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‘Hockey nerd’ Keller a major player in Coyotes’ rebuild

 

Anaheim Ducks v Arizona Coyotes

Perhaps it’s time for the rest of the hockey world to discover diminutive forward Clayton Keller of the Arizona Coyotes.

Fans in Arizona already to know of Keller’s exploits and his ability to bring a crowd to its feet.

Rewarded for a stellar first season, Keller was nominated this season for the Calder Memorial Trophy. Keller is only the third player in Jets/Coyotes history to be nominated for this award and the previous two played in Winnipeg at the time of their nomination – Teemu Selanne (1992-93) and Dale Hawerchuk (1981-82), and both won the award.

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Just 19, but a player wise beyond his years, Keller assumed the mettle as the face of this franchise and looks to hold that designation for seasons into the future. In recent years, Shane Doan, as captain, commanded respect not only in the Coyotes’ clubhouse, but around the NHL. Keller’s style may be more taciturn, but likely more dynamic.

There’s one story that has circulated about Doan’s influence.

Arizona Coyotes HeadshotsWhen the Coyotes looked for new ownership in the early part of this decade and the club was operated by the league, Doan’s phone first number was the first on NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s speed dial. With a high visibility, Doan raised the bar and generated respect from teammates, opponents and league officials. While Doan was also verbal behind closed doors, Keller’s style is much more reserved.

Leading by example, the native of suburban St. Louis put up solid numbers during his rookie season, and the future portends well. Quiet and unassuming, Keller, along with a strong core of younger players led by Christian Fischer, Christian Dvorak, Brendan Perlini and the recently-acquired Alex Galchenyuk, now form the nucleus of the club’s foundation.

“I’ve thrown this word around, ‘hockey nerd,’ and Clayton is a hockey nerd,” said Arizona coach Rick Tocchet. “He watches hockey 24 hours a day and wants to be better every day. He constantly watches the star players around the league to see what they are doing different. Nonstop, he asks me about guys like (Sidney) Crosby, and what does (Steven) Stamkos do on the power play. He’s always trying to get better and in practice – he practices hard. Usually, a young kid you have to push them along to practice hard, but not Clayton.”

On a line last season with Richard Panik and Derek Stepan, Keller emerged as a driving force and the kind of player that tends to make those around him better. Finishing the season as the second highest-scoring rookie behind the New York Islanders’ Mathew Barzal, Keller also placed in a number of offensive categories.

Likely at the top of Keller’s notable achievements was leading the Coyotes in scoring with 65 points. With that accomplishment, Keller became the first rookie to pace Arizona in scoring for the season. Stepan finished second in team scoring with 56 points (14 goals, 42 assists).

Along the way, Keller set single season rookie marks for goals (23), assists (42), points (65), games played (82), most multi-point games (14), longest point streak (10 games) and most points in a month (19, in March).

An added achievement was being named as the NHL’s Rookie of the Month twice in October and March. Among NHL rookies, Keller was fifth in goals, fourth in power-play goals, second in assists, third in power-play assists, fourth in power-play points and topped all NHL rookies with 212 shots on goal.

For Keller’s part, the evolution of what figures to be a significant hockey career remains in its infancy.

“I learned a lot this last year,” he said. “I’ve always been pretty confident. I think you have to be that way, and that’s one thing I’ve always had inside me since I was young. I wanted to come in and have an impact right away. I’m an offensive player, so that’s what I do every night. I’ll do everything I can to help the team win.”

Top photo/Norm Hall

— Mark Brown

(Aug. 30, 2018)