Perhaps we weren't asking the right questions. One month into the 2021 season, the Blackhawks are far more competitive than expected; at 7-5-4, Chicago is in lockstep with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the fourth Central Division playoff spot. And while the youth movement has been a driving force, we should have been asking: Is the veteran core going to expedite this rebuild?
However, the two top performers on the Blackhawks -- besides rookie goaltender Kevin Lankinen -- are Stanley Cup stalwarts Patrick Kane, who is third in the league in points with 22 through 16 games, and Duncan Keith, who leads the team in minutes played by a decent margin while still playing elite-level defense. Neither appears to be slowing down anytime soon.
"I feel like my energy levels have never been better, really," Keith said Sunday evening.
A quick reminder that Keith is 37 years old. But across sports, we're starting to recalibrate athletic longevity. Though there is still an obsession with youth, especially in hockey, we've been inundated with more and more examples of athletes defying Father Time.
When the Patriots parted with Tom Brady they might have figured he would decline in his 40s -- because quarterbacks typically have -- but that didn't happen. Brady credits his off-field work, the TB12 method, for a lot of his success. Meanwhile, in a season when many expected LeBron James to take it easy thanks to an unprecedented 71-day offseason, the 36-year-old is top 10 in the NBA in minutes played, building a legitimate MVP case. A few years ago, James' business partner, Maverick Carter, said the Lakers star spends about $1.5 million on his body per year.
A few years ago, Keith said he planned to play until he's 45. The defenseman admits he spoke a little capriciously. "I kind of just said that because I was sick of the media asking," he said. "It started a few years ago when I was 34 or 35. For me, I felt like I was young, I didn't know why I was being asked these questions. At 37 now, I look around and I'm the oldest guy on the team and there's not a whole lot of guys my age [in the league] anymore."
Asked if he could play to 50, Keith laughed. "I don't know if I'll go that far," he said. "But I feel really good right now."
Ask anyone who has played with Keith and they'll tell you he's obsessive about his off-ice regimen. Many young players try to absorb the lessons, while others are just in awe.
"My first year, I was really impressed to learn how much work [Keith] does off the ice, especially when it comes to recovery," Kirby Dach told me last year. "He puts so much work in you don't see behind closed doors."
In 2019, The New York Times wrote an article about Keith's routine in which he called himself a "biohacker and part-time hockey player." Keith said he lies on a mat with electric currents for eight minutes every morning, and routinely spends time in front of Joovv lights, which are designed to help with recovery.
"I've always been diligent about my training," Keith says, now. "But now I feel like I put it all together. I've learned a lot over the years of what my body specifically needs."
Since Keith debuted in 2005-06, only Ryan Suter has played more minutes than his 28,839. Perhaps most impressive is Keith's consistency. As a rookie he led the Blackhawks in ice time with over 23 minutes per game. Sixteen years later, he's still leading the team, averaging over 24 minutes per contest.
Keith said the aspect of his routine that has changed the most as a pro is his nutrition. "I always thought my eating habits were pretty good," he said. "But now I'm at a point where I'm really dialed in, and I know how to get my energy levels up if they were down through healthy, nutritious foods I put in my body, knowing what my body responds well to."
And for Keith, the answer is not always complicated. "I eat a lot of steak, a lot of meat, and potatoes," he said.
Beyond nutrition, he's constantly thinking about his energy levels.
"I think in general, I've had more awareness to what takes energy away from myself," Keith said. "Whether that's staying up late, staring at my phone, looking at the screen on a TV or computer. I don't think it's necessarily one little gadget that helps me. They've got Normatec boots that help with lymphatic drainage, which is good. There's lots of those types of little things out there you can do and spend money on, but I feel it's always really important to master the basics, which nobody really can -- or anyone that I've met has. That's your sleep, your food, your hydration and your breathing. So I focus on those and it branches out after that."
Of course, we've heard countless athletes talk about sleep, nutrition and hydration, but breathing is discussed far less often.
"It's very underrated," Keith said. "There should be more talk about that. Breathing, and the power of the brain, are two things in hockey or sports, that don't get enough attention. I don't know why that is. The muscles and aesthetics get mentioned -- everyone wants to look good -- and that's important, for sure. There's meditation breathing to bring your nervous system down to more of a parasympathetic state, where you're relaxing, and you're able to recover and rest. But for me, I work on my breathing and the mechanics of it a lot. I actually really started getting into proper breathing eight years ago, and have taken it to the next level in the last year especially. So that's something I'll continue working on."
Entering the 2021 season, Keith wasn't quite as daunted by the team's approach as some Blackhawks fans might have been. "My mindset didn't really change, because it feels like this has been going on for a while now," Keith said. "As a player, going through the ups and downs of the season each day, wins and losses, the rebuild isn't just starting this season. I just think the organization is trying to be a little more transparent with people. Some of these young guys that come in are excited to play NHL hockey and be in the NHL, and it's invigorating to be part of that type of energy."
This gives Keith an opportunity to be transparent about his own situation. Because he's still contributing at an elite level, and playing on a bargain of a contract for his services -- he's on the tail end of a 13-year contract, which pays him $5,538,462 annually through 2022-23 -- many have assumed Keith might waive his no-trade clause to play for a contender. But Keith emphatically says he has no intention of doing that.
"Why would I go anywhere?" Keith said. "Where is it better than Chicago? It's a great city, I've been fortunate to play here my whole career, great ownership, and I just love it. My goal is to win another Stanley Cup in Chicago. That's what I want."
Emptying the notebook
1. A group of 27 student-athletes, coaches and administrators announced the formation of a group called College Hockey for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion this week.
"It's a group of people that wanted to get together and actually make a change in hockey," says University of Alabama Huntsville freshman Ayodele Adeniye, who is part of the coalition. "Our saying is, 'One shift at a time.' Because it might not be the biggest change at a time, but we're just trying to enact change in some way at all times."
Adeniye himself has an interesting story. He was born in 1999 in Ohio, one year before the Blue Jackets debuted, so he grew up amid the area's participation spike, fostered by the Blue Jackets. Adeniye began playing through the NHL's local Hockey Is For Everyone program, the Columbus Ice Hockey Club. "Up until I was around 6 or 7, I was playing with a majority of Black kids," he said. "But as I started going from lower-level hockey and working my way up to higher levels, I started to be the only one."
College hockey, Adeniye explains, is not extremely diverse. "I have one teammate [Peyton Francis] who is African-Jamaican-Canadian," Adeniye says. "But other than him, I have not seen another Black kid in our league. I saw one other player of color this year, when we played [Robert Morris University]. I'm actually in a group on Instagram of all the Black kids playing in NCAA hockey, and I think there are 15 or 16 of us total."
Adeniye chose UAH in part because his parents moved to Alabama when he was 16. UAH is the only Division I program in a southern state. "My mom hasn't really been able to see me play a lot since I was 16," he said. "So I knew I would be closer to her, and the fam."
When he heard about the formation of the College Hockey for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion group, it piqued his interest. Adeniye reached out to a reporter he knew who had a phone number for Jennifer Flowers, the WCHA women's league commissioner who was organizing the group. "I reached out to her, then told my coach I wanted to be a part of it, and they accepted me," he said.
The group meets on Sundays, via Zoom, and so far is focusing on its "first shift." Members have been sending each other resources they find online focusing on systemic racism. Their first goal is to put together an instructional video that can be played in every college hockey locker room ahead of next season. Adeniye has his own ideas, too.
"There isn't a whole lot of grassroots hockey in Alabama," Adeniye says. "There's not a lot of hockey programs down there, and we definitely don't have any diversity programs or anything like that down here. So once COVID is over, I'm hoping to get into the inner city, and places where there hasn't traditionally been hockey here, and spread the game. I already have a couple teammates that want to support me. I'm going to call it African Floor Hockey Fanatics, and we'll go to Boys & Girls Clubs around here and teach them how to play ball hockey, give them tickets to games, and spread hockey all over Huntsville and the South, which will make it a more inclusive game."
2. It's been a while since the best women's players in the world -- Marie-Philip Poulin, Shannon Szabados, Hilary Knight, Kendall Coyne-Schofield, Brianna Decker -- have had a stage to perform. We'll start to see them showcased in PWHPA games, beginning Feb. 27 at Madison Square Garden, but the event everyone is circling is April's IIHF Women's World Championship in Nova Scotia (which gets a second chance at hosting after the 2020 tournament was canceled).
Players I've talked to are cautiously optimistic the world championships will go on this year -- especially since the IIHF and Hockey Canada were able to stage a world junior championships in December, in a bubble in Edmonton. However, we haven't heard much about the women's senior tournament, at all. I heard that Hockey Canada asked the IIHF to move the tournament back until May, and the sides might push it back as far as August. I asked Hockey Canada for an update last week. In a statement, the organization said it is in constant communication with IIHF as well as the province of Nova Scotia.
"At present time, hosting the 2021 IIHF Women's World Championship in Halifax and Truro, N.S., on behalf of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) remains a priority for Hockey Canada," the statement said. "All our hockey, venue and event partners remain committed to finding a solution to host a successful world championship."
So, stay tuned ...
Three stars of the week
After a down 2019-20, Atkinson looks to have rediscovered his scoring touch. The Blue Jackets veteran had three goals and four assists in three games this week. Atkinson now has three short-handed goals on the season, and 15 shorties for his career, which is now the most in Columbus franchise history (passing Rick Nash's 14).
He missed the first month of the season on long-term injured reserve, and some fans weren't pleased that the Oilers decided to bring back the 38-year-old (instead of finding an upgrade this offseason). But Smith was a stabilizing force for Edmonton this week, stopping 65 of 66 shots over two appearances (.985 save percentage), including a shutout against Montreal.
The Golden Knights are 8-1-1 at home this season, and Fleury has been a big part of that success. A 30-save shutout on Sunday (the 63rd of his career) meant he stopped 100 of 106 shots over four games this week (.943 save percentage), three of which were wins.
What we liked this week
1. Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask is one of the best personalities in the game. He doesn't take himself too seriously. He has human moments, and is happy to talk about them. And that's exactly what happened Wednesday night when Rask left the Bruins' net with one minute remaining in a tied game.
"I honestly thought we were down 2-1," Rask admitted afterward. "That's it. I thought we were down 2-1. I was waiting for [coach Bruce Cassidy] to wave me over there. I'm like why the heck is he not? ... Then I think Chucky [Charlie McAvoy] told me, 'Buddy it's 2-2.' So ..."
Luckily the Bruins made it out of the jam unscathed, and won thanks to Brad Marchand's overtime winner.
"It's an entertainment industry I guess," Rask said. "That's what we're trying to provide, entertainment for the fans. I'm sure people were shocked at first, but hopefully they got a good laugh out of that. I sure did."
2. Speaking of Fleury, here's the best save I've seen this year:
3. The Los Angeles Kings recognized Black History Month on Tuesday with all players wearing warm-up jerseys featuring either Willie O'Ree's or Blake Bolden's name. This is exactly what allyship looks like, and it was cool to see how moving the gesture was for the 29-year-old Bolden, who works for the Kings and is the NHL's first Black female scout.
What we didn't like this week
1. While I know new Pittsburgh president of hockey ops Brian Burke and GM Ron Hextall are well-known hockey men with experience running NHL teams -- something the Pittsburgh Penguins coveted, given their urgency to maximize the end of the Sidney Crosby era -- you have to ask yourself: Are there really only 40 people qualified for these types of jobs, and at what point do we stop cycling through them? Again, not a total slight to the Penguins here, what they did is just emblematic of hockey's hiring practices.
Last year, NHL coaching agent Neil Glasberg -- a champion for diversifying front offices, including the consideration of more European candidates -- called this the NHL's groupthink problem. We've talked about it in relation to coaches, but it's just as bad with management positions.
"The easiest way to frame it is an unwillingness to consider -- let alone listen -- to anybody who isn't widely known by the hiring manager, whether it's the GM, the [assistant] GM, owner, or whoever is running the search," Glasberg said. "Which I think is selling themselves short. Why wouldn't you want to talk to as many qualified people as possible? Instead, most NHL teams have this 'hire-a-friend' mentality. I hear this from my guys all the time: 'It's not the best candidate that gets hired. It's the candidate with the best network or who is the best known.' That's not how you build success. No company would ever be successful if they were just hiring people they knew."
2. Greg Wyshynski and I will have much more on the NHL's plans to finish the season later this week, but it's of note that we're only a month in, and the NHL has already had to adjust its safety protocols twice -- clamping down on player movements each time. In the latest edict, sent to teams this week, it is "strongly recommended" that members of players' households limit their activities as much as possible. Players, meanwhile, will be required to remain at home unless they are attending practices and games, exercising outdoors, performing essential activities (such as going to the doctor), or dealing with family or other emergencies.
There's still optimism that the season can be completed in its current format, and sources on both the NHL and NHLPA sides stressed that they're willing to tweak protocols as many times as needed to adapt. There haven't been any meaningful conversations about returning to a bubble -- and we know how players feel about the bubble, so it would be a hard sell -- but it's alarming that we're in a situation where some teams (like the Vancouver Canucks, who have competed in 18 games) have played double the amount as other teams (the New Jersey Devils have completed just nine games).
That's why everyone you talk to around the NHL stresses one thing: Pay attention to points percentage. All teams might not get to 56 games, but it will be essential for every division to hit approximately the same number of games.
Top games on tap this week
Note: All times Eastern.
It all comes down to this: In an unprecedented seven straight games featuring the same opponents, Monday marks the pivotal Game 7. The Yotes came out strong, but the banged-up Blues won the past two. Aggregate goals are 20-19, St. Louis. Both teams are looking forward to a break from each other after this.
Despite this being an entire season built around rivalry games, every contest in the Battle of Alberta feels like appointment viewing. Both teams are still trying to find their stride, with Edmonton putting veteran James Neal on waivers over the weekend (to be put on the taxi squad for cap flexibility).
The NHL's first of a two-game set in Lake Tahoe will feature these two Western powers. Get excited for a stunning backdrop -- the rink was built on a golf course next to the lake -- plenty of panoramic views and some playoff-level intensity (it will be the third time these teams play this week). Luckily for Colorado, star Nathan MacKinnon is back after being sidelined three weeks with a lower-body injury.
Social media post of the week
Chirping doesn't stop once you hang up the skates. Classic troll job from Kevin Bieksa here: