James Guillory - USA TODAY Sports
NHL

The Edmonton Oilers appear to be the frontrunners for Duncan Keith, but should they be?

Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman sent shockwaves through the hockey world earlier this week when he indicated that the Chicago Blackhawks were working on trading their No. 1 defenceman Duncan Keith to western Canada or the pacific northwest.

In the time since, The Edmonton Journal's Kurt Leavins has reported that there is mutual interest between the veteran defenceman and the Edmonton Oilers:

"The Edmonton Oilers are going to have to proceed in this off-season as though Oscar Klefbom will not be able to play in 2021-22.That means having a solid, reliable veteran D-man ready to go in his place, in case the worst-case scenario about Klefbom’s health and future come true. Because they’re just not sure about Oscar.I believe Edmonton’s No. 1 target in that regard is Duncan Keith, and that the interest between Keith’s camp and the Oilers is mutual."

One can reasonably infer from these reports that this trade isn't going to be a cap dump by the Blackhawks but rather a legitimate hockey trade. The team acquiring Keith is doing so because they believe he can step in and play top-four minutes for the next two seasons, and they'll surrender a value-positive asset for the privilege.

Which, of course, is a bit of a head-scratcher. In the contemporary NHL landscape, few things are more valuable than cap space. Contending teams have long tried to find ways to gain flexibility in this regard by dangling futures to rebuilding teams to take today's problems off of their books, but the sudden and unexpected squeeze imposed by the ongoing pandemic in the form of a flat cap has only exacerbated matters.

If you’re trying to seriously compete in the short term, allocating cap space wisely is imperative. This fact seems to be in direct tension with a team acquiring Keith and the final two years of his deal at a $5.3-million cap charge in the year 2021 to log heavy minutes on an NHL blue line.

Keith, of course, signed this 13-year deal back in 2010. As with most contracts of that nature, this one was presumably signed with the understanding that Keith would provide surplus value early in the deal but would almost certainly be overpaid in its twilight years, a worthy trade-off for a team in the midst of their Stanley Cup window.

As the Hawks have fallen off the NHL radar, so has Keith, and unsurprisingly most articles reporting on these rumours have leaned on references to his time-on-ice and intangibles qualities, like leadership and “knowing how to win,” more than his performances.

While the Hawks have certainly deployed Keith like a franchise defenceman in the past few seasons, his results have been uniformly poor and few would argue that his age-38 and -39 seasons will be worth close to $5.5-million against the cap. Or so we thought.

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NHL Edmonton Oilers NHL Caleb Jones Duncan Keith Oscar Klefbom Ken Holland
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