Can the Coyotes Build Around Keller?
Arizona Coyotes forward Clayton Keller was named NHL rookie of the month for October 2017. The 19-year-old led all league rookies in goals (nine) and points (15). He also became the first NHL rookie since Teemu Selanne back in March 1993 to score nine goals in a single month.
Entering the first full week of November 2017, Keller is the Coyotes leading scorer by a wide margin. He’s also ranked among the top-10 in the league in goals and near the top-10 in points.
Young Keller’s impressive first month garnered recent attention among the North American hockey media.. Sadly, his efforts throughout October were overshadowed by the Coyotes tying a league record for consecutive losses (0-10-1) in the opening month of a season.
It also doesn’t help that Keller’s toiling in one of the NHL’s weakest markets. If he were skating for any of the Canadian-based clubs or one of the big American hockey cities, his performance would’ve attracted far more attention than it already has.
It’s possible Keller’s performance declines as this season rolls along. The long slog of an 82-game campaign could take its toll upon the 5’10”, 168-pounder, especially as opponents shift their focus toward shutting him down.
If Keller maintains his already impressive offensive pace throughout the remainder of 2017-18, he’ll finish the season among the league’s top-10 scorers. However, the Coyotes’ ongoing mediocrity will continue to obscure Keller’s efforts.
This wasn’t the start Coyotes general manager John Chayka envisioned during the offseason. He hired a new head coach in Rick Tocchet, fresh off his three-year assistant coaching gig with the Pittsburgh Penguins. They bolstered their blueline depth by acquiring Niklas Hjalmarsson from Chicago and Jason Demers from Florida and brought in an experienced two-way center in Derek Stepan and a decent goaltender in Antti Raanta in a trade with the New York Rangers.
They joined a roster carrying a promising core of young forwards that includes Keller. Max Domi, Christian Dvorak, Brendan Perlini and Tobia Rieder. Their defense boasts a a world-class defenseman in Oliver Ekman-Larsson, a veteran puck-moving blueliner in Alex Goligoski and a promising rearguard in the currently sidelined Jakob Chychrun.
Despite Chayka’s bold moves, the Coyotes are wallowing in the bottom of the NHL’s overall standings.
Raanta missed several games to injury, backup Louis Domingue struggled and recently-acquired Scott Wedgewood fared little better. Stepan’s presence and Dvorak’s potential hasn’t fully addressed the Coyotes lack of skilled depth at center while the defensive additions failed to notably improve their blueline.
Chayka continues to preach patience, but for a team that’s seemingly in perpetual rebuild, that’s not helping to overcome their current difficulties.
If Keller blossoms into a franchise player, the Coyotes must focus upon building around him. Granted, they already have several promising pieces already in place, especially at foward. However, the goaltending and defensive depth remain critical issues.
Failure to do so means ongoing mediocrity and no chance of building up their feeble fan support.
It means Keller and other notable Coyotes such as Domi and Ekman-Larsson could grow weary of constant losing and seek greener pastures elsewhere via trade or free agency.
It means franchise relocation, despite the league’s best efforts to keep the Coyotes in Arizona, could prove inevitable.
With Keller, the Coyotes could have a golden opportunity to build upon a true foundation player. They can’t afford to blow it.