There are a lot of things going right for the Hartford Wolf Pack, who lead the AHL’s Atlantic Division and are sixth overall in the entire league by point percentage. Numerous players contributing to that cause. They have three capable scoring lines and a fourth line that checks well. Igor Shesterkin and Adam Huska are providing incredible goaltending.
There’s a strong argument to be made that, at least among skaters, Joey Keane has been the team’s most important player. The defenseman has been anchoring a Hartford defense that has taken some blows this season. A long-term injury for Yegor Rykov and an NHL promotion for Ryan Lindgren have left them fairly thin for much of the season. Especially considering Sean Day’s stagnation and eventual demotion to the ECHL.
The AHL does not provide public time-on-ice data, but Keane almost certainly leads the Wolf Pack in time-on-ice, playing in every situation. Power plays, and penalty kills, key shifts at to protect leads, important offensive moments, three-on-three, and so on.
Keane showed a fair bit of offensive capabilities the previous two seasons in the OHL, but he’s taken it to another level this season, registering
four six goals and 11 assists through 24 games. Among all defensemen under the age of 23, Keane (who is 20 years old) ranks seventh in points-per-game (minimum 10 games played). That puts him above some older and/or higher profile defensemen such as Evan Bouchard, Timothy Liljegren, and Kale Clague, among others.
As had been his style in junior hockey, Keane’s point production comes from pragmatism and efficiency rather than visceral glamour. Keane is not going to stickhandle past two defensive players. He’s not going to blast the puck 100 miles-per-hour. He’s not going to fool a goaltender with a clever deke.
Keane contributes offensively with a combination of skating and poise. He has great straight-line speed, which makes him an option to join rushes for transition plays. Keane also does a remarkable job of making lateral movements at the point to open up shooting lanes, and he doesn’t miss the net often. As a result, Keane utilizes traffic well, creating goals via screens, deflections, and rebounds. And he possesses a quick enough release to challenge goaltenders from reasonable shooting positions (Keane is #4).
It is crucial to note, though, that these numbers are likely not fully sustainable. In the general sense, his production so far does not quite pass the “Smell Test.” Keane is slightly out-producing his numbers over his previous two seasons in junior hockey. Is it possible for a player to score more at the professional level? Yes, it can and has happened before. Still, it’s not a particularly normal progression for a 20-year-old defenseman in his first pro season.
Available AHL data also offer a few moderate red flags. Keane is shooting 17.1%, which is blatantly not sustainable. He has 35 shots in 24 games, which isn’t terrible but certainly doesn’t foreshadow a high degree of scoring going forward. Of his six goals, two were total fluke bounces while one was a low-percentage shot that the goaltender whiffed on. Although, one contributor to his restricted shot number is his role on the team. On the powerplay, Vinni Lettieri is as good of a triggerman as you’re going to find in the AHL, and it’s Keane’s mandate to tee him up whenever possible.
Keane’s numbers are likely inflated, but that doesn’t mean they are artificial. He’s probably not quite this good offensively, but he is still creating offense for Hartford. Even 10-12 points in 24 games would be quite good for a 20-year-old, two-way rookie defenseman.
In a way, it’s Keane’s defensive game that has been more impressive. He’s been a stalwart, defending some of the better AHL players in a manner beyond his years. His in-stride speed is phenomenal, making him an asset on backchecks and transition plays. And while he’s not the biggest defenseman, he is strong and knows how to leverage his body to steer puck carriers out of danger.
Keane is the poster boy for why it was so critical for the Rangers to revamp their AHL program. Though a healthy environment will help everyone, top prospects, such as Filip Chytil, are probably going to make the NHL regardless. For coin-flip prospects, though, a strong, hands-on environment for learning to become a pro and develop hockey skills can be the difference between success and failure. Right now, Keane is excelling in Hartford, and the Rangers will reap the rewards.
In previous seasons, Keane’s play would at least put him in the conversation for an immediate call-up. The Rangers’ right side of the defense is playing well currently, however. That’s probably in Keane’s best interest. There’s no immediate pressure for him to earn his way up. Rather, he can work on the nuances of his game in Hartford; increase that shot rate, become a leader in the AHL locker room, etc. Keane is going to be afforded plenty of time and opportunity to improve in Hartford until a much later date when the Rangers are in a position to either promote a matured player or use him in a trade to fill a bigger need.
For most AHL teams, depending on a 20-year-old, mid-round draft pick to lead the team’s defense would spell disaster. In Keane’s case, he’s proving more than capable of the job.