In January, Clayton Keller won gold with Team USA at the World Junior Championship. Saturday, he netted a hat trick against Denmark with the senior men’s team at the IIHF World Championship.
At 18, Keller is not only the youngest member of Team USA, but in the entire tournament. While Denmark isn’t exactly the toughest opponent he’ll face at the World Championship, the fact that he’s playing so well is yet more evidence that Arizona was right to pursue signing him after his college season ended this year.
Keller appeared to bypass at least one obstacle to making the Coyotes full-time, winning over his new head coach in the three games he played with Arizona at the end of the regular season. Dave Tippett particularly noted that while Keller is a smaller guy (5-foot-10, 168 pounds), he’s not afraid to get into plays along the wall or physical confrontations. That’s especially good to hear given that concerns about his size led many to wonder if Keller could hack it against NHLers.
If those questions still existed at the end of this season, Keller is blowing them out of the water in Cologne. Team USA coach Jeff Blashill has complimented Keller’s game both with the puck and away from it, and teammate Anders Lee noted he’d been particularly impressed with the way Keller creates space for himself. It’s almost as if, when the skill level and offensive instincts are present, size doesn’t necessarily have to be a deterrent for an NHL player.
Keller is not excessively small to the outside world, but he is considered “hockey small.” It clearly doesn’t matter to him because his success begins with incredible hockey sense.
His vision allows him to spot the tiniest opportunities and make a clean pass to set up a play. He knows how to use his stickhandling to buy teammates time to get open. One of the best things about Keller, though, is his ability to use these high-level hockey smarts at top skating speeds. It’s as if he can slow the game down to select the smartest play, then make it almost before his opponent realizes what’s happening.
Those killer instincts aid his defensive game as well. His vision lets him get into an opponent’s passing lanes, shutting down their opportunities (during his time at the National Team Development Program he was often used to kill penalties) and creating turnovers. Once that happens, he can turns the game back in his team’s favor.
Keller, drafted seventh overall last year, is the kind of player teams expect to get with a lottery pick, and he could have the sort of career that causes analysts to ask, “Will Teams X, Y, and Z regret selecting players A, B, and C and leaving Keller on the board?”
(In those instances, the answer is usually “yes”, though front offices and scouting staffs would never admit it.)
After signing him in March, Coyotes general manager John Chayka mentioned that the team’s director of amateur scouting, Tim Bernhardt, believed Keller could’ve held his own in the AHL this season at only 18 — and could’ve contributed for the Coyotes as a go-to call up.
That might be the route the Coyotes plan to take with Keller next season. If his play at the World Championship is any indication, however, he won’t give them much of an excuse to send him down to Tucson. If they do, it won’t be long until he’s back up again — and potentially in a starring role as one of the team’s top offensive weapons.