American forward Clayton Keller of the Arizona Coyotes has come a long way since being named MVP of the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Championship. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Former U18, World Junior star shining against men
Clayton Keller won’t celebrate his 20th birthday until 29 July, but the American prodigy can already celebrate everything he’s accomplished as a teenager.
If not for the exploits of Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders and Brock Boeser of the Vancouver Canucks, this Arizona Coyotes rookie might well be favoured to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year. Keller, who stands just 178 cm and 77 kg, hasn’t let his size hamper his success, as he’s ranked among the leading first-year scorers ever since his sizzling start in October (9-6-15) under coach Rick Tocchet. Keller scored his 23rd goal of the season in a 4-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on 26 March, setting a new Coyotes rookie record and extending his current point streak to nine games. Trained as a centre, he’s fit in nicely on right wing with top centre Derek Stepan, even though the Coyotes will miss the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season.
“I think it’s been a good season,” Keller said. “We’ve had some ups and downs, and I think we’re just trying to get better every day. I’ve learned a lot this year. Playing with Stepan has been great. He’s really taught me a lot.”
Despite his blazing speed, Keller is learning that in order to shine consistently at this level, it can’t be pedal-to-the-metal all the time.
Nathan MacKinnon, a 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship gold medallist and 2017 Worlds all-star team member, has become a superstar this year with the Colorado Avalanche, and the 22-year-old Canadian has spoken about how varying his pace has made him more deceptive. Keller, picked seventh overall by Arizona in the 2016 NHL Draft, has taken notice.
“He’s a heckuva skater, really fast, and I think you have to be able to change speeds at different times to make the defenceman adjust and move his stick,” Keller said. “So I think these are things you learn. Some things you can work on in practice and some things you can work on in the summertime. I definitely always keep working on my skating and switching speeds and just trying to figure out the best way to get around defencemen.”
Mostly, Keller has done things the best way in his budding career, from gold medals at the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Championship and the World Juniors to his NCAA Hockey East rookie-of-the-year campaign with Boston University last year and his current NHL gig.
The St. Louis native ascribes much of his success to his decision to join the USA Hockey National Team Development Program. Now headquartered in Plymouth, Michigan (the site of the 2017 Women’s Worlds), the NTDP centralizes top American U17 and U18 talents and emphasizes skills development. Heading into the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in Chelyabinsk and Magnitogorsk, Russia, the U.S. has won 10 gold medals – more than three times as many as any other nation – and the NTDP is a huge reason why.
Keller is the all-time leading scorer in NTDP history (189), surpassing Phil Kessel (180) and his own boyhood idol, Patrick Kane (172). He can’t recommend the 1996-founded program enough.
“I think it’s definitely the best place to play in America,” Keller said. “The facilities, the weight training, the schedule, getting to play against college teams in your second year when you’re only 17 years old. Coming into the USHL [United States Hockey League] at 16, it was probably one of the funniest times of my life, playing in the program and representing my country every day. It’s something you really dream about. Not everyone gets to play for their country.”
Nowadays, Keller enjoys a dream lifestyle in the Valley of the Sun. If he isn’t enjoying a pre-game meal at Max Domi’s house, he’s dining at Preston’s Steakhouse with roommate Christian Fischer, with whom he also competes in mini-putt and Xbox. As he revealed in a recent interview with Coyotes broadcaster Tyson Nash, he’s definitely had the last laugh years after his fifth-grade teacher suggested he should focus on school instead of hockey.
However, the kid who played bantam and midget at Shattuck St-Mary’s – the Minnesota school that also nurtured the talents of Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, and Zach Parise – hasn’t forgotten about the great IIHF experiences that put him on the map.
In 2015, Keller was the youngest skater on coach Don Granato’s team that won U18 gold in Switzerland by outshooting Finland 62-20 in a 2-1 overtime victory. He was just one of several noteworthy names.
“Auston Matthews and Matthew Tkachuk and Jack Roslovic, all three of those guys were great friends of mine at the time,” Keller recalled. “I was lucky enough to be called up and play in that tournament with them. It was just a lot of fun. I really learned a lot about that tournament, just because I was going again next year. It was a great tournament, and it was fun to get a couple of shifts with Auston and Matthew and those guys.”
In 2016, the favoured Americans settled for third place on home ice in Grand Forks, North Dakota. They walloped Canada 10-3 in the bronze medal game. Even though Keller totalled 14 points and was named tournament MVP, he’s still peeved when he recalls how the Jesse Puljujarvi-led Finns took their revenge with a 4-2 semi-final win.
“I think we were right there. We had a great roster. I don’t know – I think we should have won the [semi-final] game. We outshot them, hit a couple of posts. We were up 1-0, should have been 3-1. Their goalie played one heckuva game. We took a couple of penalties late and they ended up capitalizing on it. It was tough to swallow.”
However, winning the 2017 World Junior gold medal on Troy Terry’s thrilling shootout goal against archrival Canada in Montreal made up for that disappointment, and Keller was a huge contributor (3-8-11), earning a tournament all-star berth. In February, he was excited to see peers like Terry, Jordan Greenway, and Ryan Donato sparking the seventh-place American Olympic team in Korea.
If Keller has one regret, it’s that long-time USA Hockey executive Jim Johannson won’t be around to witness future American triumphs. The 53-year-old general manager of the U.S. Olympic team tragically passed away in January, and it hit Keller hard when he got the news.
“JJ was such a great guy. He gave me the opportunity to wear the USA sweater a lot of times. He was always on top of everything. Even the first year, I was a younger guy, and he was texting us early, letting us know that we were coming to camp, and just really welcoming. Actually, [Boston University coach] David Quinn was really good friends with him, and we kind of talked about JJ when they were down in Arizona. He just couldn’t believe it.”
Although Keller was disappointed that the NHL opted to skip this year’s Olympics, it would surprise no one if he got invited to play for the U.S. at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Denmark. The Americans face Canada in their 4 May opener in Herning.
“I’d definitely look into it, see how my body’s feeling,” said Keller. “Any time you get to represent your country, it’s a special honour, and it’s a lot of fun.”