MELBOURNE, Australia -- Clayton Keller sat in a black folding chair in the main hallway of America First Center in Henderson, Nevada, during the NHL North American Player Media Tour last week, clad in a baby blue patterned polo shirt, relaxed and ready. And why wouldn’t he be?

At this time last season, Keller was coming off a broken femur, a devastating injury that had him wondering whether he might ever play hockey again. He had rehabbed all summer, a grueling recovery that saw him unable to walk, reduced to texts to his mom, Kelley, when he needed anything.

But he had emerged from the injury better, stronger, resulting in his best season in the NHL, an 86-point campaign that tied him with Keith Tkachuk for the most points in a single season for the Arizona Coyotes.

So when Keller is asked whether he could get 100 this season, he gets a sly grin. He winks.

“Let’s do it,” he says.

* * * *

It makes sense that Keller is confident about the upcoming season. It makes sense that, at 25, Keller is ready for another career season, a way of building upon the heights he reached in 2022-23. It makes sense that he believes that 100 points are within his grasp, as Keller and the Arizona Coyotes embark on a campaign that holds more interest and more promise than many in recent memory.

That’s why his eyes light up and his face turns confident, hopeful.

This should be his year, no?

“Last season was such a question mark: Was he going to be able to perform? Was his leg going to feel OK?” Kelley Keller said. “This year he can just focus on playing and scoring and his team.”

That’s the plan.

And it will start with a bang. The Coyotes are kicking off training camp with a trip to Melbourne, Australia, for the 2023 NHL Global Series, playing two exhibition games against the Los Angeles Kings at Rod Laver Arena on Saturday and Sunday. The games are at 12 a.m. ET and will be available on NHL Network and ESPN+ in the United States, Sportsnet and Sportsnet+ in Canada, and 9Go, 9Now, ESPN and the ESPN App in Australia.

“I feel really good, obviously,” Keller said. “A full summer of training and skating as opposed to last summer, not much, and a lot of uncertainty going into the season about my health and things like that. I feel great. It’s the most excited I’ve been going into a season.”


There are no doubts there. No question marks.

The Coyotes should be better, too, after finishing seventh in the Central Division, with a 28-40-14 record last season. They have an infusion of talent coming. They have exciting prospects. They signed veteran players that will lengthen their lineup and prevent opponents from focusing solely on Keller’s line.

But that doesn’t mean anything is guaranteed.

“In sports, just because you hit 40 home runs last year doesn’t mean you will hit 40 this year,” coach Andre Tourigny said. “And it’s the same thing in the NHL. I was joking with (Shane Doan) last year saying, ‘OK, why did you not score 40 (goals) every year if you did it once?’ That’s not the way it is and it’s always tough to repeat and circumstances can change.

“But the one thing I know about ‘Kells,’ whatever his points or whatever (he) had last year, he will compete.”

And because of what he went through, because of what he nearly saw vanish, because of the way he worked to get to that career season last season, because of the grinding and the rehabbing and the pushing, because of the success he saw after, no one will be surprised if this season is even better.

“It was a breakout year for him and having that injury put a doubt in your head of, will I be back at that level?” Tourigny said. “And even if he knew and he has confidence in himself, I think there’s a difference between knowing and being confident in yourself and doing it.”

* * * *

There were times when Kelley couldn’t help but be annoyed with her son.

It felt like she was back in those eye-bag-inducing baby days, up every couple of hours, catering to someone’s every single whim, waiting on them hand and foot. Except, this time, Clayton was 23 years old and could communicate by text, each notification bringing a new ask.

“Every three hours,” she said, exasperation mingling with love. “He was always nice. Mom, can you bring me a drink. He texts me, can you help me get out of bed? OK. But he was always very sweet about it.”

She laughs now, but there were times it drove her nuts.

“I’m like, ‘I can’t do this. I cannot,’” she said, still bemused, still laughing.

He needed everything: shots three times a day for blood clots, help going to the bathroom. He couldn’t drive, so he needed a chauffeur to rehab, or to anywhere else.

“I think during that time was the most time he’s probably spent by himself, because that was the break, everyone was golfing and going on trips and he couldn’t do anything,” Kelley said.

The injury happened March 30, 2022, after his legs crashed hard into the boards during a game against the San Jose Sharks. He was transported to the hospital by ambulance, where his clothes were cut off and surgery was immediate.

He was so concerned he asked the doctor if he would ever play again.

Reassured, he dove headfirst into rehab, into getting himself back to what he was as quickly as possible. He was single-minded in his purpose, his mind and his body trained on returning as quickly and as well as he could.

“How do I get better? What do I need to do?” Kelley said. “Just always looking forward.”


He found a dog, despite being on crutches and unable to take it for walks, which was born Feb. 2, 2022. It was named Lucky.

But, after all that, after all the texts to his mom, after all the rehab, after the limp that held fast long after it should have, there still was so much that was unknown heading into 2022-23.

None of it mattered. Keller responded with those 86 points (37 goals, 49 assists), besting his previous NHL career high -- which came in his rookie season in 2017-18 -- by 21 points. He played all 82 games.

He announced that the injury would not hold him back. Could not hold him back.

“With Clayton, he got injured [last year], it was a brutal injury and to see how hard he had to fight to come back and become a better player, not miss a game,” general manager Bill Armstrong said. “I was so inspired by that.”

* * * *

That always has been who Keller is, a ball of desire and energy and swagger. It’s the player Florida Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk saw when they were playing together in St. Louis growing up.

“He was probably the best youth hockey player at that time,” Tkachuk said. “He was a stud. Still is.”

Even when Keller was smaller than each and every player he played against, even when he was playing up a year, against players who were “twice his size,” as Tkachuk put it, Keller never was cowed, never intimidated. He always believed he could do it, against the disbelievers, against the odds.

It’s the same way he’s come back now, as he aims to place his name among the best in the game.

To that end, Keller has grown the past few seasons, grown from the kid he was when he entered the League at 18, to gain the confidence and sense of self he has now, to find his place in the dressing room, his place on the ice, his place in the game of hockey.

“I think last year was the first time I saw him be comfortable, like, I am the leader,” his father, Bryan Keller said. “Like before, the year before and beyond that he didn’t feel like it was his (team). … I don’t think he felt comfortable, like I’m that guy, I’m 23 years old.

“But this last year, I think working through that adversity, the injury, matured him a lot. It made him tougher. He got into last year and I just sensed his presence on the bench, in interviews. Like he was comfortable. Without saying it, I’m the leader of this team.”

The growth is there. The development is there. The understanding of who he is and what it takes, where he’s been and where he’s going, is there.

“He’s way more mature than he was,” Tourigny said. “He’s a much better leader. He’s a much more complete player on both sides of the puck and he’s hungry, he’s always hungry. He has a desire to be dominant. He said, ‘OK, now it’s the beginning, now I want to get better.’ That’s what you want from your leader. He wants more, he’s hungry, so it’s exciting.”

Tkachuk, like many others, believes 100 points is within Keller’s grasp. With better talent around him, whether that’s the newly signed veterans that the Coyotes brought in this offseason or the newly signed rookies starting to crop up on the roster, it will only increase the chances that Keller can prove himself -- and everyone else -- right.

“Just being around him, Kells is a competitor,” Armstrong said. “The greatest thing that people don’t know about him is that this guy lives and breathes hockey. He’s on the ice all summer working on a shot. He’s doing all the little things.

“He’s one of our best players and he might be the best Coyote ever, in the end.” staff writer Tracey Myers and independent correspondent Alan Robinson contributed to this report.