High School Sports

Keller gets grand welcome to NHL; Smith welcomes Izzo to Edwardsville DQ

Arizona Coyotes rookie Clayton Keller (14), a native of Swansea, Ill., handles the puck as St. Louis Blues' Jaden Schwartz watches during the first period of Keller’s first NHL game on Monday at Scottrade Center.
Arizona Coyotes rookie Clayton Keller (14), a native of Swansea, Ill., handles the puck as St. Louis Blues' Jaden Schwartz watches during the first period of Keller’s first NHL game on Monday at Scottrade Center. AP

▪ Take 1: What it’s like to make your NHL debut in the arena closest to your hometown in front of family and friends?

My Take: For Swansea native Clayton Keller, the Arizona Coyotes rookie who made his debut Monday against the St. Louis Blues at Scottrade Center, it was an absolute blast. From the moment he arrived in town for Coyotes practice and signing his first contract on Sunday, the 18-year-old Keller began living the dream that for many years was only known to him, his family and teammates. Many were on hand to watch his first game Monday, with at least 20 decked out in his old game sweaters from the AAA Blues, Team USA and Boston University. Others wore Coyotes gear and some wore Blues jerseys, but all were overflowing with pride at seeing a guy who use to go to Wolf Branch Grade School playing in an NHL game. One of the coolest things for Keller was the solo lap his Coyotes teammates gave him as they hit the ice for warmups. The other was getting a pregame “welcome to the NHL” chat from Blues star Vladimir Tarasenko. Heck of a week for Clayton Keller and his family.

▪ Take 2: There was a vaguely familiar looking guy with the gray sport jacket at the Edwardsville Dairy Queen on Tuesday. Haven’t I seen him somewhere before?

My Take: Of course you have. That was Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, who stopped by the local DQ with his staff while in Edwardsville visiting with Tigers all-state senior guard and Illinois Mr. Basketball, Mark Smith. Smith picked up a scholarship offer from Izzo and the Spartans — receiving a Blizzard or chocolate shake on top of that obviously violates all NCAA recruiting guidelines — and now has yet another intriguing option to consider for his college choice. Illinois, Missouri, Ohio State and Butler are also still in the mix, with Texas and others still hopeful. Those are some amazing options.

▪ Take 3: Heading into their late game against Arizona on Wednesday the Blues were 17-7-1 under coach Mike Yeo since the firing of former coach Ken Hitchcock. What changed?

My Take: The firing not only got everyone’s attention, it made the Blues realize they had to re-focus on every part of their game if they hoped to regroup and make the playoffs. That’s exactly what’s happened with the biggest turnarounds from suddenly stingy goalie Jake Allen and an equally stingy defense unit and penalty kill. Heading into Wednesday’s game, the Blues were 10-2-1 in March with Allen and goalie Carter Hutton allowing only 21 goals during that span. Allen has turned in a .951 save percentage this month and the Blues have improved from 28th in the NHL in goals-against average under Hitchcock to 13th currently (2.80). Yeo simplified the team’s approach, especially on defense, where more of a “zone” defense is being used instead of the man-on-man work preferred in the previous administration. Other notable changes include strong play by young forwards like Magnus Paajarvi and Ivan Barbashev, whose emergence has helped lessen the impact of injuries to Paul Stastny and Robby Fabbri and largely ineffective play by Jori Lehtera. The results have been remarkable, and the Blues are not only going to make the playoffs — they still have a shot at third place in the Central Division.

▪ Take 4: The Cardinals were having a fairly successful and uneventful spring until underachieving second baseman Kolten Wong decided to voice his unhappiness about a potential platoon situation at his position. What gives?

My Take: The same Cardinal front office and manager that spent most of the winter professing their faith in Wong and praising his speed and defense now may be having second thoughts. Maybe they wonder about that five-year, $25.5 million they gave Wong last March, especially given his lack of offensive production since then. It’s not like the Cards don’t have other options at second base, given Wong’s .248 career batting average and .678 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage). Jedd Gyorko belted 30 home runs last season, and Greg Garcia has typically thrived when given opportunities to play on a fill-in basis. Before Wednesday, Wong hadn’t exactly helped his cause by hitting .184 in spring training, but spring numbers — good or bad — can be deceiving. Cleanup hitter Stephen Piscotty was hitting .157 with two doubles, no homers and two RBIs in 20 games. No one is clamoring for a platoon situation in right field. Both sides in the seemingly never-ending Wong saga need to take a more relaxed approach. Wong must produce to play more, and the Cards (especially manager Mike Matheny) need to be more patient than they were last season when Wong and Randal Grichuk were shipped to the minors when they struggled.

▪ Take 5 (the pop culture take): Isn’t it amazing to think of things many of us grew up with that are now obsolete or considered retro chic? The list is endless.

My Take: In the late 1970s we had just finished Atari (now more primitive than birchbark canoes) and were moving onto Mattel’s electronic football, Pac-Man and other video games like Galaxian and Space Invaders. The list of obsolete items since then includes 8-track tapes (worst music format EVER), pay phones, cassette players (what, can’t find your Sony Walkman?) and typewriters (I remember learning on one that had no letters on keys. We’d write them on there in pencil but it kept coming off.). Remember actually sitting around waiting for your favorite song to come on the radio? We looked up information for term papers in encyclopedias (We had no Google, or no Internet.), scoured the Yellow Pages for restaurant hours and business phone numbers and drank sodas out of returnable glass bottles. Wait, they still do that if you’re lucky enough to get Ski in the green glass bottles from Excel Bottling Co. in Breese.

Norm Sanders: 618-239-2454, @NormSanders