Published On: Tue, Nov 21st, 2017

Shades of Matthews in Coyotes’ Keller

Arizona Coyotes super rookie Clayton Keller and the Leafs’ Auston Matthews have had something of a mutual admiration society for the past several years.

The two came up through the U.S. national team development program, where they also formed a close friendship that continued into Monday night’s game at the Air Canada Centre.

Keller received high praise from Matthews, and just about every other player in the rink, before the contest. The 19-year-old has had a superb start to the season, leading his team with 11 goals and 20 points — a run which has propelled him to first in scoring among first-year players and frontrunner status for top rookie honours.

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It’s also a tribute in a smaller way to Matthews, who Keller admires and takes advice from.

“I always keep in touch (with Matthews). If I have any questions, I can ask him any time,” said Keller, who had two assists during the Coyotes’ 4-1 win against the Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre on Monday. “We talk about things like other team’s defence and who’s hard to play against, things like that.”

Matthews had an eventful weekend, with a two-goal return to the Leafs’ lineup Saturday after missing four games with an injury, and a ticket to the Argos’ big win over Saskatchewan in the CFL East final Sunday.

Matthews still follows the Coyotes, the hometown team he cheered for growing up in Scottsdale, Ariz., so he has kept tabs on Keller’s rise in his rookie season. The one thing that surprised Matthews, he said, was that Keller has more goals than assists.

Keller admits he’s a pass-first type. He is the career leader in assists for the U.S. development program with 70 — Leafs prospect Jeremy Bracco held the previous mark of 64 — and points with 182.

“I guess I am a pass-first guy, but it helps to get the puck to certain areas of the ice. It opens up seams for other things,” Keller said.

Keller also admires Matthews from a distance, and realizes just how big a star the Leaf is in Arizona hockey circles.

“Anyone who plays hockey in Arizona knows who he is,” Keller said.

Keller recalled playing a video hockey fantasy game with Matthews in a group that also included Coyotes winger Christian Fischer, another U.S. development program product.

Through 20 games, Keller has produced every bit as much as Matthews did when he started his career last season, more in some areas.

After 20 games, Matthews had nine goals and eight assists, while averaging 17:20 of ice time. Keller, at the same point, had more goals (11) and points (18). He also leads NHL rookie forwards in ice time with an average of 19:28 per game.

“He’s fun to watch,” Matthews said. “I’m not surprised by what he’s done. He’s a guy on their team that you don’t want to give time and space to, and they have a number of those guys.”

While Keller has strong hockey ties to Matthews, he says he “would not be in the NHL” without playing AAA hockey in a St. Louis program developed by former Blues stars Jeff Brown, Keith Tkachuk and Al MacInnis.

Keller is one of four products of that program who have entered the NHL as first-round picks in the past two years. The others: Logan Brown (Ottawa Senators), Matt Tkachuk (Calgary Flames) and Luke Kunin (Minnesota Wild).

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Shades of Matthews in Coyotes’ Keller