Building off a breakthrough: Clayton Keller

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Arizona Coyotes.

Even the most optimistic person in the Coyotes organization would admit that the team did not get off to a great start last season. There’s not much room for debate there, what with Arizona starting 2017-18 with a pitiful 0-10-1 record.

During that confidence-shattering time, Clayton Keller‘s stellar start was a balm for wounded Coyotes fans who expected a big leap after the team landed the likes of Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta.

Keller scored nine goals and six assists for 15 points over 13 October games, becoming an early Calder frontrunner and earning Rookie of the Month honors for the opening month of the season. You tend to develop that sort of buzz when you make other great rookies like Nico Hischier look downright silly on plays like these:

The slick-yet-undersized scorer generated such a hot start, people wondered if anyone else could catch him for the Calder. It turns out that the answer was a resounding yes, as Mathew Barzal left everyone else in the dust, and Brock Boeser turned out to be even more of an oasis in a desert of bad hockey than Keller for a comparably abysmal Canucks team. Still, Keller enjoyed a strong enough season to become a finalist for the award, generating 23 goals and 65 points while essentially being a first-liner (with the ice time that goes with that, as he averaged a veteran-like 18:05 TOI).

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

Back in November, PHT’s Joey Alfieri caught up with Coyotes head coach Rich Tocchet, who praised Keller as you’d expect. Tocchet, like others, came away impressed with just how beyond-his-years Keller ended up being.

” .. What marvels me is that he’s a 19-year-old kid,” Tocchet said of Keller, who turned 20 on July 29. “He’s only going to get stronger, and he’s going against top players against other teams and how he’s coming out of the corners with pucks. He’s got the puck on his stick and he’s making plays. That’s what’s really been surprising to me.”

Indeed, for a player who was arguably underestimated just a touch during the 2016 NHL Draft because of his size (Arizona selected him with the seventh pick), Keller distinguishes himself in part by having such a nose for the puck.

Sophomore slump approaching?

Keller might be in tough to top his brilliant breakthrough season, but context is key.

To some extent, he was “a big fish in a small pond” during this past campaign. Despite carrying just three games of NHL experience with him from 2016-17, Keller topped all Coyotes forwards when it came to power-play time, averaging three minutes and one second per contest. Only Oliver Ekman-Larsson was a more frequent fixture on the man advantage.

The power play pond could easily get a little more crowded next season.

While Max Domi was the fixture himself on the PP as the second-most frequently used forward, Alex Galchenyuk might eat up even more time. It’s also quite plausible that Dylan Strome may be used in such 5-on-4 situations, as that extra space might help him leverage his strengths (smarts, playmaking) while camouflaging concerns like his skating.

The Coyotes still seem likely to lean heavily on Keller, and being that he just turned 20, there’s a strong possibility that he’s merely scratching the surface of his prodigious skills. Consider that he didn’t really ride outrageous shooting luck last season, with a very repeatable 10.8 shooting percentage.

Let’s also acknowledge the chewy elephant in the room: much like fellow brilliant American scorer Patrick Kane, Keller loves gnawing on his mouthpiece. There’s quite a bit of photographic evidence of this, which seems crucial to note.

As you can see, he deploys such a strategy at home:

via Getty

On the road (main image) and possibly while playing defense/battling for the puck:

via Getty

Honestly, scouts must have been sleeping on this one. Did they not at least consider the undeniable correlation between mindless mouth-wear misuse and blistering talent? *Sigh*

Anyway, all (bad) joking aside, it sure seems like the Coyotes unearthed a gem in Keller. Even if his ceiling is as a 20-25 goal, 60+ point player, he ranks as the sort of scorer you need in the NHL. If 2017-18 ends up being a mere appetizer for a greater breakthrough next season or in the near future, then the future is so bright you might need shades.

Maybe don’t chew on those sunglasses, though.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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