Marc Staal missed last night’s game against Minnesota with the flu and Tony DeAngelo got “banged up.” Hartford plays tonight and the Rangers have taken their top defenseman away, calling him up earlier today. It’s a safe guess that one way or another, 2018 third-round pick Joey Keane will be making his NHL debut tonight against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Not that anybody is rooting for injury or ailment, but the Rangers assuredly have been hoping that an opportunity would arise for Keane at some point this season. Here it appears to be. As Blueshirt Banter noted in December, though Joey Keane’s numbers are probably somewhat inflated, he’s been one of the best defensemen in the AHL this season. He has eight goals and 20 assists in 48 games. He’s been superb on the defensive side, plays every situation for Hartford, and his defense partner, Mason Geertsen, is a 24-year-old fringe AHLer. Keane made this year’s AHL All-Star Game, and deservedly so.
Whenever there’s a need at the NHL level, sometimes the reality of the situation calls for a Phil di Giuseppe or Steve Fogarty to jump up temporarily and plug a hole. But whenever a team can help it, they’d prefer to call-up a prospect for the long-term. Keane is that guy. Like any player making a debut, and especially a 20-year-old with a humble hockey resume, there’s an adjustment to be made.
However, Keane is about as ready for this opportunity as anyone in his shoes could be. Anytime a player makes a jump to a higher level the first thing he/she mentions is the increased speed of the game. That manifests in a lot of ways, and in most of those ways Keane is prepared.
First, his literal foot speed is borderline elite. He raced a 13.453-second lap at the AHL’s fastest skater competition, which is quicker than what Chris Kreider and Nathan MacKinnon, among others, produced in their own trials. Semantics of whether he’s actually faster than those three aside, to even be in the conversation requires some great feet.
It’s not just the straight-line speed, but the pivots, backward mobility, and movement with the puck. For Keane, his feet do most of the work. He can carry the puck out of danger and start transition rushes for his team. He can kill transitions the other way with his footwork as well as steer puck carriers to the perimeter one-on-one. He creates shooting lanes for himself at the blueline with quick lateral moves to evade the high winger.
He also plays “quick” in terms of processing what’s happening on the ice. He’s decisive with the puck, making quick outlets. When defending a controlled possession in the defensive zone, he anticipates the cross-ice pass well and breaks them up frequently.
The big concern for why Keane may struggle against NHL competition is a lack of strength. He’s no pushover by any means, but he doesn’t quite have that physical leverage to deal with forwards with “man strength,” so to speak. As mentioned, he does well to steer puck carriers towards the perimeter, but once there he often has the underhand in board battles. His net-front intentions are right but, again, lacks that strength to clear the lane against bigger players. That shouldn’t be a long-term dealbreaker because he’ll improve as he matures, but it could be a hindrance tonight.
There’s no doubt that DeAngelo would be a major loss in any game and there’s no arguing that Keane is his equal. What one can say, though, is that Keane will bring a different look. DeAngelo is the epitome of a pure offensive defenseman. He’s a high-event player who can create magic for his team as well as leave them vulnerable defensively. Keane is a more steady, two-way player. The coaching staff will be able to move Trouba to a more offensive role and depend on Keane to eat up some more defensive and PK minutes.
It’s just one game, but it’s a meaningful one for multiple reasons. First, the Rangers are trying to stay in the playoff picture and this game against Columbus is as big of one as there is. Keane should be able to do a competent job and give them a fair chance.
Secondly, it’s both a symbolic and tangible step in Keane’s development. He’ll get his debut out of the way. He’ll figure out what it means to play in the NHL and what he needs to do to stick.
And finally, this is an important evaluation period for the Rangers’ decision-makers. Regardless of whether Keane gets just this one game, the rest of the season, or somewhere in between — and that will depend on the extent of injuries as well as Keane’s play — it will be important information that will help guide some very important decisions the team will have to make this summer. How ready is Keane to become a full-time NHLer and how well does he fit the team’s system? It’s important context to consider when deciding who, if anyone, to trade this offseason to clear cap space and address need. How the Rangers perceive Keane’s readiness to step into the lineup next October could be the difference between moving DeAngelo or Skjei or moving a forward instead.
There will be many contributing factors to those eventual roster decisions and those will be worthy of greater thought at a later date. Still, if Keane makes his debut tonight as expected, it will be a good chance at getting a first evaluation of how close he may be to being capable of stepping in if and when the Rangers need him to on a longer-term basis.