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Building off a breakthrough: Clayton Keller

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:

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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.

2019 NHL Awards: All the winners, video, more

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A lot naturally happened during the 2019 NHL Awards and there are still some winners left to highlight. Before we do that though, let’s recap some of tonight’s big winners:

Calder Trophy: Elias Pettersson

Lady Byng: Aleksander Barkov

GM of the Year: Don Sweeney

Norris Trophy: Mark Giordano

Masterton Trophy: Robin Lehner

Selke Trophy: Ryan O’Reilly

Jack Adams: Barry Trotz

Vezina Trophy: Andrei Vasilevskiy

Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay: Nikita Kucherov

Now let’s tackle the other winners.

King Clancy Trophy: Jason Zucker,

Zucker and his wife Carly began the Zucker Family Suite and Broadcast Studio with a $160,000 donation and have raised over $1.2 million in under a year. The project allows kids and their families at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital to watch Minnesota Wild games in a space that mimics the experience of being at the game.

Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award: Wayne Simmonds

Before being traded to the Nashville Predators in February, Simmonds was deeply involved with the Flyers’ community efforts. Among other things, he was a board member for the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation for six years. He also spent four years as an honorary chairman of their annual golf tournament, which is the foundation’s biggest fundraiser.

Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award: Rico Phillips

Of course, the Art Ross Trophy went to Nikita Kucherov, the Rocket Richard Trophy went to Alex Ovechkin, and the Jennings Trophy was shared by Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss.

First All-Star Team:
G: Andrei Vasilevskiy
D: Brent Burns
D: Mark Giordano
C: Connor McDavid
RW: Nikita Kucherov
LW: Alex Ovechkin

Second All-Star Team:
G: Ben Bishop
D: Victor Hedman
D: John Carlson
C: Sidney Crosby
RW: Patrick Kane
LW: Brad Marchand

All-Rookie Team:
G: Jordan Binnington
D: Rasmus Dahlin
D: Miro Heiskanen
F: Elias Pettersson
F: Anthony Cirelli
F: Brady Tkachuk

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Nikita Kucherov caps NHL Awards haul with Hart Trophy

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Things didn’t go as planned for Nikita Kucherov and the Tampa Bay Lightning once the postseason began, but the 2019 NHL Awards serve as a helpful reminder that they made history through the 82-game regular season.

No Lightning player enjoyed a better season than Kucherov, and he was awarded appropriately on Wednesday. Kucherov won the 2019 Hart Trophy, which joins the 2019 Ted Lindsay Award (the player-voted version of the Hart), and the scoring title, i.e. the 2019 Art Ross Trophy.

He also enjoyed a wonderfully awkward comic segment with “Tony Babcock,” aka Thomas Middleditch, so it was a big night for Kucherov.

Kucherov beat finalists Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers) for the Hart Trophy, which is the sort of sentence you lead with when you’re making a Hall of Fame argument.

Here are the voting results:

Taylor Hall won the Hart Trophy last year, McDavid captured the 2016-17 Hart Trophy, and Sidney Crosby last won it in 2013-14.

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.

Carey Price surprises young fan in NHL Awards’ most touching moment

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The 2019 NHL Awards celebrates the best players and moments in hockey, but it’s also a great reminder of how much of an impact players can make off the ice.

As you can see from this roundup, Minnesota Wild forward Jason Zucker won the King Clancy for his humanitarian work, while the Willie O’Ree Community Award went to Rico Phillips, who’s doing tremendous work in Flint, Michigan.

Those were great moments, but the most emotional moment happened when Carey Price surprised young Montreal Canadiens fan Anderson Whitehead with a jersey, hug, and what sounds like a trip to the 2020 NHL All-Star Game.

Warning: you’re very likely to cry while watching this clip. At first, it seems like Price’s video is coming from off site, as he spoke of Whitehead’s mother, who died of cancer at age 44. Price then interrupted his own message, and then surprised Whitehead on stage at the 2019 NHL Awards, and … it’s a goosebumps moment.

The look of shock and surprise on Anderson Whitehead’s face is the sort of thing that will stick with most of us far beyond who won the Hart Trophy and any awards debates, and even beats out the comedy bits, which were expertly deployed by SNL’s Kenan Thompson.

(Honestly, it might be the greatest thing I’ve ever seen at a sports awards show.)

As a reminder, Price first gave Anderson Whitehead a hug earlier this season, and the moment went viral:

Great stuff … and good luck booing Carey Price.

If you need some comic relief after experiencing all of those feelings, enjoy Thompson’s opening monologue, which was really good stuff. May I lead the charge in getting Thompson to do the 2020 NHL Awards, and maybe become as much of a fixture during these ceremonies as he’s been a lifer with SNL? Just throwing my vote (which doesn’t count for anything) out there.

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.

Lightning goalie Vasilevskiy wins first Vezina Trophy

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Andrei Vasilevskiy has been an elite goalie for the Tampa Bay Lightning for some time. His strong recent work paid off as he won the 2019 Vezina Trophy, his first such award.

The other finalists were Ben Bishop of the Dallas Stars and Robin Lehner of the New York Islanders. Lehner won the Masterton Trophy earlier in the 2019 NHL Awards.

You can tell that this is a bittersweet night for Vasilevskiy and the rest of the Lightning, as it’s clear that the wounds haven’t totally healed from that shocking first Round 1 sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

That shouldn’t take away from a strong season for Vasilevskiy, and the Lightning in general, so this award is part of that haul. Lightning teammate Nikita Kucherov has already started collecting his awards, and is likely to add more before the trophies are all handed out.

As you can see from the voting results, Vasilevskiy won by a large margin. Personally, I believe Bishop had a strong argument in his own right, but this is a fine choice:

Last year, Pekka Rinne won the Vezina, beating out Vasilevskiy, who was a finalist.

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.