Clayton Keller’s All-Star play powering Arizona Coyotes’ second-half push amid season of ups and downs

Arizona Coyotes forward Clayton Keller aims to guide the team through a critical second-half push after a recent setback due to a nine-game skid. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

TEMPE – Success is sometimes worth the wait.

The Arizona Coyotes got off to one of their best starts in the last decade this season, going 23-22-3 before the All-Star break. However, after a recent rough stretch, during which they have dropped their last nine games in a row, the Coyotes sit at 23-27-4 and must make a critical second-half run to right the ship.

Despite having young guns waiting in the wings for their chance to shine, Coyotes veteran forward Clayton Keller was the spark plug in the team’s early season success, and he is likely to be the difference maker the rest of the way as the Coyotes pursue their first playoff appearance since the 2019-20 season.

Keller played in his fourth All-Star game on Feb. 3, giving him the most appearances in franchise history, surpassing forward Keith Tkachuck and defenseman Teppo Numminen.

Keller earned the nod as the team’s leader in points (49) and goals (21). He sits tied with Matias Maccelli for the team lead in assists (28).

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Keller during his professional career. Since entering the NHL in 2016 as the seventh overall pick of the Coyotes, the team has made the postseason only once. Despite the lack of success in Glendale, and now Tempe, Keller continues to keep a positive mindset.

“That’s why I love this game so much, is all the challenges and all the setbacks and the adversity,” Keller said. “That’s what makes you a better player, a better person and teaches you how to win.”

Keller is not only filling up the stat sheet. He’s also contributing in immeasurable ways. He played his first games in the NHL at 18 years old, and for a team full of young guys, Keller feels it’s his responsibility to set the example as the veteran leader.

“It’s nice to show the younger guys the way a little bit, and do everything I can to help them and try and fast track their upbringing and get them to the level that they want to be at,” Keller said.

Coyotes forward Liam O’Brien, who came to the team following stints with the Washington Capitals and Colorado Avalanche, has seen how leadership impacts championship-caliber teams. Since coming to the desert, O’Brien has witnessed similar qualities in Keller, on and off the ice.

“He’s a leader on this team. He’s a guy that’s a superstar in this league,” O’Brien said. “I have nothing but respect for him, and the positive attitude he brings to the rink every day, and the drive he has.

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“You just see his development throughout the last couple years, he’s at another level now. It’s awesome to see that.”

Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong – who replaced John Chayka in 2020 – has weathered the initial storm of losing seasons and has begun to put pieces in place around Keller that provide hope for brighter days ahead.

“He’s been a big part since the day that I arrived,” Armstrong said. “He’s someone who said, ‘I want to be a part of the rebuild, and I want to be a part of the solution.’”

Keller has become a huge contributor to the solution. He led the team in scoring and total points each of the last two years and is on track to do it for a third year in a row.

Coyotes coach André Tourigny, in his third season coaching Keller, believes that while Keller has been an All-Star before, he continues to improve and has taken another step this season.

“Kells … he’s really played his best hockey. I had a discussion with him,” Tourigny said. “I really think he’s got his game to another level.”

At just 25 years old, Keller has 154 goals, the fourth most in Coyotes franchise history. He trails only Shane Doan with 395, Tkachuck with 179 and is just three goals from passing Radim Vrbata for third.

But ask Keller if he’s thinking about his climb on the list of all-time greats, and he will tell you it’s not on his mind.

“Not at all. Not until I’m No. 1 … right now the most important thing is getting this team to the playoffs, playing meaningful games and fighting until the end,” Keller said.

Following a loss on Sunday to the Colorado Avalanche, Keller’s focus is heightened on getting the Coyotes back in the win column and matching the pace they set to open the season.

“I think we’ve made big strides from last year to this year, and I think once everyone gets back to being healthy, we’re going to make a push, regardless,” Keller said.

“And I think we’re all looking forward to it.”

Zach Mott(he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Zach Mott expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Mott has interned with the Varsity Sports Show doing camera and broadcast work.