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Clayton Keller riffs on All-Star selections, golf, his gruesome leg injury and the state of his game
After the 2020-21 season, the eight-year, $57.2 million contract extension that Clayton Keller signed in 2019 was viewed as an albatross; an immovable contract to which he would never live up.
Nearly two years, 117 games, and 105 points later, that critique has vanished. While Keller will freely admit that there are elements of his game that need work, he is leading the team in points for a second straight season, he is logging a career-high 20:40 of ice time (third on the team behind only Jakob Chychrun and Shayne Gostisbehere) and coach André Tourigny is trusting him all situations, including the power play, the penalty kill, on defensive zone draws, and late in games when the Coyotes are protecting leads.
It’s all the more remarkable when you consider that Keller suffered a gruesome leg injury about 10 months ago.
Before Keller headed off to his third NHL All-Star Game – this one in south Florida – I caught up with him for a wide-ranging Q&A. Let’s call it nine questions with No. 9, who also appeared on the PHNX Coyotes show on Wednesday.
Do you have a favorite All-Star memory, whether it’s away from the game or during the game; something that jumps out?
“I don’t think any one thing in particular stands out. I think it’s just always nice to be around the best players in the world and to be able to chat with them and ask how their seasons are going, and things of that nature. It’s just a super fun weekend, super relaxed and I’m so lucky to be a part of it.
“I think with the first one, you’re just a little nervous. I don’t think you ever want to feel like you belong. There’s so many great players around the league and on your team so it’s something that you always are working to accomplish. You always want to keep going but I think the more times you go, the more comfortable you get.”
You were selected to participate in the Pitch ‘n Puck competition during the NHL All-Star skills challenge where you play a par-4 course with an island green and it’s a combination of hockey shots and golf shots. Just about every Coyote says that you’re the best golfer on the team. You’ve even got a chipping range and green in the Keller backyard. This event feels tailor-made to your skills as a golfer, right?
“Yeah, definitely. I was lucky enough to play a lot when I was younger and I just loved everything about it; the competitiveness. Every day is different, every hole is a new challenge, and hockey players love golf because it’s time away from the rink where you can just go out there, relax in nice weather and just kind of hang out with your buddies.
“There’s actually a guy that taught me when I was super young. His name is Bob Tays. I took lessons from him for the longest time. Usually, when I go home in the summer, I’ll go see him and just kind of catch up. He’s a hockey fan, a Blues fan and so he follows me and my career.”
Any conversation about your season begins with the gruesome injury you suffered late last season when you broke your leg. What was your mindset going into that rehab, what you were doing, how did you get through it and how did you get ahead of schedule with your return to play?
“There were so many people that really helped me. When I heard how long I’d be out I just wanted to make sure I did everything I could to be ahead of schedule and get back on the ice. I’ve never gone that long in my career being off the ice; really since I was 4 years old.
“The team did a great job rehabbing me. I spent a lot of time in the gym. I did three rehab sessions a day. I would go to the gym in the morning and then I would do a zoom call, basically another rehab, and then later, I would also do one at night, and that’s the way it was for a very long time. It was slow progress, but I really tried every day to just keep getting a little bit better.
“When I got back on the ice it was the same kind of thing. The more I skated, the better I felt physically and mentally. The first 10 games or so still felt a little weird. I didn’t really escape all summer like I normally do and it was hard. I didn’t really have a training camp. So I was kind of going in not knowing what to expect, but my body’s been really good lately and I have no complaints at all.”
Did you do anything unusual in your rehab, an exercise, or a different type of training that we might not see on a regular basis just to help you come back from this thing?
“I basically did Zoom Pilates with someone based out of Toronto, and that was something that I had never really done before. It just helped me tremendously and it’s something that I will carry into my offseason training I think for the rest of my career. People told me every time you’re injured, you learn more about your body — especially with something like my injury.
“In the summer, I like to be pretty active. I’m going to gyms, skating, and golfing, so it was just tough because I had to do the rehab and I didn’t have the energy to do anything else when I would usually be playing five, six rounds of golf. Overall, it was just boring. I had to be super, super patient, which I’m not at all sometimes. That was definitely a tough part about it.”
Does it surprise you that you were able to get back to a high level of play so quickly?
“Maybe a little, but I knew all the hard work and sacrifice I put in in the offseason. I guess I was a little surprised just because I was not skating and playing and then, with the schedule we had, I was looking at it for a time like, ‘I don’t know what’s gonna happen; how things are gonna go.’ I had great people around me who helped me recover and every game just seemed to get a little bit better. There’s things that I still need to get better at, but I think overall, I’m trending in the right direction. I feel like myself on the ice, making plays and just trying to make everyone else around me better.”
You’re averaging a career-high in ice time. What sort of challenge does that present? Do you have to pace yourself in games or is that just what you want?
“I got my conditioning and things like that back pretty quick and I always want to be out there no matter what. I’m always hungry and want to contribute and help our team win so whatever I can do I’ll do it. Like I said, I’ve been feeling really good lately.
“Andre’ definitely trusts me. We’ve had talks during the year about everything. Sometimes there’s things I need to adjust. Sometimes we talk about simple things in the O-zone or the D-zone. I think that’s something that makes him a special coach is he’s always willing to take input from the players, and he really does trust and care about us.”
You are on pace for 67 points which would be a career-high. Only four players (eight instances overall) in Coyotes history have eclipsed 70 points. With the reasoning that when you are producing, you are helping the team win, is that point mark something you think about?
“Like you said, any time you can contribute, you’re helping the team win, but I think it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers sometimes, especially in a long season. You’re gonna go through rough stretches, you’re gonna have times where it feels unfair and it’s not going in it should. You can’t really look too deep into it.
“I think you have to look at the chances and how you feel about your game. I’ve been getting a lot of chances and should probably have more goals than I have now. It’s just about staying hungry. That’s something that I’ve learned throughout my years of playing in the NHL is: When things aren’t going well, you can’t just start going crazy. You’ve got to stick with it and eventually things go in, and then it just flows from there.”
If you could look back at your 18- or 19-year-old self and tell him one thing, what would it be?
“The mental side of the game is the most important thing. Everyone seems to say that nowadays, but I truly do believe that, and it’s something that has helped me a ton.
“I’ve got a mental edge coach. She’s someone that I talk to who is not working just in hockey. She’s working with all four major sports and players. It’s nice to have. It’s a different voice and you can kind of talk through things and they can help you; teach you how to get over the hump.”
You just finished a portion of the schedule in which you played 15 games in 26 days. Most of your teammates are getting time off, with many of them vacationing in Mexico. If anybody needs rest, it’s a guy logging heavy minutes who just came off leg surgery, but here you are, jetting across the country, doing numerous media engagements, and participating in events. How do you balance the need to refuel with wanting to represent your team in the All-Star Game?
“(Laughs) It’s definitely not like it was last year with a quick, 40-minute to Vegas for two days and I’m back. But like I said, I’m super lucky and blessed to be able to go and it’s an honor to represent the Coyotes. At the same time, I think it will be nice to get some rest in a very nice place. I have a bunch of family and friends coming in so it’ll be nice to relax with them because I don’t get to see them too often.”
Bonus question: You won’t get much time off during the All-Star break. When you do have time off, do you have a favorite Valley restaurant?
“I’d probably say Ocean 44. I usually get the bone-in filet, but all the appetizers are so good, too; the calamari, the lobster roll is pretty good.”
Top photo of Clayton Keller via USA TODAY Images