At 5 foot 10 and 169 pounds, Clayton Keller is on the smaller end of the NHL talent pool. But neither his size, nor the fact that the 19-year-old with the endearing off-center smirk looks like your little brother, lessen the Arizona Coyotes rookie forward’s bona fides. Blessed with elite speed and “dazzling hands,” according to The Hockey News, Keller has shined a bright beam of hope on an otherwise bleak season for the ’Yotes, who started a franchise-worst 0-10-1. After officially joining the team in 2017 following a season at Boston University, Keller became one of just 16 NHL players in history to score 11 goals within his first 20 professional games and the third youngest player in franchise history to record a three-point game (versus the Dallas Stars in October). Also in October: Keller was named the NHL Rookie of the Month and chatter mounted about his potential candidacy for the coveted Calder Memorial Trophy. If he wins in April, Keller will be the first in Coyotes history to be named the NHL’s top rookie. Who says Phoenix will never be a hockey town?
You grew up with seasons and snow in St. Louis, Missouri – ideal conditions for an ice sport like hockey. How does the dry, hot desert of Phoenix compare?
It’s a little weird, but it’s awesome to be here. Every morning you wake up and see the sun and it gives you a little bit of extra energy. It’s motivating for sure, that we’re out here and we have such a nice place to play… I think hockey has grown here. You saw Auston Matthews [a Scottsdale product now with the Toronto Maple Leafs] coming out of here, and he’s a great guy. I think everyone in Arizona who knows hockey knows him, and he [was] kind of the first driving force. Our team, I think, is trying to push hockey all over Arizona. The fans are great.
What do you think about all that’s been said about your size? Do you ever feel at a disadvantage not being 6 feet tall and 200 pounds?
No. I think I’ve always been a smaller guy, and it’s always motivated me to work harder. My dad really harped on me that I have to work harder than everyone else just because of my size, and the rest will take care of itself. I was blessed with skills and hockey IQ and I just put the work in… A lot of smaller guys in the game today have good hockey IQ, which is really important. You see guys like Johnny Gaudreau [Calgary Flames] who’s around my size, and see how successful he is. He’s such a smart player – he’s one step ahead of everyone else, and that’s why he’s so successful… Now everyone wants to play fast and have a lot of skill on their team.
After the Coyotes drafted you in the first round in 2016, you opted to spend a year at Boston University before playing professionally. Ever wish you could’ve stayed and had that typical college experience?
It was one of the most fun years of hockey that I’ve ever had. It was a great decision for me to go to college, get stronger, be around the guys a lot. I had a great freshman class and it was just a perfect decision for me. [However,] yeah it was fun, but I knew what I was getting into – [to] just go there for a year, get stronger. At the end of the year, I felt ready to take the next step and felt my game had developed enough to compete at the next level. I think school is not my No. 1 best [strong suit].
What would you do if you didn’t, or couldn’t, play hockey?
Any chance, now that you’re an official Phoenician, of going to the Waste Management Phoenix Open this month?
I think our whole team gets to go. Like I said, I love golf. It’s my second favorite sport, for sure. People tell me I look a little bit like Rickie Fowler… This summer, [a few other Coyotes and I] golfed every day [sometimes at the Open course at TPC Scottsdale]. We’d work out in the morning, golf in the afternoon and go to dinner at night – True Foods [Kitchen] and Preston’s Steakhouse are our two main spots.