He knows Keith puts in serious endurance work before and during a season. But when it comes to Keith’s ability to log major minutes and remain playing at a consistently elite level, Oduya believes that has to do with more than just how many sprints or miles a player can compile in the offseason.
Oduya’s hypothesis: Keith is just one of those rare athletes.
“I would say genetics,” Oduya said after a recent practice. “I think he has superior genetics. He’s obviously a hard-working guy. I’m not taking that away from him. He has something where he’s explosive and still he can go on forever. He, like, never stops.”
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville likes to maximize that Energizer Bunny quality in Keith, who has ranked first or second in ice time three of the past four seasons. Keith played in the 23-minute range his first two seasons in the NHL but has averaged 25-plus minutes over the past six seasons. He’s also had a plus-114 rating over those six seasons.
Quenneville strategically cut Keith’s regular-season minutes this season due to the compact schedule, and he averaged 24:07 in 47 games. But with the arrival of the playoffs, Quenneville has pushed Keith to the max again. Keith has averaged 27:20 in 18 playoff games.
His minutes have grown even larger over the past three games. He played 40:12 in the Blackhawks’ double-overtime win over the Los Angeles Kings in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, he played 48:40 in a triple-overtime win over the Boston Bruins. In Game 2, he played 32:40 in an overtime loss Saturday.
Whatever the reason for Keith’s ability to withstand long shifts and a heavy load of minutes, Quenneville is glad to have him on his side. Quenneville uses Keith on power plays, penalty kills and in every other possible situation. It’s why when Keith was suspended for a game during the Western Conference finals, it took a team effort to replace him.
“His conditioning level is very high end,” Quenneville said. “You've been around a lot of hockey players. I think he's one of those different levels, elite status as far as his conditioning. He can sustain big minutes, long shifts, doesn't show the wear and tear over the course, whether it's recovery for another shift or for a long, big-minute game. Whether it's in his genes or whatever, he's got a nice makeup and doesn't get fatigued in the course of a game.”
Keith says he is human, though, and playing 48-plus minutes in Game 1 took a toll on his body.
“I didn’t feel really good the next day,” Keith said.
Keith’s explanation for being able to play so many minutes was his passion for the game and his preparation.
“I love hockey,” he said. “I think the harder you train, the better prepared you are. It’s not just hard, it’s training smart. I think those are key things you have to do in the offseason to prepare you for such situations like this.
“There’s a lot of different things I do to train in the summer. I think that everyone takes their training pretty seriously now. You look around the league; you read a lot of different stories about other guys. I’m not any different than any other guy in the gym. We got a dedicated team of guys that take care of themselves and treat themselves the right way.”
But not everyone on the team can do what Keith does. Oduya can attest to that.
“It’s quite funny to watch at times where he’ll be on the ice for two minutes, come back to the bench and be just like sitting there talking to you like he hasn’t even been on the ice,” Oduya said. “And, ‘Oh, OK, I’m up. I’m going back in.’ If it would have been me, I would have been like halfway puking on the bench. Yeah, it’s amazing to see. He’s in really, really good shape, and he has some freakish qualities that a lot of people don’t have.”