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Duncan Keith vs. Ryan Suter: Who makes up the best defensive pairing in the National Hockey League? While there are a number of plausible answers there are really only two duos who fit the bill in my mind: Keith-Seabrook and Suter-Weber.

 

There are numerous parallels that one can draw between these division rivals right down to their individual skill sets. Seabrook and Weber are the punishing right-handed defensemen with big shots who hail from British Columbia while Keith and Suter are smaller (relatively), left-handed puck movers from the Mid-West. What makes these pairings truly great is how they play off one another to create something greater than the sum of their parts.

 

It would be incredibly fun to continue fantasizing about this question but that is not going to help you in your pool. In other words, time to stop fantasizing and get back to fantasy. Oy, this job is confusing sometimes. Anyway, we’ve got Duncan Keith vs. Ryan Suter, Cage-Match-style.

 

I know, I know. Duncan Keith had that ludicrous 69-point season a couple of years back that rewarded him with a Norris Trophy and because of that season he automatically gets a free pass as a proven performer and basically obliterates Suter based on this but just hold on a minute – that was one hell of a fluky season.

 

Keith’s huge season is really just a microcosm a global issue in fantasy hockey: defensemen are extremely fickle. Defensemen do not score an abundance of goals so they rely on their teammates to bury the puck to boost their assist totals. This reliance on teammates can lead to tremendous year to year fluctuation. That is how the great Nik Lidstrom throws up a 38-point season in the midst of what would otherwise be considered a flawless career. Similarly, that is how Keith can put up 69 points in a season despite never otherwise showing such a propensity for offense.

 

I am not going to take anything away from Keith’s goals that year, he shot a ton and he earned those 14 goals. He is a proven double digit goal scorer so this is not a major deviation. The issue I have is with Keith’s 55 assists. This is a massive deviation from his career production.

 

Over the past four seasons, including this one, Keith has assisted on 17.0% of goals by his teammates. During that miraculous 2009-10 season Keith had assists on a Lidstrom-esque 22.2% of his teammates’ goals. As shown in the table below Keith’s percentage of assists in 2009-10 was way out of character. Yes he benefits from playing on one of the league’s highest scoring teams but even factoring that in he still pulled a Houdini on us in 2009-10.

 

2011-12

2010-11

2009-10

2008-09

Percent

15.5

15.5

22.2

14.3

Assists

24

38

55

36

 

How about Suter then? Well we know Suter receives next to no help when it comes to team scoring as Nashville is perennially mediocre up front but has he been consistent?

 

Over the past four seasons Suter has assisted on 17.1% of his teammates’ goals. The table below will show he has been more consistent than Keith in this regard.

 

2011-12

2010-11

2009-10

2008-09

Percent

17.4

16.7

15.5

0.19

Assists

23

35

33

38

Both Keith and Suter represent similar value to their team in terms of moving the puck. That is why they both average over 26 minutes a game for their team, including over three minutes on the power play and over two minutes on the penalty kill. These guys really do it all for their clubs and are rewarded with a high percentage of assists.

 

I hate to assume that Suter would record higher totals on a team with improved forwards but it is difficult not to make that assumption. His skills would most certainly translate to any team and there is hardly a team in the league that wouldn’t use him in a similarly abundant fashion as Nashville does. Sure he would lose Weber but he could be gaining so much more. With Suter set to hit free agency this summer, the fact that he scores like one of the most hyped defensemen in fantasy hockey bodes well for his future.

 

Beyond the assumptions what the above percentages really demonstrate is that Keith is simply not as good as his 2009-10 season dictates. He obviously isn’t going anywhere any time soon so long term it is not like he is incapable of reaching similarly lofty heights but the smart money is on treating him like a ~10 goal, 45-55 point type player with upside.

 

Even though Keith has been the much better own, let us look at the patented three-year average chart, keeping in mind how much Keith benefits from his situation.

 

GP

Goals

Assists

Plus/Minus

PPP

PIM

SOG

Suter

78

5

35.3

Plus-2.7

17.3

58.3

127.7

Keith

80.3

9.7

43

Plus-17.7

16.3

44.3

186.3

 

Both players have remained amazingly durable despite the heavy minutes they log each night. Keith has been the better goal scorer and while you could give some credit to his teammates for opening up better shooting lanes you cannot ignore the fact that Keith got the puck on net WAY more than Suter. Keith has also been the better own for assists but this advantage is marginal if you disregard his aberrant 2009-10 season. Plus/Minus is hugely in favor of Keith, which again owes to his situation. It is worth mentioning that Suter has only been a minus player once in his career so this category may be a bit closer than it appears. PPP are slightly in favour of Suter, which is not what you would expect. Consider this close enough to deem it a draw. PIM go to Suter as he plays a much grittier game than Keith, however SOG go to Keith in a similar fashion.

 

That comes off as a huge win for Keith but now look at where they stand this season:

 

GP

Goals

Assists

Plus/Minus

PPP

PIM

SOG

Keith

47

3

24

Plus-14

11

16

109

Suter

47

5

23

Plus-7

16

26

89

 

Both players have missed three games so far this season. Suter is closer to doubling Keith in goals than he is to tying him but that is merely a factor of sample size. They are in essence even there. Importantly, however Suter is not shooting so high above his career rate that his goal pace is unsustainable. Keith is shooting at about 60% his usual rate so that lends even more credence to the idea this category is basically tied. The same can be said for assists. They are dead even. Keith is well ahead of Suter but that is to be expected. Suter has a healthy lead in PPP. That is like because he skates more minutes on the power play than Keith does but also because the Nashville power play is somehow better than Chicago’s this season, sitting second in the entire league. Suter also gives you a PIM advantage. Keith still shoots more so he gives you the SOG advantage.

 

Suter has basically evened the score despite an uneven playing field. He does not have the same sort of elite teammates as Keith but is scoring at nearly the same pace and offers you an advantage in two peripheral categories. Keith also offers you an advantage in two peripheral categories making this Cage Match split even so far this season.

 

There is little reason to believe that this won’t continue either. Both Keith and Suter are operating well within the parameters of their usual production, it’s just that Nashville and thus Suter are scoring more this season than they ever have. Moreover, Suter is on pace for a new career high in SOG.

 

Going forward it is hard to ignore the fact that Keith has been the significantly better own, almost across the board, for the past three seasons. This season Suter is catching up though. He recently turned 27 and is in his absolute prime. We know defensemen take longer to develop so it is not a surprise that Suter has continued to improve and close the gap on the 28-year-old Keith.

 

For the rest of this season you should consider these two a wash but pay close attention to your team (and league) specific strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps one of these two offers a wrinkle you need.

 

Long term you cannot project as though Suter isn’t going to remain on the offensively stunted Nashville Predators but you can treat him with a Keith-like optimism; that there is potential for more if he were to leave. Suter may not have proven to us that he is most certainly capable of more but Keith proves that there is a huge difference between probable and capable.

 

Keith is your man long term because he is the more proven option, particularly with regard to goals and SOG as we do not know if Suter’s recent improvements will continue to trend upward or even simply avoid regression. That being said, Suter has clearly made this much closer than one would initially think. With that in mind, what do you think the name power of Keith could land you? And if Suter does leave Nashville, just imagine how much that could benefit you. Keep this article in mind when Suter signs in Detroit on July 1st. He is a 5-10 goal 40-50 point defenseman right now where he is but a move to greener pastures opens up a world of possibilities.

 


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steve laidlaw said:

metaldude26
... Thanks for the response.

I think that this may have been a bit of an experiment that ultimately leads to something way bigger. I really wanted to do this article because long before I started writing this column I felt that Suter was essentially Keith but on a bad team. I ran the numbers and they backed me up so it had to be done.

I do touch ever so briefly on team trend but no specifics. Basically, I just noted that Chicago is perennially among the league leading offensive teams while Nashville is not but I did note that Nashville was scoring way more this year than ever before. I think the takeaway is that Chicago is going to be a perennial top scoring team because of their core so Keith is dialled into a good situation. Suter is basically free to choose his destination from here (both geographically, and statistically). 50, hell even 60 points could be in store for Suter if he makes the right decision.
January 26, 2012
Votes: +0

duducks said:

duducks
... I like the % of goals assisted on stat. Could've gone deeper there.
If Keiths % is trending stable, shouldn't the next step to see what his team is trending for scoring? (I skimmed some, so apologies if you did do this)

Suter has been getting more involved in his teams scoring as you'd expect, but his contract status makes the team-trend rather irrelevant. I suppose this is why you didn't go further with it.
January 26, 2012
Votes: +0
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