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Keller Working Way Back Into Form

by Tris Wykes / Tampa Bay Lightning

It's roughly an 8-hour trip from Norfolk, Va., to Augusta, Ga., more than enough time for Justin Keller to sufficiently ponder his hockey future. The left wing and third-year pro steered his car on that route earlier this season after being assigned from the AHL Norfolk Admirals to the ECHL Augusta Lynx, a drop in classification that wasn't easy on his ego.

More profound than the embarrassing demotion, however, was Keller's introspection as he drove.

“I was wondering what was going on,” said Keller, who had dressed for only two Admirals games before he was shipped out. “You feel like you're [throwing] your career away and it would be easy to shut down and say it's over, but you have to turn the situation into a positive.

“I'm proud I didn't just go down there and play out the year.”

That he did not. The 6 foot 1, 180-pound British Columbian had four goals and an assist in four games for the now-defunct Augusta Lynx and was back in Norfolk's lineup on Nov. 1. However, Keller still struggled and was scratched eight times in the next 16 games, scoring not a single point.

Things got a bit better in December, with Keller producing six points in eight games, but it was in January that the 22-year-old really took off. The newfound effort didn't show itself so much in points, where he had seven for the month, but in a style of play that produced 49 shots on goal in 12 games when he'd had just 33 during the AHL season's first 12 weeks.

“He's leading the team in second and third efforts,” said Admirals assistant coach Alan May. “I can't say there was even a first effort before. He's got cuts and bruises on him and the trainers have to repair his jersey because of the board burns and stick marks.”

This was the impact the Lightning had hoped to see when it picked Keller in the eighth round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. The Kelowna (B.C.) Rockets had recently won the Memorial Cup, symbolic of Canadian major junior supremacy, and he had scored the winning goal. The next winter, Keller led the tough Western Hockey League with 51 goals during his final junior season.

Keller's rookie campaign with the AHL's Springfield Falcons produced 24 points and he had 37 last season with the Admirals, whom he represented in the AHL All Star Classic after original selection Kyle Wanvig was recalled by Tampa Bay.

Despite a solid performance, Keller knew something was missing, so he dialed his conditioning up several notches during last summer. The increased exercise came courtesy of the world's largest skating treadmill, a squarish device with a plastic surface that moves and allows athletes to skate upon it as it does so.

The device is owned by Redline Sports, operated by a friend of Keller's in Kelowna. He had an open invitation to use the torturous machine and took full advantage, eventually breaking hour-long sessions into minute-long shifts while stickhandling and passing to his friend, who stood on solid ground alongside the treadmill.

“After that, even a hard ride on an exercise bike seems like nothing,” Keller said.

The dedication paid off and Norfolk coach Darren Rumble said Keller arrived for training camp skating as well as he'd ever seen him. The problem, however, wasn't how Keller skated but where - he was still a perimeter player.

Few and far between are the scorers who light the lamp from the high edges of the offensive zone. Everyone else has to pay a price in the corners and in front of the net. Finally, after his trip to Augusta, Keller put this into practice.

“He's added some desperation to his game,” Rumble said. “Before, he was looking for chances instead of creating opportunities and he wasn't playing full-contact hockey.”

Keller said reality has set in and he understands that he's “getting older and really in need of a contract for next season” as his current pact with the Lightning expires at the end of this winter. But his resurgence is as much about pride as it is about cash.

“You have to be ready for your opportunities and not let them slip away,” Keller said. “Maybe I was taking things for granted before.”

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