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Coyotes' Clayton Keller has plenty of 'Hart'

Arizona center prospect likens game to NHL MVP Patrick Kane

by Jerry Brown / Correspondent

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It was going to take a special player for the Arizona Coyotes, already rich with prospects at the center position and in need of help almost everywhere else, to use the seventh pick in the 2016 NHL Draft on another one.

But Clayton Keller, even with room to grow and a few years to mature, fit that bill.

A look at Keller's frame (5-foot-10, 163 pounds) and his game on the ice, combined with his self-assuredness, might take fans back 20 years when the Coyotes selected Daniel Briere late in the first round (No. 24) in their first draft in Arizona (1996) and saw him blossom into a player who scored more than 300 goals in his NHL career.

Although Briere had to fight his way through the League's clutch-and-grab days to earn playing time, the wide-open style that rewards speed and creativity has given players like Keller a smoother path.

Video: 7th overall pick Clayton Keller on joining Coyotes

"It's no secret we're trying to build our team with speed and skill," Coyotes general manager John Chayka said. "He's an exciting player. He's dynamic, smart and creative."

Keller also is someone with no shortage of self-confidence. At the draft, he compared his game to Chicago Blackhawks forward and Hart Trophy winner Patrick Kane -- both in stature and skill set. And despite the stir his words created, he's not backpedaling from it.

"I don't regret saying it," Keller said at Arizona's development camp. "[Kane] is someone I like to play like. He not very big either, and I have the skills to hopefully be as good as him someday.

"I try to watch him as much as I can and do the things he does. I love his skills and hockey IQ and the ability to make players around him better, and just being coachable. You can see how good he is out there with the puck and setting up his teammates, and his ability to score is just unreal.

Kane's penchant of producing when it matters most is something Keller also wants to emulate.

"He's a clutch player and has a lot of confidence," Keller said. "I'm willing to try a tricky move or anything like that on the ice. I'm never scared about messing up.

"When there's a lot of pressure, I continue to raise my level of play. I've always had pressure on me, just being a smaller guy. I like it a little bit and just use it as an advantage."

Video: Clayton Keller talks about day one of Prospect Camp

Keller's next step is Boston University, where he will join three other first-round picks from the 2016 draft -- defensemen Charles McAvoy (No. 14, Boston Bruins) and Dante Fabbro (No. 17, Nashville Predators), and forward Kieffer Bellows (No. 19, New York Islanders).

The BU class matched the University of Minnesota's in 2006 (Phil Kessel, Erik Johnson, Kyle Okposo and David Fischer) as the only two with four players taken in the first round of the same draft.

Keller is looking forward to his time at BU but said, "I'm not planning on staying for four years. I have other plans."

So do the Coyotes. Arizona director of player development Steve Sullivan, who played more than 1,000 NHL games and scored 290 goals as a 5-foot-8 center, understands that for a player like Keller to get this far -- and further -- confidence bordering on brashness is key.

"[At his size], he's been told a lot of negative things over and over … you won't play and can't play," Sullivan said. "For him to have the success that he has, you have to think it yourself before you can make anybody else believe it. I don't think he would have gotten this far without the belief he has in himself.

"When you have to work for it, you develop that work ethic and you give yourself a better chance. Not a lot of lazy players make it to the NHL. If we give him all the coaching and the tools and everything he needs to get better and if he brings the work ethic, he has every chance to be a special player."

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