Welcome to the first of forty prospect profiles we have planned for this year's re-focus on prospects ahead of the 2016 NHL Draft. The first word that came to my mind when I started looking up Clayton Keller is this: production. He's been absolutely productive at every level and competition he's been in so far in hockey. The second word: diminutive. Keller is not at all big, he's not going to be big, and it could be a reason why he'll be available for the New Jersey Devils at eleventh overall in June. Size remains a factor in drafts; just ask Matt Barzal for a recent example. Be that as it may, that remains to be seen. Let's learn more about Keller and why you should be excited if he's available at #11.
Who is Clayton Keller?
Clayton Keller was born on July 29, 1988, making him 17 years old as of this writing. Keller is a member of the United States National Team Developmental Program (USNTDP) and has been since 2014-15. USA Hockey lists him at 5'10" and 168 pounds. I think that may be legitimate as Elite Prospects has him at 5'10" and 170 pounds (and as a center). Speaking of EP, here are his stats so far:
Immediately, you can see the appeal. Whether it was midget hockey, USHL play with the USNTDP, or the U-17 and U-18 teams playing their season or abroad, Keller has been at least a point per game player. The USHL and USA Hockey sites do not list shot totals, but the consistent PPG-plus rates makes me feel reasonably confident that his production is not a case of being hot for a season.
The international tourneys may be the most impressive part of his track record. According to Elite Prospects' profile, Keller led the Under-17 World Hockey Challenge tournament in points as the US took silver; he was key member of the U-18 team that won it all in the 2015 U-18 World Chjampionships; and while US took bronze in the recent 2016 U-18 World Championships, Keller was still named MVP of the tournament. That latter piece is rather impressive as Tyson Jost edged him for the tourney's leader in scoring and that the US didn't win the whole thing. What it also means is that Keller has been excellent when going up against the best of his peers in the world as opposed to just being a beast on the USNTDP.
As you can also see, Keller is committed to Boston University. This October 2015 article at SBN College Hockey by Conor Ryan hypes up his commitment along with Keiffer Bellows. I don't know if there's a follow up, but surely Ryan would then have many more good things to say about Keller and Bellows. I do know that Windsor has his rights should he jump to major junior hockey. Either would likely be the next step in his career after hearing his name called on June 24.
Where is Keller Ranked?
I'm not going to do this for every prospect profile as not everyone we'll profile is highly ranked. But Keller is a projected first-rounder and could get into the top ten. Thanks to Elite Prospects' Draft Center, there's a combination of his rankings from various services. I've also added Steve Kournianos' rankings from his monthly Top 250 (!) atThe Draft Analyst. Here are Keller's rankings as of May 8, 2016.
|NHL CSS||HockeyProspect.com||ISS||Future Considerations||McKeen's||Kournianos|
|9 – NA||12||12||9||14||8|
So far, it appears Keller is in the range where the Devils would take him. Given that European-based players are set to go first, second, and third in this year's draft, you could say the NHL Central Scouting Services' rank is closer to 12th than 9th. Why is this the case? Let's see what others have to say about Keller's game for some insight:
What Others Say About Clayton Keller
Let's start with Steve Kournianos at The Draft Analyst. He noted that Keller moved up in his April 2016 rankings.Here's why:
Team USA center Clayton Keller (Ranked No. 8) had as good a season as any draft-eligible player can have, especially when you consider he’s less than two months away from being eligible for next year’s draft. He’s dominated everyone — the NCAA, the USHL and most certainly the international stage, reaching the century mark in points thanks to his output in Grand Forks. Smart, shifty, quick and dynamic, Keller is a true leader who exemplifies what a top-line center should be.
The NCAA refers to the exhibition games the USNTDP plays against in their campaign. All the same, Kournianos is right; it appears Keller passed every test in 2015-16 with flying colors and showing why he could be a top prospect. He has a more complete scouting profile at his site, The Draft Analyst, written during that season. Here's a part that I think that is most relevant:
Keller is a strong, shifty skater with a powerful shot, displaying brilliance and hockey sense strikingly similar to what [Mitch] Marner brings to the ice.
He’s a hard-nosed, fearless player with a lot of flash, but he’s been Team USA’s leader and go-to option for every critical situation – defensive zone draws, killing penalties, gaining entry into the offensive zone, etc. Does he have franchise potential? We’ll let you judge for yourself, but keep in mind he’s nearly produced as much as Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews did with the NTDP.
Keller did not, in fact, touch Auston Matthews' record of 117 points. But 107 is certainly nothing to sneeze at. In any case, Kournianos notes that in addition to Mitch Marner being a point of comparison, apparently some think he's like Doug Gilmour. That's a lot of high praise. What Kournianos noted of him as a player reads like a laundry list for any prospective forward. Who wouldn't want any of that? And I especially like that he's been used in multiple situations with the USNTDP; he's not just a player who's exceptional going forward.
Future Considerations also ranked Keller higher than some of the other services. While it is from November 2015, here is their short (and free) description of Keller as a player:
A small but highly dynamic playmaker that is not afraid to go to the greasy areas for a scoring chance. He skates well with the ability to rocket down the ice and add a quick lateral burst to get through a hole when required. Has very impressive vision and ability to pick up options all over the ice all while maintaining possession and protecting the puck. Is a 100% effort player who rarely takes a shift off. Also possesses a pin-point shot that he hits his mark with when in a position to score. A very dangerous offensive player who has definite top six NHL potential.- November, 2015
This matches up with what Kournianos has written about him. FC uses a key word that should raise every Devils' fan attention: "playmaker." The Devils could use a few of them now. Having one in their system who is also a good skater and an accurate shot would be absolutely wonderful.
A really good profile on Keller is by Christopher Nardella at All Habs. Nardella clearly has seen enough tape on the forward to come to the following observations about his play. This section of the profile - which you should read in its entirety - is particularly insightful regarding his passing and vision:
Keller’s strong suits aren’t antithetical to Kane’s with phenomenal vision, passing ability and the ability to create offense every time has the puck on his stick. As was previously mentioned the 5-foot-10-inch centerman has excellent vision, with the habit and talent to make cross-seam passes with ease and completing them on most occasions. His ability to thread the needle also extends to crowded areas where he can find open teammates through the guise of the opposing team. Confidence isn’t foreign to the Swansea, Illinois native, who makes cross-body, and extremely creative passes and ways to find his linemates in open spaces. When at full speed, Keller has the ability to take a step back and find passing lanes others wouldn’t have been exposed to had they not had his vision and creativity.
This is simply excellent to read. It really highlights Keller as someone who can create plays out of very little and provides context to his massive point totals. Nardella also goes into great length about his defense and about his actual draft prospects. I'll touch more on the latter later in this profile.
Nardella makes a comparison to super-scorer and also-not-a-big-man Patrick Kane. Dennis Schnellenberg at The Hockey Writers also compares him to the Chicago ace in his profile on Keller. Here's a part of it that focuses on his skating:
One of the success factors of Keller’s strong play is his great skating skills. He is a very smooth skater with good top speed and a quick acceleration in his first steps. Keller is able to shake off defenders with quick turns and constant movement of his feet. He is also excellent when he circles in the offensive zone as he often enters the zone with speed and shows good patience with the puck until he finds the best possible passing lane to set up scoring chances.
As a smaller player, skating becomes even more important to meeting their eventual goal of making it at the next level. From this account along with the other profiles on him noted, this is a strength in Keller's game. That should instill further confidence in what Keller can do in the future.
Lastly, Ben Kerr of the Last Word on Sports as a detailed profile on the Illnois-born forward as part of his series, Top Shelf Prospects. Kerr compares Keller's style to Doug Gilmour and praises his skating, passing, and shooting as well. Kerr also has plenty of good things to say about Keller when he doesn't have the puck, like so:
Keller may be undersized, but that doesn’t hurt his defensive game at all. He is strong in the face-off circle. Keller is often used by Team USA to match top lines and to kill penalties. He reads the play extremely well and cuts down passing lanes and creates turnovers with his quickness. Once that happens Keller can transition to offense extremely quickly. Despite his size he’s willing to play a gritty game and backchecks well, but could again use added core strength going forward.
It is almost always encouraging to read that a player's off-the-puck play is good, especially when it is a player with notable offensive talent. It suggests there's less of a likeliness that the player will be a liability in their own end of the rink. Though, I'd like to think if it was an issue, then he would not be as highly rated as he has been so far.
While this is not exhaustive collection of everything other people has had to say about Keller, it all paints a similar picture. Keller is a very good skater, he's swift, he's got an accurate shot, he's been used and used effectively in all situations, he's been an excellent passer of the puck, and he's excelled at every level so far. Oh, and he's not big. I'm confident this is an accurate representation of the player. But let's see what the video shows:
A Little Video
There's plenty of video available on Keller on line. There are three I'm going to highlight in this post. First, bigwhite06 remains a username on Youtube that you should know if you're interested in highlight videos of prospects. He's got two on Keller where it's more than just scoring plays, but also notable chances in the game. First, here's a collection of plays involving Keller from a November 13, 2015 USNTDP game against Youngstown of the USHL. He's wearing #19:
You can see his excellent vision nearly right away with an equally-excellent pass to Martin across the zone and splitting two defenders. You can also see that he was rotating between the center point and around right circle on the power play, keeping the puck moving and setting up two shots. At about the 1:53 mark, he goes applies pressure on a puck carrier in a PK situation, the puck gets past him, but Keller is quick enough to engage the player and force a pass back. That's very quick. Keller gets a goal around the 2:10 mark where he carried the puck in, made a pass across as a defender was coming up on him, skated to the net, and tapped in a goal before running into the goalie. That's not just a nice goal, but it's a combination of plenty of the things that makes Keller a great prospect. At the end of the video, you can see him using his speed in the third period to turn a loose puck into a breakaway - only to be denied by the post.
That's not all from bigwhite06. He's got a highlight video of Keller at the 2016 U-18 World Championships. The one where he won MVP of the tournament.
We begin with Keller getting ahead of one Russian defender in the neutral zone, collects a long pass with ease, and fires a low shot to beat the goalie before the other defenseman got to him. Very nice. Also very nice was his pass at the 1:10 mark where he pulls a pivot move on a defender before feeding Bellows for a goal off a one-timer. His passes from the 4:00 through 4:30 did not yield goals but I just was in awe when I saw them. He found the seam to place the puck through nearly perfectly to his teammate. Just a lot of good stuff from Keller in this video and it matches up with what others said.
Lastly, there's a full game video of Keller from the USNTDP last season. ProssPark uploaded every shift Keller took in a December 4, 2015 game against Sioux City. It's over twenty-three minutes long. I watched the whole thing, so I have a summary in case you don't want to see 23:20 of #19 Keller putting in work:
While this was not necessarily the greatest game for Keller or the USNTDP - a four goal surge in the third period made up for a 1-2 deficit after two - it was very educational. Keller was definitely not afraid to go to the net, whether it was to set up a screen or attempt a shot. He also did not react negatively when he got hit. He won't be confused for being a physical player, but taking a hit or attempting to give one was not a cause for alarm. Board play wasn't so great in this video, but that could have been the result of just not being in a good place to help out.
According to the box score of this game, he had nine shots on net and the video did feature #19 firing away quite a bit in various locales. I got the sense that while he was lining up at center and taking draws, he played more like a winger in both ends of the rink. Keller was chasing the play a bit more often on defense rather than hang in the middle and his zone entries occurred more often on a side of the rink as opposed to the middle. I really liked Keller's skating in this game. He was was quite quick in terms of both getting up to speed and reacting to plays. When defense made a stop, he was frequently heading up ice to lead a counter attack. Keller's passing skills were on display. While none were as visually appealing as the ones in bigwhite06's highlight videos, they were effective in setting other players up. For part of this game, he was on the power play behind the net - he was more effective on the left side. As for the PK, Keller was fine as a forward - nothing special but nothing offputting.
I'd say his best play of the tape comes right at the end. Sioux City pulled their goaltender. Keller intercepts a pass behind the net. With the puck, he curls away from one opposing player, notices space ahead of him off the turn, and proceeds to skate away from three players for a zone exit. After getting across the blueline, he made a pass to his right up ice to Josh Anderson (#17), who sails in an empty net goal just outside of Sioux City's blueline. It was definitely a "star move" by Keller, getting his team out of trouble and leading an effort that sealed a win. While Keller wasn't absolutely dominant on the scoresheet in this game, it was clear he was a standout player and that even when things didn't go well for him or his team, it didn't appear to have a negative effect on his effort. That's quite good.
An Opinion of Sorts
Keller is ranked highly by scouting services, those who profiled him have loads of praise for him, the videos available show that praise is warranted, and he would fit an absolute position and role of need for New Jersey. Yeah, if he's available at #11, then the Devils would very be wise to take him. They should perhaps run, not walk, to the podium to take him. No disrespect intended to other potential first round selections that will be profiled, but Keller is that enticing of a prospect.
So this is all good, then why is he not considered to be higher? Size is definitely an issue. While he wasn't wrecked by Sioux City in that one game tape, I would agree that he needs to get stronger. However, it is more than just a need to hit the weight room. It is also a factor in defending larger players and playing along the boards. Keller was not what I would call shy of contact from what I've seen in the videos, it would be a losing battle. This is something Nardella noted in his profile at All Habs and it is something teams do need to consider. Not every smaller player will be like Gilmour or, per his example, Tyler Johnson where they can handle bigger players. So that's one of the questions Keller will have to answer going forward. I would not be surprised at all if Keller would eventually end up as being a winger. He definitely moved and looked like one against Sioux City at times despite taking draws. That may factor slightly if the conversation for a team picking forwards beyond the top three aces projected for this year.
Even with those concerns, I would be more than fine with Keller being the team's choice at #11 provided he's even there. If he was 6'1" and/or 185 pounds, then he could be in that conversation with Matthew Tkachuk, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Alex Nylander to be a sure-fire top-ten pick. Not being that big despite having big talent can make a player drop in the draft. Again, look at Barzal last year for an example. Or, more famously, Zach Parise. I don't like it, but it is what it is. And it may work out in New Jersey's favor just like it did in 2003. Again, he's got the passing skills, the skating, the offensive mindset, the production to go with the skills, and he fits the team's organizational needs. There may be others that can fit that bill too, but I don't see how Keller would be anything but a great choice for New Jersey - if he's available.
Clayton Keller appears to me as a solid choice for New Jersey in the first round this year. There's a lot of good things about the player. What do you think, after having read the profiles and/or seen the videos? Would you want the Devils to pick him in the first round if he's available? If you've seen him play in person, what did you think of him? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Keller in the comments. Thanks for reading.