TORONTO – One of them is the best hockey player ever to come out of Arizona.
The other represents the present and future of a Coyotes organization still working to establish deeper roots in the desert.
But at the heart of it all, Auston Matthews and Clayton Keller are bonded by a desire to be great. They are close friends and former teammates, sure, but they’re also keen students known to swap industry intel during an ongoing text conversation.
“We kind of just talk about other teams’ defence and if they’re hard to play against and how this goalie is,” said Keller. “Just little things like that. He’s a pretty good scorer so he knows where to shoot the puck.”
They will be the highest-scoring players on the ice when Monday’s game begins at Air Canada Centre.
Matthews holds a slight edge in goals (12-11) and points (21-18), but he’s also 10 months older than his Coyotes counterpart. A quarter of the way into the season, Keller is the front-runner to succeed him as the Calder Trophy winner for rookie of the year.
“I’ve been keeping an eye on him,” said Matthews. “He’s a pretty dynamic player, he can do a lot of different things out there. It’s good to see.”
It’s hard to believe they are only three years removed from first getting acquainted at the U.S. National Development Team program. They wound up winning gold together at the world under-18 championship in April 2015, both scoring against Team Canada in a lopsided semifinal victory.
In those days, Keller would often drive Matthews home from practice or to school in the morning. They’d spend a lot of time talking about their NHL exploits on “Xbox” – where Matthews played as a centre and Keller a winger in an EA Sports Hockey League.
Much like Matthews last year, Keller is defying learning curves in his rookie season. He’s logging the second-highest minutes among Arizona forwards and is the sole bright spot in a 4-15-3 start.
“Not scared to go into corners, wants the puck in crucial situations, not afraid just to try plays,” said Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet, when asked what he likes most about Keller. “He’s got a swagger, he’s a great kid. He’s 19 years old and he’s playing against all the top defencemen – that’s a tall order to ask a kid that age.
“But he loves it so we’re going to keep putting him out there.”
Kids, they grow up so fast.
Matthews footed the bill after taking Keller and Christian Fischer, another former teammate, to one of Toronto’s classiest steakhouses on Sunday night. He first discovered a passion for hockey while attending a Coyotes game as a young boy and hopes the organization’s stable of young players will help secure a brighter future.
“That’s my hometown team,” said Matthews. “When they’re not playing the Leafs, you want to root for them. [I’ve got] a lot of good friends on that team and obviously the organization and the kind of spot that they’ve been in with the arena and everything, you want to see them succeed because you want to see hockey stay in Arizona.”
He represents one of the most compelling arguments for why it should. There’s no way Matthews would have developed into a NHL star were it not for the Coyotes and, with Keller now in tow, that team has an opportunity to draw more local kids to the sport.
The only thing that surprises Matthews about Keller’s hot start is that he’s scored more goals than assists so far. As it turns out, it’s by design.
“I’m definitely a pass-first guy, but I also like to shoot the puck,” said Keller. “Whenever I shoot the puck it later opens up those seams. If I’m just a pass-first guy, everyone can kind of just sit back and [think] ‘Hey, he’s going to pass.’
“When I’m a dual threat it makes my game more productive.”
He is a self-described hockey nerd who scours through highlights daily to pick up things he can incorporate into his game. Keller loved watching Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby when he was young. He admires Johnny Gaudreau, too.
“It’s amazing what these guys can do – these kids,” said Tocchet. “They all watch YouTube and they’re trying different plays. I don’t even think they need coaches sometimes, they just go out there and do their thing.”
Keller was raised outside of St. Louis and recalls being immediately drawn to Matthews’ work ethic after they began practising together at the USNDTP.
You can count him among those who aren’t surprised by how much success the Leafs centre has already had in just 99 career NHL games.
“It’s crazy that he came from Arizona,” said Keller. “He’s an unbelievable player and Arizona’s not the biggest hockey market. But him coming out of there definitely changes that. Kids, everyone in Arizona that plays hockey, pretty much knows who he is.”
They are coming to learn there’s a lot to admire about Keller, too.