International Ice Hockey Federation

Keller's killer instinct

Keller's killer instinct

Dynamic U.S. sniper a player to watch

Published 17.04.2016 21:27 GMT-4 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Keller's killer instinct
GRAND FORKS, NORTH DAKOTA - APRIL 14: Russia vs USA preliminary round 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Even someone who isn’t an NHL scout or a hardcore hockey fan can spot what makes American forward Clayton Keller a special player.

Sudden bursts of speed. Dazzling stickhandling. The ability to make no-look passes that pay off in goals. The 17-year-old, who led the USA Hockey National Team Development Program with 98 points in 57 games this year, is just plain fun to watch.

And Keller – born in Swansea, Illinois and raised in St. Louis, Missouri – relies on a solid work ethic as well as God-given talent. Just ask his head coach.

“He’s probably, if not the smartest, one of the smartest guys I’ve coached or been around since I’ve been with the NTDP over the last six years,” said Danton Cole, who played 318 career NHL games with five clubs. “He’s got a scorer’s drive where he really wants to score on every shift. But where he’s really done a good job is in the weight room. His dynamic component really gives him some separation, and that’s changed over the last year. He spent a lot of time in there. All of a sudden, if he can create 10 or 12 feet, he’s going to make a good play. He’s always on the attack and he’s a tremendous competitor.”

Heading into the undefeated host nation’s third game against Latvia at the Ralph Engelstad Arena, Keller was tied with fellow American Kailer Yamamoto for second place in tournament scoring (2-3-5), trailing only Canadian captain Tyler Jost (2-4-6). He’s enjoying his partnership on the top U.S. line with fellow NTDP products Kieffer Bellows and Joey Anderson.

“Being with them is really special,” said Keller. “Kieffer’s got a great shot and Joey’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever played with.”

He’s tight with his teammates at the centralized NTDP headquarters in Plymouth, Michigan, some of whom he’s known for years.

“Logan Brown’s probably my best friend,” Keller said. “We grew up playing together. I was really excited for him to come here and play with us. There are four St. Louis guys on the team and we grew up playing with each other, so we’re really close. Kieffer and J.D. [James] Greenway, we switch off driving each other to school. So that’s pretty cool.”

Keller is following a tried and true road to success. Before joining the NTDP, he tore it up at the famous Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep school in Faribault, Minnesota. Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, and Zach Parise are just some of the best-known Shattuck-St. Mary’s alumni.

Next season, Keller, Bellows, and Dante Fabbro will suit up at Boston University. BU’s storied hockey tradition goes back to 1918. Keller is excited about writing his own chapter with the Terriers, who have won five NCAA championships.

“Coach [David] Quinn and [associate head coach] Steve Greeley really made me feel at home when I went on a visit,” Keller said. “Obviously, they’ve had great players come out of there: Jack Eichel, Kevin Shattenkirk. I just felt really comfortable. It’s the place I want to play.”

Keller is eligible for this year’s NHL draft, and it shouldn’t take long to find out which franchise controls his destiny. He’s a projected top-10 pick. While he grew up partial to both the St. Louis Blues (he was coached by ex-Blues like Jeff Brown and Keith Tkachuk) and the Chicago Blackhawks, odds are he’ll wind up with a new favorite team.

The 178-cm, 75-kg center has already been likened to two other diminutive stars of the U.S. national team and the NHL, Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames and Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks. Considering that Kane, a three-time Stanley Cup champion, just won his first Art Ross Trophy with 106 points, it’s fortuitous timing for a guy with Keller’s attributes to emerge on the scene.

“Patrick Kane is my favorite player and I try to model my game after him,” Keller said. “I think we play a similar game. Obviously small guys are having a ton of success now. I think it just goes to show that it’s not all about size. It’s whether or not you’re smart enough and your hockey IQ is good. That’s what some of the smaller guys have and some of the bigger guys don’t.”

Keller, who’s also an avid golfer, brings a life-long love of hockey, dating back to when he attended a friend’s skating-themed birthday party as a kid. While he loves family time as much as the next guy, he’s already hoping to spend his next Christmas away from home.

The 2017 World Junior Championship in Montreal and Toronto is next on his IIHF to-do list after his current quest to help the U.S. three-peat as U18 champions in Grand Forks.

“I think that’d be really special,” said Keller. “I was really close this year. I was the final cut. I’m going to work as hard as I can next year to make that team and represent my country again.”


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