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Wily Coyote: With a head for the game and skills to match, it was NHL-or-bust for Keller

Ken Campbell
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With a head for the game and skills to match, it was NHL-or-bust for Coyotes' wily Keller

Arizona Coyotes' Clayton Keller. Source: Getty Images

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Wily Coyote: With a head for the game and skills to match, it was NHL-or-bust for Keller

Ken Campbell
By:

Arizona rookie Clayton Keller is described as a player who thinks the game on a different plane. That innate anticipation doesn’t just set him apart when it comes to handling the puck – it’s the driving force that got him started on his NHL quest in the first place.

So Clayton Keller has this rare gift. Actually, he has a lot of them. He and the puck seem to be members of some kind of secret mutual admiration society. Watch him play, then close your eyes and try not to think of a smaller Adam Oates. We dare you. Keller’s hockey IQ is off the charts. To watch the game through his eyes would be tantamount to having powers that allow you to see what is happening three plays ahead. He could shoot more often, but he’s a Wile E. (Arizona) Coyote, a fictional character who was once quoted as saying even a genius can have an off day. As his father and slightly biased observer Bryan Keller put it: “God blessed him with great athletic ability.”

Clayton Keller regularly sports a dirt ’stache, and the 19-year-old probably gets mistaken for a stick boy occasionally. But behind that youthful exterior is the brain of a hockey savant. And as is the case with a lot of savants, there are, well, quirks would be a nice way of putting it. “There were some unusual things about him as a kid,” Bryan said. “Never really played with toys. He wouldn’t play with trucks and cars like most little kids.” Lest you be afraid where this is headed, don’t fret. You won’t ever be hearing teammates saying things like, “He seemed like a good enough guy. Kind of kept to himself…”

No, Keller’s most pronounced oddity is actually a fairly benign one, and he is intent on using his powers for good, not evil. It’s the kind of thing that would make him a hit at cocktail parties, if those cocktail parties were attended by a bunch of hockey nerds. If you throw the name of an NHL player at Keller, anyone from a superstar to a fourth-line plugger, he’ll be able to tell you which way the guy shoots and what kind of stick he uses. You see, up until this past summer, Keller’s cousin, Chad O’Neil, had been an equipment assistant for Keller’s hometown St. Louis Blues. That meant he had access to the latest and best equipment and sticks used by the Blues.

From the time he was about 14, Keller would study sticks as though they were the Dead Sea Scrolls, all the while using a keen eye and photographic memory to create a database in his brain.

All right, hotshot, let’s see what you got. We’ll stick with the Western Conference just to give you a fighting chance. Filip Forsberg. “Righty. He was hurt when we played (the Predators), but I’m pretty sure, almost positive, he uses a CCM.”

Anze Kopitar. “He’s a lefty and he uses Bauer.”

Patrick Maroon. “St. Louis guy. That’s too easy. Lefty and Bauer.”

Micheal Ferland. “He’s a lefty and he uses CCM.”

Sean Monahan. “Lefty, Bauer. We could go on all night if you want.”

Dustin Byfuglien. “He’s a righty. Uses a purple stick. I want to say…yeah, a Warrior. He uses a weird stick. It’s just weirdly painted.”

We’ll save you the time looking it up. He’s 100 percent correct on every one of them. When Keller was growing up and playing for the powerhouse St. Louis Jr. Blues program, he would shake his head in amazement at teammates who didn’t know, or care, which way the best players in the league shot.

And then there’s the Patrick Kane thing. Former NHLer Keith Tkachuk claims there’s probably not a thing about Kane that Keller doesn’t know. Sounds a little creepy.

But rest assured, Keller had a pretty normal upbringing, or as normal as it could be for a super-talented kid who skipped Grade 8 and left home at 14 to go to Faribault, Minn., and play at the hockey factory known as Shattuck-St. Mary’s, where he followed in the footsteps of Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews. Near the end of the seventh grade, Keller figured he had two more years before going to the U.S. National Team Development Program in Michigan, and he wanted to spend them at Shattuck. He wanted to play for the prep team in his second year, which would mean he’d have to spend a year with the bantam team. So he skipped the eighth grade and trundled off to Minnesota to pursue his dreams.

As a sophomore on the midget prep team who was in reality a ninth grader, Keller led the team in scoring and was a key cog in winning a national championship. With the NTDP, all he did was break the all-time scoring record established by Phil Kessel before becoming a one-and-done at Boston University, then moving on to the NHL where he’s the shining light for the moribund Coyotes and one of the leading candidates for rookie-of-the-year honors.

To be sure, much of the talent Keller possesses has been bestowed upon him. Bryan said he was switch-hitting in baseball by the time he was six and carded his first hole-in-one when he was 13 and playing in a foursome with three adults. Keller’s a scratch golfer who says his forte is his short game, but then says he regularly drives the ball between 290 and 300 yards. The hand-eye coordination is uncanny, as is his ability to process the play. They’re his hallmarks.

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Clayton Keller's quick start and tantalizing upside have been bright spots in an otherwise dismal season in Arizona.

There are two main reasons why he’s been able to survive as a 5-foot-10, 170-pounder – his ability to think the game on a higher level and the fact his edging makes him difficult to knock off the puck. “I don’t know, I think maybe some of it is God-given the way I think the game,” said Keller without a hint of braggadocio. “I feel like I’ve always had that…that I’m smarter than the other guy. They might be bigger and stronger or whatever, but I was always just smarter than they were, and that led to good things.”

That probably didn’t come out quite the way he wanted it to. Keller is not boastful, although Tkachuk said he does recall that he played with a swagger to his game, even when he was 10. He started out playing with his 1998-born age group, which was coached by former NHLer Jeff Brown, then graduated to the 1997 team, on which Tkachuk was an assistant coach. “He wasn’t afraid,” Tkachuk said. “He would try anything.”

But to focus too much on Keller’s hockey IQ and his confidence would represent an enormous injustice to his determination. What actually set him apart was his desire to constantly get better.

When he was with the U.S. national team program, he’d spend his off nights at local rinks watching other games. If he didn’t have a game or practice that day, he’d try to find some ice time on his own. But more than anything, Keller’s hunger to get better was satiated in the basement of his own home in Swansea, Ill., which is just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

It was there that Keller would often retreat to the basement, where his father had two nets and painted the walls to look like boards. The floor was smooth concrete, a perfect surface to shoot pucks and on which to rollerblade. On the walls were Fatheads, life-size vinyl stickers of his favorite players – Kane, Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Evgeni Malkin, with very, very tattered images of Roberto Luongo and Miikka Kiprusoff behind each of the nets. (Bryan is proud to report that the group now has a new member. For just $49.99 U.S. plus taxes and shipping, you too can have your own Clayton Keller Fathead. Keller is the only Coyote and the only 2017-18 rookie to have his own Fathead.)

There were 200 pucks in that basement, and the younger Keller used all of them, constantly shooting and working on his stickhandling. “When he was younger, he’d make me stay down there with him for hours on end,” Bryan said. “I’d have a glass of wine down there and I’d be passing him the puck over and over and over again for hours.”

Keller was also fortunate enough to be growing up near St. Louis at a time when youth hockey was booming. Former USA Hockey executive director Art Berglund once mused that the U.S. would become a hockey power because so many Canadians went there to play in the NHL and would marry American girls and their progeny would be hockey stars. And he was right. If you look at any American world junior team, you’ll almost invariably find a lineage that flows down from north of the 49th parallel.

That was the case for Brown, who settled in St. Louis after his playing days. Tkachuk married a Canadian when he was playing in Winnipeg, but also settled in the area the way so many former Blues do.

And the result is a hockey program called the St. Louis Jr. Blues, a AAA organization that plays out of nearby Affton. Go to the arena on any given night and you could probably convene an NHL alumni meeting. Hall of Famer Al MacInnis coaches the under-16 team. Former NHL journeyman Lubos Bartecko handles the under-18s, while former Blues defenseman Jamie Rivers directs the major bantam team. Mike Zuke is in charge of the major peewees, while every other boys team is directed by a guy who had high-level playing experience at the U.S. college or minor pro level.

It was from this environment that Keller emerged, and so did a lot of other players. The crop of 1997- and 1998-born players was exceptional, and that was borne out in the 2016 NHL draft when Keller was taken seventh overall and was joined by former Jr. Blues teammates Matthew Tkachuk (sixth to the Calgary Flames), Logan Brown (Jeff’s son, 11th to the Ottawa Senators), Luke Kunin (15th to the Minnesota Wild) and Trent Frederic (29th to the Boston Bruins) in the first round.

There was a time when the vast majority of players in the U.S. NTDP came from the 3-M hockey factory – Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts – but now you’re as likely to find a player from Florida or Arizona on the team as you are the traditional hockey markets. In fact, perhaps it’s time to add a fourth ‘M’ to the Big Three – Missouri.

Tkachuk remembers that Jr. Blues team finishing first or second in every tournament it entered, beating such powerhouses as the Toronto Malboros and Vaughan Kings north of the border and Belle Tire and Compuware out of the Detroit area. “You’ll never see that again,” Tkachuk said, “especially from a place like St. Louis. “They were so special. We’d go to Canada and these teams would be thinking, ‘We’re playing St. Louis, an easy win,’ but then we’d go out and beat them.”

That wasn’t all for Keller, though. Most off-seasons he would play summer hockey, joining stacked teams made up of the best young players in North America. As a youngster he played with the Boston Jr. Bruins and later on a Nike-Bauer elite team that included Victor Mete, Mitch Marner and future Coyotes teammate Jakob Chychrun.

Keller was one of the best players in North America from the time he was 10, and it was then that he really started to get noticed. Bryan Keller recalls a time when he was approached by George McPhee, whose son Graham was playing on the Jr. Bruins summer team with Clayton, and was asked how it was possible that there were no hockey players in his family. There weren’t until Clayton came along – his father is from Texas, and you can tell he’s a hockey neophyte by the fact he calls skating “ice skating” – but there might be another. Clayton’s younger brother Jake is 15 and working his way through the Jr. Blues system.

As far as the product on the ice is concerned, Keller was the shoo-in to win the Calder Trophy until he wasn’t anymore. A fast start gave way to a slight slump and fellow Americans Brock Boeser and Charlie McAvoy, along with Mathew Barzal, swooped in. When the Coyotes took their bye week in early January, Keller eschewed the opportunity to go anywhere and stayed in Arizona, recharging his batteries and getting in a few golf games with teammates Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Christian Fischer and Christian Dvorak.

Golf is one of the few pleasures Keller affords himself outside hockey. He prides himself on his short game, saying he can usually get up and down even if he misses the green. But don’t assume that because he’s a small guy he can’t hit it a ton, either. “You’d be surprised,” Keller said. “I usually hit it as hard as Dvorak and Fischer (who is 6-foot-2, 214 pounds). I think I hit my irons farther than both of them, and my driver’s about the same.”

Keller has often said he’d like to be on the pro tour if he weren’t a hockey player, but in reality, by the time he was in high school he was playing for fun in tournaments where his peers were trying to get golf scholarships. It was a most wise move for him, one he seemed to have been destined to make.

Even though he portrays himself as an average student, you don’t skip the eighth grade without having a certain amount of book smarts. “He had big dreams,” Tkachuk said. “You could tell at the time he wanted to make it big.” Added his father: “It was all hockey. There was no Plan B. He always said, ‘Maybe I’ll do something in business,’ but he had absolutely zero Plan B. It was all hockey and he was all in.”

It’s impossible to describe exactly what kind of game a player such as Keller is seeing. Even those who played in the best league in the world have trouble with it. “I wish I could tell you,” said former NHLer Danton Cole, who coached Keller with the U.S. NTDP under-17 team, “because I might have had a better career. You see his abilities, and the way he breaks down the game, that’s not normal.”

Cole said he’s seen a lot of players with off-the-charts abilities but few with Keller’s hunger. If he didn’t score on a 2-on-1 drill, he’d want to do it again, and if his team lost the end-of-practice scrimmage, he’d want to stay out there a little longer.
You hope that youthful exuberance can endure through what is likely the first time in his life he’s played on a bad team. The Coyotes are rudderless and have no money to spend on players. They continue the cycle of trading established players for youth, then sometimes realize that potential will never be realized.

When GM John Chayka traded Anthony Duclair, whom the Coyotes acquired from the New York Rangers in the Keith Yandle deal in 2015, he acknowledged he had been talking to teams about Duclair for the better part of two years. The Coyotes are without a permanent home, their payroll is the lowest in the league, and what makes matters worse, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of fix that will pull this team out of its chasm in the near future. The pain is there now – the Coyotes are on pace to be one of the worst teams of the salary cap era – and it will be there for some time to come. “Every team goes through tough seasons,” Keller said. “We have a great group of guys and we’re all young. We young guys are the future, and once we get older and a couple of pieces come together, we can really be something special.”

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Wily Coyote: With a head for the game and skills to match, it was NHL-or-bust for Keller