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Full of Swagger and ‘Hockey Genius,’ Rookie Clayton Keller a Bright Spot for Coyotes

Everyone around Clayton Keller raves about his skill and swagger. They're part of what has the Arizona Coyotes rookie off to a big start.

Step into the basement. You can learn a lot down there. It’s unfinished in the structural sense, all metal support beams and wooden ceiling joists, but Clayton Keller infused the place with a personal touch. A heavy bag hovers above a workout mat, which is held down by kettlebells. Dozens of sticks lean against walls painted like hockey boards, yellow and white with thin stripes of red. When Keller would strap into his rollerblades and tear around the concrete floor as a kid, he was playing for an audience of idols: Fatheads of Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane. Peeking behind one of the two full-sized nets reveals a fifth decal—Miikka Kiprusoff, lunging to make an imaginary save—but Keller shot so many pucks that the Finnish goalie now resembles Swiss cheese.

Keep walking. Step over the medicine ball and scattered gloves. A banner hangs from the back of the staircase, listing members of the state-champion 2005-06 Southern Illinois Ice Hawks, a local team that covered 7-year-old’s Keller’s zip code outside St. Louis. Another dangles near the treadmill, representing the organization that picked Keller No. 7 in 2016. These days, people around the Arizona Coyotes regularly invoke the word “swagger” to describe the league’s rookie leader in goals (eight) and points (13) through Monday. No doubt that same trait once inspired Keller to tag the basement drywall with self-reminders in yellow spray paint.

Next to Fathead Kane, after whom Keller models his real-life game: GO BIG OR GO HOME

And above Kiprusoff’s vinyl, rubber-mashed corpse: SNIPE

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It was there that Keller often retreated to tinker—“mess around,” he corrects—with game-used gear brought by his cousin Chad O’Neil, a former equipment manager for the Blues. “I was a gear freak, I guess you could call it, at that age,” Keller says. Given the opportunity and access he studied what the pros used, “sticks or gloves or padding on their shoulder pads, little things like that.” Then again, Keller always paid close attention no matter where he went. At Blues games he always sat on his father Bryan’s lap instead of the family’s second season ticket seat, “so I could see better and analyze the play.” When Coyotes officials took Keller out to a steakhouse at the combine in Buffalo, he left a distinct impression on general manager John Chayka by repeatedly stealing glances at hockey highlights on the televisions behind him.

That was one of three meetings between Keller and his future team prior to the draft. At least two also included the presence of a staff sports psychologist, whose analysis Arizona works into its evaluation process. While certainly featuring more clinical terms than “swagger,” the report pretty much aligned with ground intel gleaned from the Coyotes’ amateur scouts, whose interviews of coaches, trainers, teachers all returned similar replies. “A real creative mind, a creative person, a lot of structure and detail with his life,” Chayka says. “Good personality, easy to get along with, easy to talk to, but also very intense and passionate and driven about anything hockey related. He’s a hockey genius, no doubt about it.”

This is soaring praise for someone who only turned 19 in late July, but Keller has been one of few bright spots during an otherwise lamentable start for the Coyotes, whose 11-game winless streak to begin the season was the longest of the expansion era before he fed defenseman Alex Goligoski in Monday’s overtime in Philadelphia. Listed at 5’10” and 168 pounds, Keller is next on the new-age assembly line of nimble playmakers like Kane and Johnny Gaudreau, skilled enough to slither around bigger opponents and smart enough to not get killed. And while teammates often catch whiffs of nonchalance typical for his age—“He’s just on his own little planet,” linemate Max Domi says. “It’s hilarious, nothing fazes him at all.”—life has understandably sped up from Keller’s perspective. On a recent road trip to New York City, he was asked to reflect on the whirlwind stretch that dovetailed into signing his first NHL contract seven months back. “Wow,” Keller replies, “it seems like forever ago.”

After Boston University lost to Minnesota-Duluth in overtime of the NCAA regional final on March 25 and ended his freshman season, Keller and the Terriers flew out of Fargo, N.D., and returned to campus around 4 a.m. He hustled to his dorm, packed three weeks’ worth of clothes and one suit, snuck a quick nap, and caught an 8 a.m. nonstop to St. Louis, where he would debut the next night in front of a hometown crowd. As his cell phone began buzzing with ticket requests, Clayton signed his contract at a table outside baggage claim. Bryan asked to take a photo. Clayton replied with some typical teenage objection, probably compounded by the lack of sleep. “One day,” Bryan told him, snapping away, “you’ll want this.”

Next Bryan drove Clayton to Scottrade Center, where the Coyotes were practicing and O’Neil was waiting to welcome his cousin into the NHL. In a way it felt like Bryan was seeing Clayton off for the first day of school, but much bigger. “It was like dropping him off for good,” Bryan says. “But he had a look in his eye like, ‘I’m ready for this journey.'”

Over the phone, Bryan Keller laughs. It’s Saturday afternoon, a few hours after Arizona dropped its 11th straight, this time 4-3 to New Jersey. Seeing another loss stunk, but right now he’s thinking about how the Coyotes took a 3-2 lead heading into the third period. As reigning No. 1 pick and fellow rookie Nico Hischier advanced the puck up the Devils’ defensive zone, Keller chased from behind. In a flash he grabbed Hischier’s shoulder with his left arm and used his right hand to whack the puck free, then wheeled into the slot and beat Cory Schneider five-hole. That’s what’s got the elder Keller going. “A vintage Clayton Keller goal,” Bryan Keller says. “I don't know how many times I’ve seen him do that since he was a little kid.”

Bryan wasn’t a hockey guy. Doesn’t even own ice skates. But his oldest was born at the perfect time to benefit from the recent St. Louis boom. With ex-Blues players like Keith Tkachuk, Al MacInnis and Jeff Brown sticking around to coach their kids’ teams after retirement, an entire generation grew up under top-flight tutelage; four other locals were picked alongside Keller in the first round in ‘16. “His swagger’s at an elite level,” says Tkachuk, and there’s that word again. “Obviously he’s dynamic. But the brain is what gives him that leg-up on a lot of people. He can think three steps ahead of you. He can put up anywhere from 75 to 90 points a year.”

Asked to borrow from his bygone era of clutching and grabbing, Tkachuk says that Keller resembles “a smoother Dougie Gilmour,” but struggles to come up with anyone else. The influx of small talent is a new development, so modern comparisons are more apt. “A combination of Kane and Johnny Hockey,” he says, “is where Clayton will end up being.”

When Gaudreau was younger, his father would feed him eight-scoop chocolate milkshakes and marinated steak for breakfast in an effort to pack on extra pounds. Self-aware enough to know where the genetic roadmap was leading, Keller kept a similar protein-heavy diet. Raw athletic talent was never an issue in hockey—or any other sport, given that his first hole-in-one came at age 12 while golfing with his dad’s friends—but Clayton also grew up hearing that he’d have to outwork everyone else as compensation for his size. “I personally like being a smaller guy,” He says. “I don’t want to be big and slow or anything like that. I’ve learned how to play with my size and be successful.”

He learned by leaning forward in his dad’s lap and shooting pucks in the basement. Sometimes he slept with his stick. His longtime trainer Jon Benne, whose list of clientele includes pretty much every NHL product from St. Louis, had never been asked into work on Thanksgiving until Keller called last year, looking to accelerate rehab on a bum knee before world juniors. (He eventually led Team USA with 11 points and won gold.) He has impressed both Chayka and first-year coach Rick Tocchet with his breadth of league awareness and knowledge about systems. Indeed it speaks particular volumes that Tocchet, a three-time Stanley Cup winner as a player and assistant with the Penguins, seeks out Keller’s insight on “what he’s seeing and how the game evolves in his eyes,” Chayka says.

At every level, Keller has thrived. He broke Phil Kessel’s career points record with the U.S. National Development Team Program. Led BU in all three scoring categories as a freshman. And now has four more points than any other Coyote, while leading their forwards in even-strength ice time (15:51), one centerpiece of their ongoing rebuild seemingly locked into place. Care to guess what word Tocchet uses to describe Keller? “What I love is his swagger,” he says. “The good thing is you can give him crap every once in awhile and he can take it. If he throws a puck away, circles away from his guy, he can come off and you tell him. He doesn’t get mad, doesn’t have the entitlement thing. That’s really key for him. He knows that he’s got to work hard to stay in this league, be the player he wants to be.”

Keller spent the summer hopscotching between workouts in St. Louis, Boston, and Arizona, where he crashed at Domi’s empty pad. He lifted to add muscle, part of an ongoing pursuit that never quite seems to take. Judging by his astute timing around the net and craftiness in tight areas, though, more size might not really make a difference. “His number one thing is his brain,” Domi says. “The whole old-school mentality of you’ve got to get bigger, stronger is so wrong, so misled nowadays. It’s becoming a hockey player. It’s not becoming a meathead in the gym. You’ll lose the hands that he has, the stuff he can do with his body.”

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Like when Keller pick-pocketed Hischier last weekend. Or when he was the third man into the zone against Philadelphia and kept his body square to the net upon receiving the trail pass, disguising his decision until hitting Goligoski for a one-timer below the right faceoff circle. Sure, there are times that Keller might get bumped off pucks due to comparative lack of strength. And he'll surely encounter some form of shooting drought like most everyone. But through a dozen games together, Tocchet already can tell that Keller craves moments like these. “The game’s on the line, he’s looking back at me like he wants on the ice,” Tocchet says. “He’s not hiding. He wants to go.” 

The comparisons to Kane and Gaudreau, Tocchet gets. Similar size and skill, plus that rare ability to drive lines from the wing. (Should Keller continue at his current, way-too-soon-to-project, point-per-game pace, he'd join three of his Fathead friends—Malkin, Crosby and Ovechkin—as the only rookies to do so since the '04-05 lockout.) Still, the coach quickly adds, “He’s got his own identity too. Maybe one day some kids will say I want to be like Clayton Keller." 

Going big away from home.