St. Louis Blues

Aiming high: NHL Draft could have first-round pick from metro-east

Tall weeds now grow through cracks in the parking lot at the U.S. Ice Sports Complex in Fairview Heights. Overgrown bushes and trees dot the property.

The once-bustling hockey complex closed in 2012 because of mine subsidence, but not before providing an early home to the best player the metro-east has ever produced.

Swansea native Clayton Keller is projected to go among the top 15 picks and possibly higher in the NHL Draft, which begins Friday in Buffalo. That would make him the first local player selected in the first round, perhaps not surprising given what the 17-year-old has done to this point in his career.

“He does everything well,” said former St. Louis Blues defenseman Jeff Brown, who coached Keller for several years on the youth level. “He passes well, he shoots well, he’s got a great brain. He’s the total package.

“If he were 6-foot-2 we’d be talking about the top of the first round, if he’s not there already.”

Keller broke the records of NHL stars Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel at the 2016 World Juniors Under-18 Tournament last season, racking up four goals and 14 points in just seven games while helping lead Team USA to a bronze medal.

In 62 games with the Michigan-based U.S. National Team Development Program’s Under-18 squad last season, Keller had 37 goals and 107 points. That’s the second-highest single-season total in team history, second to the 117 by potential 2016 first overall pick Auston Matthews the year before.

In his last two seasons with the USNTP, Keller’s career record 189 points point total were higher than Kane or Kessel’s at the same ages. Keller’s 118 career assists rank second and his 71 goals rank sixth.

On Friday night, Keller will be with his family at Buffalo’s First Niagara Center, awaiting the special moment when he hears his name called. He will walk on stage and tug on the jersey of an NHL team on national television.

“I’m trying to enjoy every moment,” said Keller, who has been under a microscope for much of the last two years while being scouted and especially in the last month while attending the NHL Scouting Combine. “You only have one draft and it’s something I’ve worked so hard for. I’m hoping to go in the top 10 or so, that’s where I think I’ll go.

“I think I had probably my best year of hockey last year. That’s big for me.”

Proving people wrong

Nearly every NHL Draft prospectus hints about Keller being a bit undersized at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds. But perhaps more importantly, the experts and scouts also rave about his play-making ability, record-breaking scoring, vision on the ice and the ability to handle the puck like a magician.

“I’ve always had to prove myself as a smaller player growing up,” said Keller, who racked up 58 goals and 129 points in only 60 games in 2012-13 while playing at Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep School in Minnesota, the same school that produced current NHL stars like Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Kyle Okposo. “My skills and my hockey IQ are what took me to the next level and also the fact that I’ve worked so hard.

“I have to work harder than the bigger guys because of my size, but I don’t get tired if it. I like hearing that (I’m too small) because it makes me work even harder wanting to prove them wrong.”

Keller is committed to attend Boston University next year. His junior hockey rights are held by the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League.

Brown’s son, Logan Brown, is Keller’s best friend and one of four St. Louis-area players expected to be chosen in the first round. The others are forward Matthew Tkachuk, son of former Blues star Keith Tkachuk, Keller and University of Wisconsin center Luke Kunin.

“He was an unbelievable player when I first started coaching him,” Brown said of Keller. “You can tell at an early age with hockey players, guys that are going to have a future in the game. He just had that — no matter what level we played at.

“I can’t think of a tournament that he didn’t lead the thing in scoring.”

Another of Keller’s best friends is Connor Chatham, another Swansea resident and a 2014 third-round pick of the New Jersey Devils.

Chatham recalled the early days playing with Keller, who is several years younger and attended Wolf Branch Grade School through seventh grade.

“It’s special for me to watch him play because I played with him when I was like 8 years old and he was 5, and he was that good then,” said Chatham, now 20. “I’m really excited for him and I’ll be watching to see where he goes in the draft. He’s like a mini Patrick Kane, a little Patrick Kane — that’s what everybody always calls him.

“He’s just so skilled and so smart out there. He’s a special player for sure.”

Chatham was the first NHL draft pick from the metro-east and Keller is happy to follow in his footsteps and set the bar a bit higher.

“It’s awesome,” Keller said. “It’s a great feeling and something I’ve always worked hard for. I wanted to be drafted and some day play in the NHL. Growing up just going to hockey games and realizing I could be out there some day was always special.

“Connor was the first draft pick from the metro-east and he’s a good friend of mine and great player. I wish all the best to him also and I know he’s going to say the same about me.”

A difficult path to the NHL Draft

It wasn’t easy for Keller to get from the U.S. Ice Sports Complex to center stage in Buffalo on Friday night.

He spent hours and hours on the ice honing his game, first in Fairview Heights and later in St. Louis and tournaments throughout the Midwest, the U.S. and Canada.

Hockey in the Midwest isn’t like football, basketball or baseball.

While there are competitive high school programs and leagues, most players must leave home like Keller did to try to take their game to the next level. It might be at a prep school, a team in the United States Hockey League or even Canadian junior leagues.

“He’s done things that other kids haven’t done, maybe because they didn’t have the opportunity or they weren’t as driven,” said Anthony Pellegrino, a former hockey teammate and longtime friend from Swansea. “He’s missed a lot of stuff to do this. The NHL is where he’s trying to go and there’s definitely a price to pay for it.

“He showed that he’s willing to do that, but in the long run he’s got a lot ahead of him.”

When Keller and Pellegrino were in seventh grade, both played up on the Belleville East High School varsity team.

“It was just hilarious because this kid’s in seventh grade and he’s tearing up the high school league, leading the league in points,” said Pellegrino, who played on the same line with older brother Alec Pellegrino and Keller.

Keller’s hockey keeps him away from home for much of the year, but he enjoys his trips back to hang with family and friends.

“He plays hockey year-round, so it’s always good for him to come back to a normal life and swim and fish and be with the guys,” Pellegrino said. “We don’t give him any special treatment. He’s still one of us and puts up with us. He’s a great kid, a fun guy to be around.”

Pellegrino says Keller is the most humble person he’s been around, but he’s as excited about the draft as his buddy is.

“It’s insane,” Pellegrino said. “I’m just waiting for the day we go out in public and people are gonna be like ‘Oh my God, that’s Clayton Keller.’ It’s crazy. I try not to give him too much stuff about it, but it’s fun. You get to go through the whole process with him.

“You’re cheering for him just as bad as his family is.”

Playing at an elite level

Keller said being part of the U. S. National Team Development Program and seeing his name associated with players like Kane and Matthews is both special and humbling.

“It’s pretty cool to see my name up there with Patrick Kane and those other guys,” said Keller, whose size and off-the-charts scoring totals draw almost constant comparisons with Kane (5-11, 177), the Chicago Blackhawks star who was drafted first overall in 2007.

“He’s my favorite player and I think we play a similar game,” said Keller, whose broke Kane’s assist record with the U.S. team. “When everybody asks me who I model my game after, I’d say it’s him. He’s a smaller guy like me and he’s got an unbelievable hockey IQ and skills.

“Hopefully I can be as good as him one day and just as successful.”

Keller credits coaches like former NHL players Brown and Keith Tkachuk for helping push him and teaching him the finer points of the game at an early age.

“Jeff Brown really helped me become a better player and always told us to be unselfish,” Keller said. “I really have to give him a lot of credit to him. It was awesome to be coached by those guys, I really learned from them and got to see what they did to become better players. I think I’ve always been so driven and competitive, just really wanted to take my game to the next level.

“Just taking those steps I did and being around better players helped me grow and become a better player. That’s pretty much how it is. If you’re willing to sacrifice it can pay off in the long run.”

Norm Sanders: 618-239-2454, @NormSanders