St. Louis Blues

St. Louis hockey hotbed producing elite talent for NHL

Swansea native Clayton Keller (19) is one of four potential first-round NHL Draft picks from the St. Louis area.
Swansea native Clayton Keller (19) is one of four potential first-round NHL Draft picks from the St. Louis area.

Each year at the NHL Draft, some country’s top prospects are raved about and considered a potentially strong group of first-rounders.

Some years it’s Canada. Some years it’s the United States or maybe Sweden, Russia or Finland.

When the draft begins Friday night in Buffalo, get ready to hear a lot about players from St. Louis with at least four potential first-rounders from here in Matthew Tkachuk, Swansea’s Clayton Keller, Logan Brown and Luke Kunin.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Brown’s father, former St. Louis Blues defenseman Jeff Brown. “St. Louis has never had a first-rounder and this year to consider that might be four or even five in the first round ... first and foremost it’s a testament to these kids and how hard they’ve worked.

“The common thread is that none of them will say no to extra ice time.”

At least two other St. Louisans, center and Wisconsin recruit Trent Frederic and goaltender Joseph Woll, a Boston College recruit, are expected to be drafted as well.

St. Louis area hockey has come a long way in recent years with numerous players reaching the NHL, playing elite international hockey for Team USA squads and gaining major Division I scholarships.

St. Louis has never had a first-rounder and this year to consider that might be four or even five in the first round ... first and foremost it’s a testament to these kids and how hard they’ve worked.

Former Blues defenseman and youth coach Jeff Brown

This draft figures to cement the area’s reputation as a true hockey hotbed. There are plenty of people to thank, but many former NHL players like Brown, Keith Tkachuk, Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger, Rob Ramage, John Wensink, Kelly Chase and many other local coaches have done their share of coaching and feeding the talent incubator.

“There’s not four or five (first-rounders) from the whole country of Finland and they’re talking about how wonderful Finland is this year,” Brown said. “I feel like we have as many first-round guys (from St. Louis) as many countries. Other than Canada, I’m not sure there’s another country that has four guys (in the first round).”

The metro-east and southern Illinois has been producing its share of hockey talent. Along with Keller, there was 2014 New Jersey Devils third-round pick Connor Chatham (Swansea) and 2015 Blues fifth-round pick and goalie Luke Opilka (Effingham).

Alton native Dakota Mermis signed with the Arizona Coyotes last season.

Chatham marveled at the potential first-rounders from St. Louis this year.

“That’s a really good age group and it’s awesome for the area,” Chatham said. “It gets a lot of kids excited. There’s even more coming up the pipeline, so this is a good thing.”

“Not many kids get opportunities to be coached by those guys, so that’s pretty cool.”

Keller is also aware of his historic status as the metro-east’s only first-round hockey draft pick.

I feel like we have as many first-round guys (from St. Louis) as many countries. Other than Canada, I’m not sure there’s another country that has four guys (in the first round).

Jeff Brown

“It’s awesome,” he said. “Hockey’s growing everywhere and kids in the area are looking up to guys like Connor and me, wanting to get better at hockey and hopefully being drafted some day. It was great growing up playing in southern Illinois and then moving on to St. Louis and the other places.

“It’s great to see that pay off here soon.”

Brown coached Keller and has known him for many years.

“His whole life is hockey,” Brown said. “He’s best friends with Logan and all they talk about is hockey. It’s been that way since they started playing together when they were 7 or 8 years old. They’ve really lived it.

“This is what their dream has been their entire lives — and so far they haven’t been denied.”

Keller thanked his youth league coaches and the Blues alumni for aiding his progress at an early age.

“All the ex-NHL players that have come back to St. Louis and really put time into the youth programs just helped me and my friends grow so much,” Keller said. “There could be six of us drafted this year that played on the same team in St. Louis. That’s pretty cool,”

Brown was quick to point the attention right back at the players.

“It’s real special to us but again, it’s not us,” he said. “We pushed them and we gave them the knowledge, but at the end of the day it’s each one of those kids that have done things to get them where they are now.”

Brown said the 2016 draft group’s talent meshed well with an incredible work ethic and desire to succeed.

“That was a trait that all of those kids have,” he said. “They couldn’t wait to get to the games and compete and play. They took advantage of opportunities to get up early before school and play hockey or play pond hockey, to train, to do all that stuff. Whatever happens on Friday and Saturday, they’ve earned it for sure.

“(Keller) knows what he wants and that’s to play in the NHL. That’s been his goal his whole life, the same as these other St. Louis kids. A lot of kids dream of getting scholarships and things like that, but not these guys. They dreamed about playing in the NHL.”

Norm Sanders: 618-239-2454, @NormSanders

Clayton Keller

  • Hometown: Swansea
  • College Commitment: Boston University
  • 2015-16 Teams: U.S. National Team Development Program Under-18 and USNTP Juniors; Team USA Under-18 World Championships
  • Height/Weight: 5-foot-10, 170 pounds
  • Shoots: Left
  • Position: Center
  • Where NHL Mock Drafts have Keller going: USA Today and TSN (8th to Buffalo); CBSSports.com, BleacherReport.com and SBNation.com (11th to New Jersey); NHL.com and Sportsnet.ca (13th to Carolina)
  • Other metro-east or southern Illinois NHL Draft picks: Connor Chatham (Swansea) drafted in third round by New Jersey in 2014; Luke Opilka (Effingham/St. Louis) drafted in fifth round by St. Louis Blues in 2015.

By the numbers

  • 2015-16: 13 goals and 37 points in 23 games with USNTP Juniors; 37 goals and 107 points in 62 games with U.S. National Under-18 team; four goals and 14 points in seven games with Team USA at the Under-18 World Championships
  • Career totals with the U.S. National Team Development Program: 71 goals, 118 assists, 189 points
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