. Under his watch they have improved to 12th, then 11th in the next two seasons. Now he has to find a way to make them successful in the post-season.
Something is not there, even with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl at the helm. There is an ingredient that needs to be found.
For the first time since his arrival, Holland has a little cap space to work with. And with a dire need for a second-pairing left defenceman, Holland has scratched several itches with this acquisition. Keith will have no problem playing against secondary opposition on a veteran second pairing with the still-unsigned Adam Larsson, Holland assured, and when the big games arrive he will help solve whatever it is the Oilers have not been able to solve in the post-season.
Tangibles and intangibles.
Getting both of those comes at a cost.
“No team wins the Stanley Cup (with) smooth sailing,” Keith said, when asked about what he can bring off the ice. “It’s being able to ride those ups and downs more smoothly, and if I can bring more of a calming presence, then that’s what I want to do. But it’s something you need to go through as a team to know what it takes.”
He is not here to be some mentor or teacher. In Keith’s mind, he arrives as a viable player — full stop.
“Whatever little bit of experience I can bring to the team, I’m going to bring that,” Keith said. “But my work ethic on the ice is what I’m going to have to bring.”
Gone are the days when the team that gets the best player wins the deal. In today’s world, the team that dumps the most salary — and satisfies the vocal social media horde — leaves the starting line first.
With a 38-year-old player bearing a $5.5-million cap hit, Holland comes out of the blocks firmly in second place. But as the season wears on, and the playoffs begin, he is of the mind that the negative voices will run out of ammunition.
“There’s a give and a take, and the deal has to work for both teams,” the veteran deal-maker said. “So you can sit on the sidelines and analyze the deal. I have to make a deal. I had to try to do something to make our team better.
“I believe I made our team better today.”