The Coyotes have been historically bad – and Keller has been pure magic despite that. How has he managed such a sizzling start?
There’s no way to know if Clayton Keller was the culprit. If it wasn’t him, another reporter should fess up. But someone on Wednesday’s conference call was having trouble behind the wheel. As we took turns asking Keller about winning the NHL’s rookie of the month honor for October, we’d occasionally get interrupted by a “HONK!”
Someone on that call was driving poorly – or doling out road rage to some other bad drivers. Maybe it was Keller, maybe not. Regardless, it was funny, because it was fitting. The kid’s skills are jaw-dropping enough to…stop traffic.
Hey-oh! Bad joke. But it makes more sense if you get a look at some Keller highlights so far this season with the Arizona Coyotes. Check out the effortless speed and touch on this breakaway goal versus the Dallas Stars:
The Patrick Kane comparisons seem more apt by the day. Keller, a 5-foot-10, 168-pound waterbug with dazzling hands, blew up for 107 points in 62 games with the U.S. National Team Development Program in his draft year before Arizona picked him seventh overall in 2016. Keller was similarly dominant as a college freshman with Boston U the ensuing season and stood out at the world juniors and World Championship for Team USA. He really earned his No. 1 overall prospect status in THN Future Watch 2017, voted to the top by our panel of NHL scouts and team executives.
Keller set the standard so high that our publication almost unanimously selected him to win the 2017-18 Calder Trophy. And yet, he’s somehow surpassed the lofty expectations. He’s not merely holding his own as a rookie. Keller’s nine goals and 15 points in 13 games put him in a tie for fourth and fifth, respectively, among all NHLers. He’s on pace for 57 goals and 95 points. That rate will likely slow down, given the state of league-wide offense today, but Keller has been a revelation. The secret, in his mind: deliberately scheduling his game to pop off quickly. He hit the gym hard over the summer specifically planning to start fast in his rookie year. He doesn’t take all the credit, though. He thinks the way the Coyotes handled him last season, giving him a few NHL games in March and April, prepared him to flourish this October.
“It was huge to get that experience last year, and I can’t thank the Coyotes enough for letting me come and play there,” he said on the conference call. “You never really know how hard it is until you play the game – how fast it is and how strong guys are. It’s a man’s league, so it was great for me to get a little bit of a taste last year.”
The most staggering thing about Keller’s pinball numbers so far: the Coyotes have been truly awful as a team. They’re tracking for one of the worst seasons in hockey history thus far, winning once in their first 13 contests. They’re flirting with the 1974-75 Washington Capitals, 1992-93 San Jose Sharks and 1992-93 Ottawa Senators for the all-time futility crown, which is stunning to see in this era of parity, though a positive regression feels inevitable. It’s thus all the more amazing that Keller has produced the offense he has with the franchise crumbling beneath his feet. He has scored 27.2 percent of his team’s goals. For perspective: the league-leading percentage last season was Jeff Skinner’s 17.5. Keller has been involved in 39.3 percent of his team’s goals so far this season, which would’ve placed him second behind Connor McDavid’s 41.2 in 2016-17.
Is it a little awkward for Keller, then, knowing he has as many rookie of the month awards as his team has victories?
“You’ve always got to stay positive,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. You can’t be down on yourself or mad about something that happened last game. You’ve just got to look ahead and keep moving forward. We have the team to do special things, and I believe in every single one of the guys, and everyone works hard. We come to work with a smile on our face no matter what the outcome was the night before.”
He admits the start has been “really rough.” Who wouldn’t? But he still gushes about his experience so far. He’s already quite fond of his teammates and especially appreciates playing with a veteran pivot in Derek Stepan, acquired in the off-season in a trade with the New York Rangers.
“He’s been really great to me,” Keller said. “He’s an awesome linemate. He’s always in the right position. He really trusts me with the puck, which means a lot. I just try to find him as much as I can. He’s great for our program, and it takes a lot out of him to leave the place where he played for most of his career in New York and come to our younger team and really take us under his wing. Everyone on our team knows that he’s our leader, and he’s definitely someone I look up to.”
No player is going to publicly trash his team, of course, but Keller seems to genuinely believe in his peers. He hasn’t lost his innocence. He’s still just 19, after all. Developmentally, things are going swimmingly for him, so it’s understandable that he filters an otherwise nightmarish campaign through a bright lens. Why not? The Coyotes as an organization may be in a hurry to start winning games, but Keller’s career has just begun, and he’s already doing his part to make the team competitive. Imagine where the Desert Dogs would be without him so far. On second thought, don’t. It’s too scary.