2016 NHL Draft: Why Clayton Keller Could be a Steal at #9

Clayton Keller was a force this season, recording 107 points, the second most in USNTDP history in just 62 games. | Photo: Minas Pantagiotakis, HHOF-IIHF Images.

Clayton Keller was a force this season, recording 107 points, the second most in USNTDP history in just 62 games. | Photo: Minas Pantagiotakis, HHOF-IIHF Images.

The Montreal Canadiens are in an interesting position in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. While the “Big Three” of Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, and Jesse Puljujarvi are far out of reach, there is second tier of quality prospects. It’s tough to imagine a circumstance in which one of the second tier of talented forwards–Matthew Tkachuk, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Alexander Nylander–falls to Montreal, but that may very well work out in their favour.

Why? Clayton Keller. Keller is arguably the most skilled forward outside of the “Big Three,” and could very well be available at number nine.

Keller racks up the points. And he does this everywhere he goes. Since bantam, he always been his team’s top point producer, and with the USNTDP is among the very best of all-time. Only Auston Matthews has posted more points in a single season, while only Matthews and Phil Kessel have recorded a single season point-per-game clip higher. In fact, Keller’s 107 points and 1.73 points-per-game are both above Jack Eichel and Patrick Kane (although both of whom were in their draft-1 season), as well as James van Riemsdyk.

Last season, Keller was a key member in USA’s Gold Medal at the U18s as an underager. This season, Keller was named the tournament’s MVP, while contributing 14 points in 7 games. Against NCAA Division I competition, Keller recorded 1.75 points-per-game (worth mentioning that most schools do not dress their starter against the USNTDP), higher than his clip of 1.61 in the USHL.

Hockey players don’t come much more dynamic that Keller. The USNTDP runs through him. He doesn’t just control possession, he dominates it. It’s a common sight to see the trio of Joey Anderson, Keller, and Kieffer Bellows start their shift in their own zone and finish it with an extended period of offensive pressure, and Keller orchestrates this.

Almost every shift, Keller creates scoring chances. Combining ridiculously soft hands, incredible vision, and never-ending creativity, Keller set the single-season assist record at the USNTDP with 70. When I say incredible vision, I mean it. He routinely sets his linemates up with no-look passes, backdoor passes, passes through three players, and saucer passes that flutter perfectly over two sticks. Part of what makes him such a deadly passer isn’t just that he the vision to find opportunities, it’s that he has a tremendous technical passing ability. His backhand saucer pass is better than most players’ forehand saucer passes. He can distribute the puck from just about anywhere, and seemingly always puts the right amount of speed on his pass.

Additionally, Keller boasts the necessary complimentary tools to make him a lethal playmaker at the NHL level. If the incredible vision and technical ability aren’t enough, he continually showcases patience and awareness in order to find lanes. If no lane is available, Keller creates one. Incredible edge work, east-west agility, and first step acceleration allow him to create space and divert attention towards himself. His hands move just as rapidly as his feet, routinely confusing defenders and creating space. This all comes together to create a deadly playmaker that can turn nothing into a scoring chance.

Offence is in Keller’s nature. No matter the zone, no matter the situation, Keller is always look to fly up the ice to create scoring chances. This aggressive nature, along with his skill, makes Keller a constant threat, particularly on the forecheck. An extremely important part of Keller’s game is that he doesn’t spend much time in his own zone. Some games, the opposition seemingly fails to generate any semblance of a scoring chance when he is on the ice. However, as the level of hockey increases, Keller’s natural skill will not allow him to be quite as dominant of a possession player. His aggressive puck-hounding nature will have to evolve into more positional-based defence as he advances up the levels.

That’s not to say that Keller’s focus should be on defence, if anything it should be on continuing to improve his own skill level. He has a tendency to force plays and carry the puck for too long, leading to unnecessary turnovers. The simpler play is often more effective, especially with regards to Keller.

Goalscoring doesn’t come quite as naturally to Keller as playmaking does, but he’s certainly quite good at it. Where Keller scores his goals is around the net. He’s an excellent balance of combativeness and sneakiness, with hand-eye coordination and stickhandling that allow him to pounce on loose pucks or dangle the goaltender. He’s not necessarily a long-range threat, in fact, one area that he will have to improve is his shot power. He has a tendency to simply “fling” the puck instead of getting a quality shot. However, he possesses a deceptive release, that often sees his blade open the middle of the ice with the puck suddenly flying toward goal.

If size is a concern, it probably shouldn’t be. The energetic centre shows no hesitation getting physically involved. In fact, he performs quite admirably in battles, often coming out with the puck. Once again, as he moves up the levels he will need to improve his strength and body positioning, but there is also a skill component to winning battles, which he excels at.

While Pierre-Luc Dubois, Matthew Tkachuk, and Alex Nylander seems locked the be the fourth, fifth, and sixth forwards selected on draft day, Keller deserves to be in that discussion. His skill level is on par and I do not see any major negatives from his game.

There are legitimate arguments to be made all four ways. Dubois is a powerful player, with excellent offensive and defensive upside; Tkachuk has high-end hockey sense and skill combined with his fierce demeanor; Nylander is a supremely skilled winger who equally lethal at scoring as he is at playmaking; while Keller combines elite playmaking, elusiveness, and skating to be a top-flight offensive talent.

Considering Keller’s high-end talent, I believe that Keller could turn out to be an incredible pick for the Canadiens at ninth overall if available. It’s rare to find high-end talent in a draft outside the top-five, and if there’s a player that fits that description, it’s Keller.

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One Response to 2016 NHL Draft: Why Clayton Keller Could be a Steal at #9

  1. I’m hoping that Bergevin has an aggressive streak for the upcoming draft. I’d love for him to make a deal to move up but retain the #9 pick. In that type of circumstance picking one out of the 3 kids ranked 4-5-6 then using the #9 to grab this Keller kid. If we were to go into the draft with just the #9 pick in the 1st Round then taking this kid is a risk. First off this guy is a classic playmaker but very limited natural scoring ability. I say risk for the fact that this team has only a limited number of players who are “finishers” with the puck. Basically, we have a limited number of guys that are natural goal scorers. Just about all of that is on the 1st line. We have a scourge of 4th liners thanks to Therrien’s meddling to restock the roster. Everyone knows the more 4th liners you have the better chance you’ll win the Cup…….or so Therrien/Bergevin believe. Taking this kid now we wouldn’t expect him to turn pro for at least another year or so. Maybe by that time he could come in and replace Pleks and he could start on the 2nd line with that Swedish kid and either a new player from FA or trade. If he had two scorers beside him he could be alright. But that’s what’s missing: a weak 2nd line and ever since Vaneck left MB has let that black hole vacant. I dont consider end of the line Briere as a solution other than adding phoney French content, an out of control by substance/drinking abuse Kasian or another end of line Semin as worthy back fills for the 2nd line or 1st line RW position. PA Parenteau might have made the 2nd line but for sure the 3rd line RW spot. Unfortunately, Therrien had no use for any of them because they aren’t his type of guy……..it’s pretty much DD and 4th liner types that gets MTs juices flowing.
    Ultimately Bergevin and company will have lots of choices but I fear the answer that MB comes up with will be wrong. I see the #9 pick being called by Trevor Timmins(but not his choice) to be the successor of the Louis LeBlanc Bust of the Draft winner being another kid I’d French Canadian background with a goodFrench name but will not be able to handle the Montreal press(ure). Until we get rid of this version of the French Connection(Bergevin&Therrien) we are always come up short because of their ill conceived plans to win all of our games 2-1 as we strive to win the Calder Cup……..you seriously can’t believe these 2 bozos are getting us to the real Cup?

    Ned Stark May 11, 2016 at 2:32 am Reply

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