Calder calling: Keller could be first Coyotes player to win major award

Oct 3, 2017, 4:14 PM | Updated: 4:21 pm
Anaheim Ducks left wing Giovanni Fiore, lower right, reaches for the puck as Arizona Coyotes center...
Anaheim Ducks left wing Giovanni Fiore, lower right, reaches for the puck as Arizona Coyotes center Clayton Keller, left, takes it while left wing Max Jones helps defend during the second period of a preseason NHL hockey game, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Clayton Keller doesn’t need any more pressure piled on his 5-foot-10 frame. Let’s do it, anyway.

No Coyotes player has ever won one of the NHL’s five major regular-season awards: The Hart Trophy (MVP), Vezina Trophy (best goaltender), Norris Trophy (best defenseman), Selke Trophy (best defensive forward) or Calder Trophy (rookie of the year).

Arizona is one of just three current NHL markets that have never had a player win an award. Winnipeg and Minnesota won theirs with their prior teams, while Nashville and, of course, soon-to-debut Vegas have never won one.

Keller could change that. Do a quick scan of the major publications and you’ll find Keller is on everybody’s short list of potential Calder candidates, along with New Jersey center Nico Hischier, Philadelphia center Nolan Patrick, Minnesota center Joel Eriksson Ek, Boston defenseman Charlie McAvoy and a few others.

The Hockey News and USA Today have Keller listed No. 1. Sportsnet and have him on their list of top 10 candidates.

“I just try to stick to what I’ve always been doing and not think about that,” Keller said. “I come to the rink every day with my head down, and if I do that my play will take care of itself.”

Keller gave Coyotes fans a tantalizing tease when he finished tied for third in NHL preseason scoring with eight points. The only players who finished ahead of him were Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel. Keller was tied with Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov, Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine and Los Angeles’ Jake Muzzin. He led all rookies in preseason points.

“It’s awesome to get out there, get some chemistry with linemates, get some puck touches and have some success,” said Keller who played three regular-season games at the end of last season. “That last few weeks, last year in the NHL season, I realized how hard I had to work. This summer, I worked harder than I ever have and now it’s just a matter of going out there and showing what I can do.”

Unlike the last two seasons when McDavid and Auston Matthews were the top draft picks, this year’s Calder race is considered wide open (McDavid got injured and Artemi Panarin won the award in 2015-2016).

Keller has produced at every level he has played. He had 21 goals and 45 points in 31 games with Boston University last season. He had 13 goals and 37 points in 23 games with the U.S. National Under-18 Team the season before.

At the 2016 IIHF World U18 Championship, Keller led Team USA in points (10, four goals) as the US won a bronze medal. He was named MVP of the tournament. At the 2017 World Junior Ice Hockey Championship, he led Team USA in points (11, three goals) as the U.S. won the gold medal. Keller was named to the tournament’s all-star team.

Keller impressed new coach Rick Tocchet from the day he started camp. Tocchet mentioned the pace at which Keller plays the game, noting his vision, his ability to read plays and his ability maintain that pace.

“Just the way Keller can pick up the puck and keep the pace,” Tocchet said. “I mean, that’s a skill. To have that at his age, there’s not a lot of guys that have that.”

It’s a long season and Keller will have to adjust to the grind that takes its toll on many rookies in December or January, but he has done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm he created when the Coyotes selected him with the No. 7 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. If he keeps playing on the top line with center Derek Stepan and left wing Max Domi, he’ll have the opportunity to end the Coyotes’ major award drought.

“Steps and Domi are two unbelievable players,” Keller said. “Steps is always in the right spot and he’s always getting me the puck. It’s easy to play with those guys. I think we can really make some plays out there. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

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