Duncan Keith to the Oilers

Plus Pierre McGuire to the Senators

The Edmonton Oilers paid an inflated price to the Chicago Blackhawks for a great defenseman whose performance has been declining in recent seasons.

The Oilers Get: D Duncan Keith and RW Tim Soderlund

Keith turns 38 on Friday and is a future Hall of Famer who has won two Norris Trophies with five more seasons in which he finished in the Top 10 in voting. He won the 2015 Conn Smythe Trophy as Playoff MVP and has played 1,192 regular season games never averaging less than 23 minutes of ice time per game. He has been a workhorse on the blueline for a long time and at his peak he was undeniably great.

That said, Keith’s game has naturally been declining as he gets older. According to Micah Blake McCurdy’s HockeyViz website, 2015-2016 was the last season in which Keith had a positive impact during 5-on-5 play. He has been getting outshot and out-chanced routinely since then.

Is that a matter of Keith playing big minutes on a bad team? Perhaps, but depending on a reduced role with a better supporting cast to alter his results requires an optimist’s view.

In Edmonton, Keith does not need to handle top pair minutes but, with Oscar Klefbom unlikely to play next season, it sure looks like Keith will still be in a top-four role unless the Oilers acquire another top-four defenseman, so that looks like potential trouble.

Unfortunately, when NHL teams make deals for aging stars, there can be a tendency to hand-wave away the part where the star is long past his prime and then cite career accomplishments as justification for the acquisition.

Keith has two years left on his deal with a cap hit of $5,538,462. It was a long-term contract ($72 million over 13 seasons) from a previous era, and it allowed Keith to give the Blackhawks exceptional value during their Stanley Cup years. His actual salary in the next two seasons is $2.1 million and $1.5 million, respectively, so maybe the deal makes economic sense for the Oilers but Keith still carries a cap hit that is not commensurate with his recent level of play.

Soderlund is a 23-year-old winger who was a fourth-round pick of the Blackhawks in 2017 and has eight points in 52 career AHL games but did produced 16 points (10 G, 6 A) in Sweden’s Allsvenskan league last season. He is not likely to become an NHL player.

The Blackhawks Get: D Caleb Jones and a 2022 third-round pick

Jones is a 24-year-old defenseman who has had mediocre results in 93 career NHL games. His ice time also went down from 19:48 per game as a rookie in 2018-2019 to 13:36 per game last season.

Jones is also very conservative offensively, so he contributes little at that end of the ice, but also does not allow a lot defensively. Over the past three seasons, among the eight Oilers defensemen that played at least 500 5-on-5 minutes, Jones was the one with the lowest rate of shot attempts against, shots against, and expected goals against per 60 minutes.

In Chicago, Jones should have an opportunity to compete for a significant role because, as it stands, the Blackhawks don’t have a lot of proven talent on the blueline. There is no guarantee that Jones is going to be a raging success in Chicago but he comes with an $850,000 cap hit so there is very little risk on Chicago’s end.

Perhaps the biggest risk of it is that the Blackhawks could lose Jones to Seattle in the expansion draft if he is not protected. If Connor Murphy and Nikita Zadorov are the two most likely defensemen to get protected, that leaves one more spot for Calvin de Haan, Riley Stillman, or Jones.

A third-round pick brings with it a little better than a one-in-four chance of yielding an NHL player. Getting that in addition to getting Keith’s salary off the books is a solid value play for the Blackhawks.

Verdict: Even if Keith turns back the clock and performs better than he has in recent years, that does not justify the price that the Oilers paid to acquire him, especially without getting any kind of salary cap relief on the deal. The trade was essentially a favor to Keith, who wanted to be dealt to Western Canada for family reasons, and the Oilers reportedly did not have meaningful competition in the trade and still gave up better assets in the deal. It is not as though Caleb Jones is going to automatically fix the Blackhawks’ defensive problems but the increased financial flexibility does give them a better chance to address their defensive shortcomings, either by taking a big swing in free agency or making a significant trade.

MCGUIRE TO THE SENS

The Ottawa Senators have hired Pierre McGuire as a Vice President of Player Development.

As someone who has spent a lot of time writing about hockey through the lens of hockey analytics, you might expect that Pierre and I do not see eye-to-eye on player evaluation. That is correct.

That McGuire is against using analytics is hardly unique among 59-year-old guys who have worked in pro hockey for 30 years. But McGuire was so loudly anti-analytics from a massive platform, between the benches for NBC, that it was the worst possible look – to have someone saying things that were patently false because they refused to learn even the first thing about what is actually involved in the use of analytics. There is a stubbornness to that which does not seem like a great fit for a player development role. But we’ll get back to that.

The wild thing about McGuire is that, when he first started – I’m talking early days – you could learn things from his work as a color commentator. This is way before NBC, his earliest days on TSN, and mixed in with some of his awkwardness was a guy who had been around the NHL for a while and could teach the casual fan intricate details of the game in a way that was easy to understand – I know this sounds like I’m talking about a completely different person here, but I swear it’s true – and then, as happens to so many in television broadcasting, he got caught up in being a personality rather than continuing to offer that insight. Again, this is hardly unique. The best football commentator of all-time, John Madden, started out as a guy who would pick up intricacies of offensive line blocking schemes on the fly – he knew the game, understood it inside and out, and shared that knowledge with the audience – but eventually became a guy giving out sound bytes and using his Telestrator to identify how much Nate Newton was sweating.

In McGuire’s case, he turned into the guy who yelled “Ka-Bamm!” and “Double Dion!” and had to tell you everything about a player’s hockey history – he played at Shattuck St. Mary’s, in Red Deer under the Sutters, or whatever – even though it was suggested to him multiple times to dial that down. It’s one thing to be doing that stuff at the World Juniors, where their club teams are still relevant and current, another thing altogether when you’re talking about a 32-year-old who is on his fourth NHL team.

Ultimately, McGuire had enough broadcasting weirdness that he was not in the plans for ESPN or Turner with their new U.S. NHL TV deals which then left him looking for a job in hockey ops. He has interviewed for a bunch of GM positions over the years but his last position in hockey operations was as head coach for Baton Rouge in the ECHL in 1996-1997. That’s a long time ago, especially for someone who is not particularly progressive in their approach.

Now, is player development a role that requires a solid analytical foundation? Ideally, there would be an understanding throughout the organization and there is legitimate reason to question whether McGuire even understands what is involved. Like five weeks ago, he went on radio and said that “The two teams built on analytics, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers, are on the outside looking in.”

The Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, and Pittsburgh Penguins are among the recent Cup winners that had really sharp people running their analytics departments. Michael Peterson for the Lightning, Tim Barnes for Washington, and Sam Ventura was with the Pittsburgh Penguins and has since been hired by the Buffalo Sabres. I have had interesting hockey conversations with all three and have no doubt that their teams make better decisions when their input is taken into account.

Now, I’ll grant Pierre that the Toronto Maple Leafs have a strong and continuously growing analytics department but the Leafs also made a bunch of old school hockey moves at the deadline, to the delight of hockey men, who then threw the Leafs under the bus when they lost in the first round of the playoffs. The Oilers, built on analytics? They hired Tyler Dellow and that lasted for like a year when good hockey man Peter Chiarelli didn’t like getting statistical pushback on his opinions. Say what you will about Dellow, there is a lot of value to a smart organization not stocking its front office with yes-men, and if Pierre McGuire has a prominent voice in the Ottawa Senators front office, who is going to offer that pushback? He’s already established that he is quite willing to be loudly wrong and ill-informed about analytics. I feel for the few people that Ottawa has in their analytics department – Tim Pattyson and consultant Elias Collette – because this almost assuredly makes their job more difficult. It’s hard enough getting organizational buy-in on analytics but when a loud prominent voice is against them, you are fighting uphill.

For hockey fans, there are a great many who are just happy that McGuire is not going to be on their television sets, and that’s fine but if I was specifically an Ottawa Senators fan, I would be worried about whether McGuire is going to end up replacing Pierre Dorion as GM when the Senators don’t make the playoffs next season because owner Eugene Melnyk has said that the rebuild is over…except for acquiring a No. 1 center and a defensive defensemen, apparently. That goaltending is locked down with Matt Murray, I guess.

Anyway, I wish Pierre luck in his new role but I think this is not the kind of move that makes sense for a young team on a budget. Maybe, if he’s out of the spotlight, McGuire will be able to focus on the hockey and, at one time, that was a strength. For the Sens’ sake, they better hope he still has that knowledge and that it can be used to improve their team building process.