Every year there’s a few players that jump up much higher than they were projected and players that fall much further than they were projected.
Clayton Keller, although unlikely to go sixth, is a possible reach target that could be on the Flames’ radar if they’re not completely sold on whoever is left to them between Nylander, Tkachuk, Dubois or a top-end defender. Keller is generally thought of as a tier or two below the Tkachuk, Nylander, Dubois group but there are a few arguments for why he might be in the sixth conversation.
Keller is a smooth skating, playmaking centre for the U.S. Development team, who stands 5’10 and weighs 170 pounds. He is a late July birthday (July 29, 1998) and as a result is one of the youngest players in the draft, and the youngest of the forwards likely to go in the first round. Keller’s ranking in the upcoming draft is a little all over the map: some have him as high as sixth, although most have him in the 10-15 slot.
Keller split his time between the USNTDP Juniors of the USHL where he registered 37 points in 23 games, and the U.S. National U18 Team where he registered 107 points in 62 games (a combined NHLE of 37.5 – 144 points in 85 games with a conversion of 0.27). He led both teams in scoring, leading fellow likely 2016 first rounder Kieffer Bellows by 26 points on the U.S. National U18 team and by five points on the USNTDP Juniors.
Keller joined the U18 team in March 2015 from the U17 team. The team was already loaded down the middle at the time but with players like Auston Matthews moving on from the program and Keller’s skill and determination, Keller found himself as the best centre on the team in short order and was used in all situations. For the 2016-17 season, he and Bellows have committed to Boston University, following in the footsteps of Jack Eichel.
What do the scouts have to say about him?
“Keller is a strong, shifty skater with a powerful shot, displaying brilliance and hockey sense strikingly similar to what Marner brings to the ice. And while Marner is a winger, Keller is equally adept at bringing you out of your seat while leaving amazed opponents on the very edge of theirs. He’s schooled amateurs of all ages – U.S. college seniors, European stars, NHL-bound Canadian juniors; it doesn’t matter. 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.” – The Draft Analyst
“Clayton Keller is an excellent player who has the skills, brain, competitiveness and confidence to not only impact the game, but to also dictate significant portions of offensive play. The USNTDP centre has panorama vision – there is no play he doesn’t see and he is always dangerous even when it may appear that he isn’t. Keller controls the game and brings out the best abilities of those he plays with.” – Craig Button, TSN
“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.” – Future Considerations
- Points Per Game (PPG) (1st)
- Primary PPG (3rd)
- GPG (6th)
- 1A PG (1st)
- 2A PG (1st)
- Age Adj Primary PPG (2nd)
- Shooting % (48th)
- ES Points/Total Points Split (62%)
Keller ranks at the top or near the top in every category for the brief time he played in the USHL. Had Keller played the whole year with the USHL (rather than the majority of his time with the U.S. National U18 Team) and had a better than average shooting percentage like Rem Pitlick, Ross Colton and Cameron Morrison (the leading scorers in the USHL this season) he may have won out in every category.
Keller played in somewhat of a hybrid league this year. He spent 23 games with the USHL (essentially the team USA team of the USHL) and spent 62 games with the U.S. National U18 Team, where he played against other countries and various levels of competition over the course of several months.
Let’s see how he compares to other notable players that went through that same program.
U.S. National U18 Team
You’ll recognize all the names on this list. Some are NHL stars, some are burgeoning stars and some haven’t played in the league yet but will make their mark very soon. Keller has the third highest PPG rate of them all, behind notable studs Auston Matthews and Phil Kessel. What’s important to note here is that from Matthews to Kane, all were top five picks (three are/will be top two picks) and Keller (being a late July birthday) was not much older than his cohorts when completing the season. The totals he put up for the U.S. National U18 team are uncommon elite numbers that only few players reach.
Finally let’s look where he fits in based on recent history and his blended NHLE (U.S. National and USHL). For this, I’ve chosen a cohort of players to hit an NHLE of 35 or more in their true draft year from 2003 to 2015.
As we can see this is a very good cohort that does well in terms of success rate and career PPG rate in the NHL. The average of the group is 0.60 (roughly 50 points every 82 games) which is drastically larger than the overall average scoring rate of players to make the NHL in the same time period (0.38).
Keller had a very impressive draft year, no matter how you look at it. He’s played over 80 games against different leagues, different quality of opponents and even different countries this year and dominated them all. Scouts rave about his ability to hold on to the puck and enter the zone with ease, something the Flames need in droves.
His stock seems to be increasing by the week but he likely won’t seriously make it onto the Flames’ radar at sixth. If he does we shouldn’t be displeased as he would be a “reach” that tics all the boxes for a future top six impact scorer.