Clayton Keller enters the discussion as our sixth-ranked prospect for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
Measuring in at 5’10” and 170 lbs, there are concerns that due to his size, Keller may have issues at the professional level. However it’s clear that his skill level is so high that he should be able to overcome that and be a very good playmaker for years to come.
- Age: 17, 1998-07-29
- Birthplace: Swansea, Illinois, United States
- Frame: 5’10”, 170 lbs.
- Position: C
- Handedness: L
- Draft Year Team: U.S National U18 Team/USNTDP
- Accomplishments/Awards: U18 WJC Gold Medal (14/15), U17 WHC Silver Medal (14/15), U18 WJC MVP (15/16), U18 WJC Bronze Medal (15/16), U18 WJC All Star Team
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Clayton Keller is an offense first forward who uses his high end skating and excellent puck control to be a dangerous player in the offensive zone. With exceptional on-ice vision, Keller has the ability to make defenders look foolish on a nightly basis with shifty dangles, a lethal wrist shot, and deadly accurate passing. He has excellent situational awareness which enables him to also play a sound two-way game and be used in all situations, including on the penalty kill. Diminutive in stature but not shy in traffic, Keller will need to grow into his body and show that he can withstand a long season against larger forwards before he can cement a job in the NHL
One of the best players ever to participate at the USA Hockey National Team Development Program (USNTDP), Keller put up monstrous numbers between his USHL, collegiate and international performances. He’s a complete offensive player who seems to generate chances and display distinct puck-moving abilities whenever he takes a shift. Keller has an explosive first step and an above-average top gear. He’s not an incredible skater for a smaller guy, but he still skates very well. Keller handles the puck at a top level, too, but his clear best trait is his hockey sense. He just makes so many good, high-level decisions with and without the puck that allow his team to maintain possession and get shooting lanes. Keller never seems rattled with the puck, and makes the right plays seem easy.While not a defensive stalwart, Keller has shown decent defensive prowess this season. His size and physical game limitations are obvious issues, but there is a lot to like in his game other than that.
— USA Hockey NTDP (@USAHockeyNTDP) May 23, 2016
Keller is the perfect example of how size can be used to influence and determine a player’s ranking. Quite a few scouts, including ESPN’s Corey Pronman and Hockey Prospect Radio co-host Russ Cohen have Keller ranked as the 4th best prospect in the entire draft class, simply because he is so talented and skilled. While others have him ranked lower due to concern about his small stature limiting his ability to effectively use that skill in the NHL.
Without a doubt, Keller is an extremely talented playmaker with high-end hockey sense, vision and patience who seems to find his teammates in the right spot more often than not. Whether that is a cross-crease dish for a tap in, or a perfectly timed pass that sends his teammate on a breakaway, Keller seems to just find those lanes. He also has high-end skating abilities that allows him to carry the puck with speed while being extremely elusive and shifty when being pressured by opponents.
In the defensive zone, he uses the aforementioned hockey sense to read the play and cut off passing lanes, he then uses his speed to transition the puck out. Generally, there is concern about smaller players in their own zone but Keller has enough skill and smarts to overcome those possible issues.
Lastly, even though he has a smaller stature he isn’t afraid to play a gritty game in all three zones. Battling and grinding to win puck battles but is aware when and where not to engage and use his active stick and speed to get the puck out of the area quickly.
The chart above includes just his points from USNDTP games that were not international competition. As we can see, his size cannot take away what he did with the USNTDP this season. He was never below 1.0 PPG the entire season and even hovered around 2.0 PPG for the majority of the year.
He followed that up by putting up 14 points in 7 games at the U18 World Hockey Championships in North Dakota. He was dominant throughout the entire tournament and finished second in points behind Team Canada centre Tyson Jost.
He had represented the US at last year’s U18, where he posted 9 points in 7 games. Which is extremely impressive for a 16-year-old.
At the moment, Keller is committed to play at Boston University next season but the Windsor Spitfires do hold his OHL rights and hope to get him to forego the NCAA for the CHL. It’s hard to tell if that will happen, but Boston University is getting an influx of talent from this draft class, including BCHL defenceman Dante Fabbro and his UNDTP teammate Kieffer Bellows, so I would suspect that Keller does end up playing for the Terriers.
You’ll notice that the pGPS ranking is N/A for Keller, and that isn’t because his matches didn’t go onto successful careers, it’s because there has been no one like Keller before. No one of his size has put up that many points for the USNDTP, thus he has no comparables. With that being said, Keller’s production of 107 points was very close to Mathews production of 116 points from 2014/15. His point per game production, was ranked third behind only Matthews and Phil Kessel:
Another point in Keller’s is favour, is that he is quite young when compared to his counterparts. The Swansea native does not turn 18 until late July, where Auston Matthews for example, has been 18 since September. That 10 months difference is huge when comparing players of the same draft class.
It’s fair to say that if Keller was a few inches taller, that he would easily and rightfully be in the conversation as a Top 5 pick. As we’ve seen with players like Tyler Johnson and Johnny Gaudreau in recent years, if a smaller player has a high end skill set, they will find a way to make it. Keller reminds many scouts of those two players and looks poised to overcome his smaller stature and carve himself out an NHL career.
It is entirely possible that a team feels so strongly that he has what it takes that he could go in the Top 10, or the ‘size bias’ that is usually present will rear it’s ugly head and somehow Keller could fall out of the Top 10 and into be there waiting for a team to snap up. If that does happen, and I surely hope it won’t, whoever grabs Keller is getting a player with top 5 talent who unfortunately didn’t add those final few inches to make it into the normal hockey player range.
Based on his skill set, hockey intelligence and extremely high compete level, I wouldn’t want to be the team that passed on Keller, just because you thought he was too small.