By Ryan Kennedy
The 2017-18 campaign could not have gone worse for the Arizona Coyotes. An early injury to goaltender Antti Raanta and a lot of fresh faces – including a first-year coach in Rick Tocchet – resulted in 11 straight losses to begin the season, effectively eliminating the team from playoff contention by the start of November. If there was a silver lining in the copper-rich state, however, it was the performance of rookie Clayton Keller, who led the team in scoring with 23 goals and 65 points. That was good for third place in Calder Trophy voting, but more importantly, Keller saw his team grow along with him. “Nobody wants to lose, but we learned a lot,” Keller said. “At the end of the year, everyone saw what we could do. We learned our systems and figured out our structure.”
It seems as though the Coyotes have been a team on the cusp for a couple years now, but this season does look particularly promising. Oliver Ekman-Larsson has established himself as an elite defenseman, Raanta is healthy, and the team got stronger up the middle by trading left winger Max Domi to Montreal for Alex Galchenyuk. Keller, 20, is happy to have a 30-goal scorer in the lineup and has high expectations for his crew. Given his pedigree, that’s not surprising.
Keller played for powerhouse prep school Shattuck-St. Mary’s, winning a national championship before joining the U.S. National Team Development Program, where he won gold at the 2016 world under-18s. Then it was off to Boston University for a year, during which time he helped Team USA win gold at the 2017 world juniors before leading the Terriers to the regional final at the Frozen Four and earning himself NCAA rookie-of-the-year honors. It goes without saying there wasn’t a lot of losing going on during those years, so his maiden voyage in the NHL was a bit of a change-up. “That was my first time experiencing a season like that,” Keller said. “But you get better from that as a team. We got closer because of it.”
As with most young players, Keller’s mission this summer was to get bigger and stronger. At 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, it’s a legitimate goal – though with his high-end skill and swift skating, size has never held Keller back before. Working in Connecticut with famed trainer Ben Prentiss, Keller generally trained alone, but he did spend some time with New York Rangers defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk during the second half of the summer. Keller says he “trusts his career” with Prentiss, and based on his track record, there’s no reason to doubt the fitness guru’s process.
Another influential voice has been Tocchet. Though his first year running an NHL bench was a bit of a disaster, that’s not uncommon these days. Jared Bednar endured a similar baptism in Colorado before guiding the Avs to the playoffs one year later. In Tocchet, Keller sees a man who has gone through all the NHL wars as a player, giving him instant street cred when he skates up to the whiteboard. “Definitely one of my favorite coaches ever,” Keller said. “Being a former NHLer, he knows what it’s like, and he’s someone you can always talk to. Definitely a player’s coach. He loves to get out on the ice early and feed us one-timers. Sometimes he beats me out to the ice.”
That enthusiasm is clearly rubbing off on Tocchet’s charges, and with more youngsters bubbling up – think Dylan Strome, Nick Merkley and the return of Lawson Crouse – there is a lot of kinetic energy to play with in Arizona. To that end, Tocchet is preaching a structure that takes advantage of the fresh young legs available to him. “We don’t want to bring the puck back,” Keller said. “We want to go north with it and play at a high pace.”
Though heavy teams – Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose – have dominated the Pacific Division in recent years, Vegas signalled a big shift last season as the Golden Knights turned on the jets. The California squads are getting older, while Edmonton didn’t find anyone new to keep up with Connor McDavid over the summer, and the Oilers’ defense corps will be without veteran Andrej Sekera for a long stretch. Calgary looks like a contender, but it’s fair to say Arizona has a chance to get back into the mix for the first time since 2012, when the Coyotes won the division and went to the conference final. Keller was barely a teenager the last time the franchise made the playoffs, and if the Coyotes are going to make it back, he’ll be key.
Based on his first-year results and a stronger cast surrounding him, Keller can be that difference-maker Arizona has needed up front. Maybe this will be the year.
TOP 25 RIGHT WINGERS
1. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
If anyone can challenge McDavid for the Art Ross, it’s Kucherov, who combines scintillating hands and instincts in the O-zone.
2. Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets
He’s the captain of a Western juggernaut, but it’s not just leadership: Wheeler plays both ways and can rack up points.
3. Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets
Ovechkin’s still here, but his replacement is obvious in Laine, who has power and a deadly accurate rocket shot.
4. Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
The Hawks need him more than ever as the core ages. He continues to put up stellar numbers thanks to his hands and vision.
5. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins
The unheralded member of Boston’s top line, he won’t be out of the spotlight long. A two-way game and 80 points will do that.
6. Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche
Riding shotgun with MacKinnon, Rantanen used his size and skill to wreak havoc on the top line. He��s just entering his prime.
7. Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh Penguins
You’d think goalies would be prepared for his wicked release, but they aren’t. Just put up his sixth year with at least 30 goals.
8. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues
His points dropped last year, but he has always been dangerous as a playmaker and finisher. He can hit 40 goals again.
9. Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs
Slight in frame but dogged in his effort, Marner has beguiling vision and creativity. Will he light it up with Tavares?
10. Jakub Voracek, Philadelphia Flyers
Forgotten in the Couturier-Giroux rising, but Voracek is still excellent. His size and playmaking led to a career-high 85 points.
11. Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators
One of the best two-way forwards in the game. Look for the underrated Stone to bring back a mint at the trade deadline.
12. Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks
Versatility is the name of the game with Pavelski, who takes a ton of draws, plays a two-way game and chips in offensively.
13. William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs
Better defensively than he gets credit for. But with his wicked shot and sick flow, it’s no surprise the attention goes elsewhere.
14. Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes
Excellent skills and hockey IQ are his calling cards. Keller got Calder recognition after leading the Coyotes in scoring.
15. Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks
A back injury wrecked his Calder bid, but Boeser was electrifying nonetheless. His shot is elite, and he sees the ice well.
16. Alexander Radulov, Dallas Stars
The Russian veteran’s return from the KHL has been excellent. Plays with emotion, and his scoring touch is still deadly.
17. Mikael Granlund, Calgary Flames
His work ethic, vision and playmaking make him one of the most valuable members of the Wild and dangerous on the PK.
18. Viktor Arvidsson, Nashville Predators
Undersized but incredibly tenacious, Arvidsson is an engine for Nashville. Has averaged 30 goals over his past two seasons.
19. T.J. Oshie, Washington Capitals
Physical, talented and an emotional leader, Oshie helped put the Caps over the top. A nice reward for a long-standing veteran.
20. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets
Foot injury cleaved his numbers, but Atkinson still broke 20 goals. Smart, undersized scorer knows where to go to find goals.
21. Reilly Smith, Vegas Golden Knights
Two-way guy broke 20 goals for the third time in his career as part of the Knights’ top line. Versatile and hard-working.
22. James Neal, Calgary Flames
Back-to-back Cup finalist brings a big body and goal-scoring ability. Makes a potent Flames team even deadlier.
23. Evgenii Dadonov, Florida Panthers
Second NHL stint has been much more successful. Great puck skills and a strong shot really helped the Panthers’ attack.
24. Jordan Eberle, New York Islanders
Veteran had a knack for game-winning goals, leading the Isles with seven. His instincts and strong shot will be needed.
25. Wayne Simmonds, Philadelphia Flyers
Pound-for-pound one of the league’s strongest net-front players. He has a great touch and will still drop the gloves when needed.
This story appears in the Season Preview 2018-19 issue of The Hockey News magazine.