Before the start of the 2021-22 season, General Manager Bill Armstrong blew up the Arizona Coyotes, shipping out anyone who could fetch a second-round pick. Big pieces like Conor Garland and Christian Dvorak were shipped out for picks as the team prepared for a deep rebuild.
Clayton Keller wasn’t one of the players shipped out. He had finished the prior season with just 14 goals and 21 assists in 56 games, not nearly good enough for a player making over $7 million per year. But a rebuilding team offered plenty of opportunities for a player looking to show what he could do, and Keller responded with the best season of his career before it was cut short by injury.
Games Played: 67
TOI/Games Played: 20:08
PP TOI: 192:53
PK TOI: 77:16
Clayton Keller has been a lightning rod for criticism since he signed his last extension, an 8-year, $57.2 million deal with a $7.15 million cap hit. Being the team’s highest-paid player comes with expectations, and most people thought Keller wasn’t living up to those expectations.
But with a new coach comes a fresh start, and from the very beginning, Clayton Keller took it seriously. He added seven pounds of muscle in the offseason and looked ready to build off his hard work in the 2020-2021 season.
It didn’t take long for Keller to make his presence felt. Keller lit the lamp in the Coyotes’ first game of the season on a power play late in the third period, his first of five power play goals during the season. Unfortunately, by the time Keller scored, the Coyotes were already down 7-1 and on the way to losing 8-2. Nevertheless, it was a preview of what the season would be like, Keller was playing well, but the team around him wasn’t.
Arizona hasn’t been the most talented team during Keller’s time in the desert, but this past season was something else. General Manager Bill Armstrong had shipped out almost anyone with trade value, which left many holes in the lineup. And as the highest-paid player on the team, Keller was expected to step up and show what he could do.
The depleted lineup did seem to benefit Keller. With nobody else generating offense, Keller became a more selfish player who was willing to fire the puck rather than look for the perfect pass. Of course, Keller was always a playmaker, but he shot the puck 177 times in 67 games this past season, compared to 124 in 56 the prior season. And with more shots came more goals, with the Chesterfield, MO native scoring a career-high 28 goals.
The extra weight he put on also helped improve Keller’s two-way game. For most of his career, Keller’s game was just offense. Keller and Schmaltz were there to score goals, and under previous Head Coach Rick Tocchet, they weren’t taking too many shifts in the defensive zone. But Head Coach André Tourigny was ready to put Keller out in any situation. There was only so much he could do, but getting Keller the puck typically provided the Coyotes with their best chance at winning any given game.
For the first time since making the jump to the NHL, Keller also became a consistent penalty killer last season. Before being injured, Keller logged 77 minutes and 16 seconds short-handed, and only Lawson Crouse had played more minutes short-handed as a forward when Keller’s season ended.
Unfortunately, Keller’s season came to an end 67 games in when he broke his leg going into the boards on March 30th in a game against the San Jose Sharks. The next game was the first game that Keller missed in four seasons, ending a 357-game iron man streak.
Keller was just two goals away from hitting the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career. He was also just two points away from matching his 65-point rookie season, which should have been an easy accomplishment if he wasn’t hurt.
After a solid season, all Keller will need to do is find a way to replicate it next season. He seems to be doing well in his recovery, and he should be ready by the start of training camp.
Clayton Keller was the undisputed MVP of the Coyotes, providing leadership and offense that the team desperately needed. If you want to see his impact on the team, look no further than the complete drop in quality after his injury that only seemed to right itself in the final week of the season.
Keller took some significant steps forward last season, and at only 23 years old, he is still years away from his prime. He probably won’t have all of the support he needs to be his best self as the Coyotes enter the second year of the rebuild, but he is poised to be a big part of this rebuild.