Clayton Keller focused on helping Coyotes as Calder Trophy buzz grows

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Clayton Keller received a special kind of rookie treatment last season moments before his NHL debut with the Arizona Coyotes.

Like other young players around the league, Keller’s teammates stayed behind in the tunnel and the rookie ended up taking a solo lap during warmups before a game against the St. Louis Blues last March. The moment was extra special for Keller, who grew up playing youth hockey in area under the tutelage of former NHLers Jeff Brown and Keith Tkachuk.

As a kid, Keller would attend Blues games with his father and grandfather, and it was there that his NHL dreams began to develop. As those dreams came closer to reality, it was his late grandfather who played a huge role in Keller achieving his goal of becoming a professional.

“He was probably the reason that I’m here today. He took me to everything growing up — hockey camps, school, hockey practice, and just about everything,” Keller told Pro Hockey Talk on Monday. “I know he’d be pretty proud today.”

Keller, the seventh overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft, spent most of last season at Boston University where he scored 21 times and recorded 45 points in 31 games. Two days after the Terriers were knocked out of the NCAA tournament, he was taking that lap around Scottrade Center as family and friends cheered from the other side of the glass. He would play three games for the Coyotes and get to experience that “Welcome to the NHL” moment every rookie remembers.

“It’s pretty cool to see [Vladimir] Tarasenko and Jamie Benn,” Keller said. “I lined up next to those guys. That’s pretty crazy because I grew up watching both of those guys.”

Those three games introduced Keller to the pace of the NHL, which he quickly adjusted to. After the season ended, he was invited to play for the United States at the World Championship where he’d finish with five goals, including a hat trick against Denmark.

“It really helped me out a lot. You never really know how hard the NHL is until you play in it,” Keller said. “I got lucky at the end of last year and got a nice taste and realized how hard I had to work. That was a huge advantage for me.”

The talent Keller showed as a youth player on the U.S. National Development Team and in his only year at Boston University has led to lots of Calder Trophy buzz for the 19-year-old forward. But that talk is not something he’s focused on.

“I try to block it out. I don’t really pay attention to it,” Keller said. “I just play my game and the rest will [come].”

At 5’10, Keller isn’t the biggest out on the ice, which is why he cites Patrick Kane and Johnny Gaudreau as influences — players who don’t have the size, but are skillful and quick. That skill has been on display through five games this season. Playing alongside Derek Stepan and Max Domi, Keller had potted three goals, meshing well with new Coyotes linemates and head coach Rick Tocchet’s desired style of play.

“We want to play fast, in-your-face type hockey. But also with lots of skill and [a] good defensive zone. It’s a great system, and it’ll show,” Keller said.

Life as an NHL rookie can be a difficult. Adjusting to a faster pace, dealing with the physicality and just going through the highs and lows of a season with a team can be expected. For Keller, he’s fortunate that he has plenty of friends around the league in the same situation. Former BU teammate and current Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy is someone Keller frequently exchanges exepriences with.

“Charlie’s one of my best friends. I played with him last year. We definitely talked about how the season has been going so far,” Keller said. “It’s good to have a friend like that around the league. He’s an awesome person and an even better player.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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