St. Louis Blues

After visit with family in Swansea, it’s “back to business” for NHL’s top rookie

Playing before more than 50 family members and friends Thursday night, Swansea native and high-scoring Arizona Coyotes rookie Clayton Keller was kept off the board in a 3-2 shootout loss to the St. Louis Blues at Scottrade Center.

Keller, the leading candidate for the Calder Trophy awarded annually to the top rookie in the National Hockey League, took Arizona’s first shot in the shootout period but was stopped by Carter Hutton. St. Louis outscored the Coyotes 2-0 in the shootout.

“It’s not the best ice there in the last second,” Keller said as he was surrounded by family and friends in Section 118 nearly a half-hour after the game. “I kind of tried to do the same move that I did a couple of weeks ago. (Hutton) made a good save. Credit to him.

“The Blues are a heck of a team and they make it hard on you. I think we battled hard and it’s good to get a point out of it. We played the right way and our goalie (Antti Raanta) made some huge saves. He kept us right in that game.”

Keller, 19, had just one shot in regulation as the Blues defense was up to the task of slowing down the center/right winger, who leads the youthful Coyotes (2-13-3), who onw the worst record in the NHL, with 11 goals and six assists for 17 points.

After the game, Keller showered and dressed, then headed for Section 118 where he was greeted by his growing circle of fans. Keller posed for pictures and visited as much as possible before boarding the team bus that took the Coyotes to the airport for the trip back to Arizona. They will play host to Winnipeg on Saturday.

“It’s kind of good to have them here and just get pictures with all of them and say hello,” Keller said in a hit-and-run interview. “It’s back to business (Friday).”

Keller had dinner at his home in Swansea on Wednesday night as he squeezed as much as he could out of his trip to the area.

“I got to go home, so it was real nice to get a home meal,” he said. “It’s good to see family and friends.”

Keller wasn’t the only metro-east product on the ice for the Coyotes on Thursday. Alton native Dakota Mermis, 23, like Keller, also had one shot but did not score.

On Monday, Keller became the 16th player in the last 30 years to score 11 goals in his first 20 NHL games. Keller recently had a seven-game streak with at least one points. During that stretch, he had six goals and five assists.

Keller is pleased with how his season is progressing.

“It’s been good,” he said. “I’ve been around a lot of great players, so I have to give them credit. Just staying positive. I’m playing with two great linemates (Max Domi and Derek Stepan) who make it easy on me. I’m sticking with that.”

One of Keller’s teammates, left winger Brendan Perlini, said Keller’s future is blinding.

“It’s just his poise with the puck, for (being) such a young guy in his first year in the league,” said Perlini, who scored both Coyotes goals Thursday night. “Coming in at the end of last year helped him a lot. He played a few games and got to know the area and the guys a little bit.

“He has poise with the puck and he’s patient. He never wants to rush anything. Hopefully, he continues to be successful.”

Thursday was Keller’s first game in St. Louis since March 27 when he made his NHL debut with the Coyotes in their 4-1 loss to the Blues. On March 29 in Phoenix, Keller posted his first NHL point in a 3-1 loss to St. Louis.

“It’s always a lot of family and a lot more activity and drama around playing in St. Louis,” said Keller’s dad, Bryan, four hours before faceoff. “Fortunately, we went through it last year, so it’s not that bad. We’re sort of just getting everybody what they need.”

Bryan Keller, whose wife is Kelley, said the second time around in St. Louis wasn’t near as taxing on his son.

“Last year, everything happened within like a 24-hour window,” he said. “He went from playing his last game with Boston University in North Dakota to flying across the country and then flying back to St. Louis at 6 the next morning. He was on the ice at Scottrade at noon skating with the Coyotes and played his first game that Monday night.

“It was very exhausting for everybody, but nobody more than him. He had played two overtime games Friday night and Saturday night, flew across the country and was thrown right into a game. He was running on fumes — adrenaline, anyway.

“But that was really cool. It was a very unique opportunity to have your first NHL game in your hometown. It could have been in LA or someplace else. ... But here, to be able to do that in front of your hometown and all your friends, it was really cool.”

Perlini said it’s never easy to play your hometown team.

“I did that a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “We played in Detroit and I saw a lot of people. It’s really tough to stay focused on the game. I thought (Keller) played pretty well. He had some chances. ... He’s going to have a long career and if he stays healthy, a really good career. He’ll have plenty of time to get more shootout goals.”

Bryan Keller hopes his son maintains his health as he faces the best players in the world during his first taste of the rigorous NHL schedule.

“It’s great that he’s off to such a fast start so early, considering he’s playing on what could be the worst team in the league,” Keller said. “So what he’s doing is even more special considering that. He really is having a blast. Every game, he gains confidence and knows he can do what he’s always done.

“If he continues to adjust as as he gets more comfortable, I think he’ll continue to play well. I just hope he stays healthy. But to be fourth in goals in the entire league is crazy. I wouldn’t have guessed that this early. It’s nice to see him leading all rookies as well. Hopefully, he can keep that up and keep that consistency up. That’s what he’s really focused on.”

Clayton Keller will have to grow up quickly. Despite his tender age, he’s already being advertised as a must-see player for fans.

“He’s definitely become the face of their franchise, the fan favorite,” Bryan Keller said. “He’s on all the commercials: ‘See Clayton Keller vs. the Blackhawks.’ They’re featuring him a lot. They’ve had a really tough year here to start. At least Clayton has been one exciting thing that’s been good for the organization.

“The coolest thing for me was the first time going out (to Arizona) and seeing his jerseys at the team store and then going to the games. Every game I go to, there’s more and more people wearing Keller jerseys. It’s totally surreal. He hasn’t even been 19 for four months.”

David Wilhelm: @DavidMWilhelm

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