|After two seasons spent toiling in Finland, Ryan Keller has found a home with the Ottawa Senators organization. Tonight, he'll make his NHL debut against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center in Newark (Just Sports Photography).
Ryan Keller struggled to find the right words to describe the emotions that were beginning to churn inside of him.
"Everything's going so fast that I don't know if it's fully sunk in yet," the 25-year-old forward said with an eye toward the Ottawa Senators game against the New Jersey Devils tonight in Newark, N.J. (7 p.m., TSN2, Team 1200).
With centre Mike Fisher scratched from the lineup with an upper-body injury, the Senators summoned Keller from their American Hockey League affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y. It won't exactly be an ordinary night for the native of Saskatoon, who will make his National Hockey League debut against Martin Brodeur and the Devils.
While Keller is the AHL's goal-scoring leader (13), firing shots at the NHL's all-time winningest netminder is a whole different story.
"What don’t I know?" Keller said when asked about facing Brodeur. "Honestly, the last thing I want to think about is what he’s doing. I’ve got enough going through my head right now just trying to relax and play my game. It’ll be an experience and something you can always take with you, (that you played) your first game against him, and it would be even sweeter if I could put one by him."
It's been a long and winding road to this point for Keller, who spent the previous two seasons toiling for the Espoo Blues in the Finnish Elite League. After going through two seasons in minor pro leagues in North America with nary a sniff from an NHL team, the undrafted Keller saw Europe as a potential land of new opportunity.
"It was a situation where I wasn’t getting drafted and wasn’t getting opportunities over here," said Keller, a former junior star with his hometown Saskatoon Blades in the Western Hockey League. "So I decided to go over to Finland to basically gain some exposure and get some respect by showing that I can score goals."
Senators scout Jim Clark took notice – Keller scored 43 goals in his two seasons in Finland – and the Senators signed him over the summer with the thought he could provide an offensive boost for the B-Sens and perhaps fill in as a callup. Keller has already delivered all of that and more.
"(We) wanted a veteran guy who could step up and be able to play some games for us," said Randy Lee, the Senators' director of hockey development and player administration. "His record (in Binghamton) has been great. He’s consistent down there, he scores every game and he’s a positive guy in the dressing room."
Keller and Martin St. Pierre, another veteran free-agent signing, quickly became a lethal combination for the B-Sens. Through games Tuesday night, they ranked fourth (13-9-22) and fifth (8-13-21) in AHL scoring, respectively. But Lee said the 5-10, 190-pound Keller brings more than goals to the table.
"He’s a complete player," said Lee. "He’s good defensively. He’s got a lot of different attributes that make him more attractive than just a goal scorer."
That being said, Keller knows it's his nose for the net that can take him a long way.
"Honestly, the last thing I want to think about is what (Brodeur) is doing. I’ve got enough going through my head right now just trying to relax and play my game. It’ll be an experience and something you can always take with you, (that you played) your first game against him, and it would be even sweeter if I could put one by him." - Ryan Keller
"Throughout my career, I’ve had a knack for finding the net and that kind of stuff," he said. "I just try to be smart out there and read the play and when given the opportunity, try to put it in the back of the net. With my size, I’m not going to run anybody over. I just try to provide energy and be solid at both ends of the ice."
When the B-Sens made a stop at Scotiabank Place for a game against the Hamilton Bulldogs earlier this month, Keller talked about the dream that fuels a work ethic that has also impressed Senators management.
"It’s still a goal to be in the NHL and if you’re not in the NHL, it’s a little bit frustrating or disheartening," he said at the time. "At the same time, you’ve just got to work hard every day and try to impress someone."
Now that his turn has finally arrived, Keller won't change his approach, even if a future Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender is standing in his way tonight.
"I’m just trying to remember that it’s a game and it’s played between the boards and forget about everything else," said Keller. "It’s the same game you’ve played since you were a kid. Just try to relax out there and do what got you here."