Coyotes youngsters defy obstacles, hope for NHL success
On the path to the NHL, players can incur several roadblocks.
Some spend several years in the minors, others overcome physical liabilities, some are caught in “a numbers game” for a roster spot and others simply have difficulty implementing coaching instruction.
Driven by the desire and lure of donning an NHL sweater, skating into an arena filled with 18,000 screaming fans and enjoying the perks playing at the major-league level, these dimensions of the game remain enticing.
Most often, physical size becomes a significant reason why a player could be destined to spend years in the minors. It’s those kinds of players who reject any notion they are not capable of playing at the NHL level, and then succeed.
The Arizona Coyotes’ Max Domi discovered, in his early teens, he contracted Type 2 diabetes, but gained inspiration from Hockey Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke, and Clarke’s two Stanley Cup championships with the Philadelphia Flyers, as a malady to overcome. As a diabetic, Clarke was similarly diagnosed, but overcame to forge a brilliant hockey career.
In Domi’s case, he responded with a terrific rookie season for the Coyotes and produced an initial campaign of 18 goals and 52 points in 81 games. That production was good enough for third in rookie scoring among all NHL rookies for the 2015-16 season.
Though Clarke is listed at 5-foot-10, his size was never a deterrent to success. If Domi took courage to succeed from Clarke, then Clayton Keller (pictured), the Coyotes’ first pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, displayed a like character. At 5-foot-10 and barely 160 pounds, Keller’s size could be viewed a restriction to fulfilling his desire to play in the NHL.
Not a chance, Keller said.
Instead, he went out and put up serious numbers. Playing for the U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP) in 2015-16, he pumped in 37 goals and recorded 107 points in 62 games. As well, Keller picked up 84 career assists – the most in NTDP history.
That combination of determination and character should serve Keller well as he prepares for his first full NHL season this fall.
“This year, I’m taking on more of leadership role,” he said during the Coyotes development camp in late June. “Last year, I was a little bit nervous. This year, I know what’s expected and know how to prepare. I’ll just be there for the younger guys and the guys who have never been here before. Just play my game and do everything that has been successful.”
If Keller is ready to overcome physical stature that might be an obstacle to others, there is also the educational aspect.
Players in the Coyotes development camp in late June represent the future. At the same time, almost every player was 20 or younger and recognize that NHL teams draft for development and not immediate impact. That’s where learning and understanding become paramount to eventually gaining the attention of decision-makers.
That was clear in the approach native taken by goalie Jaxon Castor, a Phoenix native, Jr. Coyotes grad and Arizona State University commit. Last season with the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League, Castor turned in a strong season with a 30-11-1 record with four shutouts and a 2.35 goals-against average.
As realistic as a 20-year-old can be, Castor said his goal in the development camp was to soak in the environment.
“I’m here to learn and get better every day,” he said. “This is such a fun environment and a great group of guys. Plus, being here is really cool. I remember going to Coyotes games as a kid.”
Within the development camp roster, Castor was one of two players from Arizona on the roster, joined by forward Matt Jones from Glendale.
— Mark Brown