Oilers’ Defensive Struggles Show Value of Departed Duncan Keith

The Edmonton Oilers have issues scoring goals, they have issues in net, and they have issues keeping the puck out of their own net. When it comes to the last of those three problems, the absence of a veteran defender like Duncan Keith is becoming more and more evident by the game.

Fans were critical of Keith before his one-year tenure in Edmonton, even during his time as an Oiler as he proved many of his doubters wrong. Too old, too expensive, and too slow, many fans didn’t give Keith the credit he deserved. But, with the struggles facing the Oilers right now, it’s becoming crystal clear that Keith was an important part of the 2021–2022, Oilers’ roster.

Missing Duncan Keith’s Leadership

Whether Keith was still going to be a reliable top-four defenceman this season or not, he was an experienced veteran leader on a team that sorely misses it now. The Oilers are struggling to limit shots and goals against, rarely out-shooting their opponents in any given contest. This is not to say that Keith would’ve been a difference-maker in that regard, but the chaos in the Oilers’ own end would be lessened and a calm presence in the locker room helpful. Keith might have been the presence the Oilers don’t currently have and need now.

Duncan Keith Edmonton Oilers
Duncan Keith, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Inconsistency is a huge factor for the Oilers this season. In some games, they’ll play as though they can beat anyone. In others, they look like a totally different team, struggling to get out of their own end, looking lost and scrambled in the process. Keith was steady. He didn’t let the emotional highs and lows or the swings of any game or bad run of games get to him or the rest of the roster.

Mentorship for Evan Bouchard

Specifically, you can see the effects with no Duncan Keith on this roster when you look at Evan Bouchard’s game. Bouchard is mightily struggling, yet to have scored a goal on the season, and squeezing his stick far too hard, taking slap shot after slap shot that is blocked by the opponent. The frustration is building in his game, and he doesn’t seem to be able to figure it out.

Evan Bouchard. Edmonton Oilers
Evan Bouchard, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

Partway through last season, Keith was the partner for Bouchard on a regular basis and you saw Bouchard’s game elevated to a completely different level. Bouchard is still a big part of the Oilers’ future but he looks to have taken a step back and there has to be a concern in Edmonton about how he’s playing and how frustrated he is getting.

Another year of Bouchard paired with Keith would have been invaluable for Bouchard‘s progression.

What Can the Oilers Do?

Keith is not coming out of retirement. Having taken an executive role with the Oilers this season, if Edmonton wants to do anything about it their lack of a veteran on their blue line, they’ll need to find it on the NHL market. That means looking for a trade partner, and seeing if there’s a veteran available at an affordable price.

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As for who that could be, the pickings are slim. There may be some names available in the coming weeks and months, however, multiple teams are currently looking for a defenseman. The Oilers don’t have the cap space, nor might they have the trade assets to acquire what they need.

The closest thing to a player resembling Keith that is potentially on the market would be Dmitry Orlov of the Washington Capitals. A 32-year-old left-shot defenceman who has been rumoured to be out there and in trade talks, Orlov has playoff experience and would be a calming presence on Edmonton’s blue line. That said, he comes in at a $5.1 million dollar cap hit, which makes a trade like that virtually impossible. It’s not even clear the Capitals are ready to make a move like that yet.

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