Six weeks might not be that close of a shave when it comes to the NHL Draft cut-off, but alternate — and unwanted — scenarios have definitely crossed John Chayka’s mind in terms of prized prospect Clayton Keller.
Even in the moment, it seemed like a small coup when Chayka and the Arizona Coyotes selected the versatile forward seventh overall in 2016. But had Keller — born July 29, 1998 — come into the world a relatively short time later after the Sept. 15 deadline for draft eligibility, he may have headlined the 2017 event.
“I think he goes No. 1, I really do,” says Chayka, Arizona’s second-year general manager. “I think he’s a special, elite talent.”
Before any Nico Hischier or Nolan Patrick backers start barking, at least have a read of Keller’s resume first. The St. Louis-area boy — of which there are more and more in the league — has always been a dynamo, daring people to doubt him based on a small frame. Keller looked unstoppable during the 2017 World Junior Hockey Championship, netting three goals and 11 points in seven contests for the gold medal-winning Americans. Then he proved he could hang with the big boys, putting up another seven points — including five goals — in eight contests for Team USA at the World Championship last May. His freshman year at Boston University produced 21 goals and 45 points in 31 outings, but numbers are never going to tell the entire story with this kid.
“He’s got that [Johnny] Gaudreau, [Patrick] Kane-esque motion on the ice,” says new Coyotes teammate Derek Stepan. “That vision and slow pace that makes it look easy, but he’s flying.”
Some of the overlap between Keller and Gaudreau is by design. The two Yanks were overseas together at the Worlds and Keller — listed at 168 lbs — figured their shared time may as well function as a tutorial.
“It was awesome to see how he plays and how he creates offence, what he does away from the rink,” the 19-year-old says of the Calgary Flames wizard. “Little things like that can really help me because he’s a similar player and someone I like to watch [so I can] take things out of his game and put them into mine.”
High-level instruction is something that has long been a part of Keller’s hockey experience. Growing up in Swansea, Ill., he got hooked on the sport after his mom took him to a high school game. About 40 minutes down the road in St. Louis, Keller spent the vast majority of his youth hockey days playing on a line with future Flame Matthew Tkachuk and Ottawa Senators first-rounder Logan Brown. It just so happened both those guys had dads — Keith Tkachuk and Jeff Brown — who played for the Blues and started coaching in the area when their careers ended.
Also on the St. Louis scene was Toronto Maple Leafs goalie prospect Joseph Woll and Minnesota Wild property Luke Kunin, who both won gold alongside Keller last January at the world juniors. Throw in Carolina Hurricanes second-rounder Luke Martin and Trent Frederic — picked 29th overall by Boston in 2016 — and it’s no stretch to say Keller, who remains especially close with Brown, has been playing beside NHL-calibre talent his entire life.
One of those young bucks, Matthew Tkachuk, has already made his mark on the grand stage and Keller is fixated on doing the same this year. He trained all summer in Arizona with fellow Coyotes prospects Dylan Strome and Christian Fischer so that when training camp arrived, he’d be ready.
“I definitely expect to be in the lineup right away and I want to have an impact right away,” Keller says. “I don’t just want to be there, I want to help the team.”
Where the left-shooting Keller lines up is a point worthy of discussion. He played centre for half of the college season last year, then switched to wing after the world juniors. He bagged a pair of goals as a right winger in the Coyotes’ 5-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday night and figures to start the year on the flank. For his part, Keller says he grew up playing all three forward positions and couldn’t care less where he’s slotted. There’s a decent chance he spends chapter one of his NHL career on wing and moves to the middle in a season or two. New coach Rick Tocchet will have the final say on that matter for a player — regardless of position — whose biggest test won’t be shining in open ice, but battling savvy, strong NHLers in unforgiving spaces.
“For him, it’s going to be, in the corners; can he keep the puck?” Tocchet says. “There are big guys out there, there are smart guys out there.”
Recently, the NHL has had an embarrassment of fast-twitches when it comes to kids stepping in and looking like instant stars. Connor McDavid became an MVP as a sophomore, while Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine lit up the league as rookies last season, headlining a freshman class that was otherworldly.
It’s a tough ask for anyone to mimic those preposterous precedents, but in a year where the Calder Trophy race is wide open, Keller — who played three games with Arizona at the end of last season — is the odds-on favourite to do something incredible.
“He had amazing data in the draft,” says the analytic-minded Chayka. “It was off the charts, I’ve never seen [a player] be so effective across the board.
“There’s some people you meet where, they’ve got a special something, and Clayton’s got that.”
He’s also just one of a few young players in the desert with sunny futures. Max Domi established himself as a productive NHLer last year and though he’ll miss a big chunk of this season with a knee injury, Jakob Chychrun looked like a 10-year vet on the blue line. Strome’s journey to The Show may be taking longer than intended, but there’s every reason to believe the big centre can still be a very quality player. Then there’s Fischer, who matched Keller’s two-goal, one-assist line versus the Ducks and is starting to look like a second-round steal.
Chayka knows there’s a high variance of outcomes for young teams. In today’s NHL, however, things can come to a boil fast. It’s more about the right ingredients than extended seasoning.
“I don’t think you can win without special players,” Chayka says. “Talent trumps all. I think we have a very talented group. At the same time, we lack experience, we lack strength and things of that nature that come with maturity. I think our guys have that ability to take the next step and be a competitive playoff team.
“It’s an awful lot of work and an awful lot of effort to get over that tipping point, but when you do, it’s pretty special.”
Just like that rookie everybody should be watching.