Arizona Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong doesn’t hesitate to call what happened to Clayton Keller a “gruesome” injury.

On March 31 last season, in a game against the San Jose Sharks, his star forward drove hard to the net and then crashed into the end boards with his leg out, the impact breaking his femur. Sharks captain Logan Couture immediately signaled to the Coyotes bench that Keller was badly injured. That was underscored when he was carefully placed on a stretcher and rolled off the ice, ending his season.

“I went to see him in the hospital afterwards and he was in shock,” Armstrong said.

It wasn’t just the first major injury of Keller’s NHL career, which began in 2016-17 with the Coyotes. It was the first time he had suffered an injury like this at any stage of his life as an athlete.

“The first thing I asked the doc when I was in the [hospital] room is, you know, will I be able to play again?” Keller said. “When he said I would, it felt a lot better.”

Armstrong went to visit him in the hospital the next day and noticed his uptick in spirit. They talked about hockey for a bit. As he left the room, the Coyotes general manager couldn’t help but wonder if Keller’s sunnier disposition would be undercut by the reality of his injury.

“I didn’t know if he knew how long of an ordeal rehab was going to be,” he said.

Armstrong said Keller was in “rough shape” when he saw him during the offseason. The center was working out in the pool, doing Pilates, putting in the work to build his strength back up. But things were different for him.

“I think it was just a weird feeling to have that rod in his leg, you know? Every time it moved, it just kind of freaked him out,” Armstrong said. “[Keller] couldn’t really walk correctly. I was like, ‘There’s no way he can skate, right?'”

To Armstrong’s astonishment, the doctors indicated that Keller was going to return to the ice fairly soon. “And they said, ‘Well, he skates a lot better than he walks.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s a good sign,'” the general manager said.

Keller’s long painful summer of rehab was rewarded with the best offensive season of his NHL career: 85 points in 81 games, the first time Keller produced at a point-per-game clip.

He enters Thursday night’s season finale against the Vancouver Canucks with a chance to equal Keith Tkachuk’s 1996-97 mark of 86 points for the highest single-season total in Coyotes history.

For the journey back from a “gruesome” injury and his career-best season, Keller was named Arizona’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy, given by the Professional Hockey Writers Association to “the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication” to hockey.



Clayton Keller goes spin-o-rama to score in style for the Coyotes

The Coyotes tie it up vs. the Avalanche as Clayton Keller spins around for an impressive goal.

Armstrong said that perseverance is emphasized even more considering where the Coyotes are in the standings.

“When you go through a rebuild, it’s not only hard on the GM and the fans — it’s also twice as hard on your best players,” he said. “Clayton put this team on his back and got us through in flying colors, and that’s a credit to him.”

Keller said it was “super cool” to get the Masterton nod for the Coyotes.

“It’s something that you wanna strive, especially coming off my injury. I just wanted to show up every day, do the best that I can and let the rest figure itself out.”

WHEN YOU ARE an Arizona Coyote, “the rest” is a bit more complicated than it is for other NHL teams. Like, for example, playing all 41 home games in a college hockey arena on the campus of Arizona State University.

After 18 years, the city of Glendale opted not to renew the Coyotes’ lease. They needed a new home in the short term. The team worked with ASU to provide NHL-level upgrades to their new campus arena, which holds less than 5,000 fans.

The gloriously named Mullett Arena — named after a family that backed the Sun Devils hockey program — proved to be a surprisingly happy home for the Coyotes on the ice, where they went 21-15-4. (Arizona was just 7-25-9 on the road.)

“The best thing about the building is the ice. I think because it’s a new rink, they wanted to make sure they did the ice right,” Keller said. “It’s really good. You can definitely tell a difference playing there.”

The worst parts of Mullett Arena? The travel wasn’t ideal at the start, as the Coyotes played six regular-season games and an entire preseason on the road before returning to their temporary home. Keller said their first few home games were rough before the team’s locker room annex was finished. “We were kind of in a normal U14 locker room or something,” he said.

They’re playing at Mullett as they wait for a critical ballot initiative next month that could decide the fate of their arena project in Tempe.

The Coyotes are seeking to build a 16,000-seat arena and entertainment district on city-owned land at Rio Salado Parkway and Priest Drive, at the west end of Tempe Town Lake. The total project cost is estimated at $2.1 billion, with at least $1.9 billion privately funded, and would include two hotels, a 3,500-person theater and up to 1,995 residential units.

The project has met opposition from neighboring cities like Phoenix and from groups in Tempe that argue against the project’s approval. Ballots on Props 301, 302, and 303 will be mailed Apr. 19 and must be returned by May 16.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is scheduled to appear in Tempe on Thursday to voice his support for the propositions. He’ll be joined by Coyotes executives and community leaders.

Keller is signed with the Coyotes through 2027-28. This isn’t his first rodeo when it comes to off-ice arena drama.

“I think management and ownership has done a good job of getting people on the right page,” he said of the vote. “We’re focused on playing hard and doing everything we can to show them we want to be here and we want to grow an amazing home in Tempe. Once we get that rink, I think it would be hard to find a better place to play, honestly.”

Who Keller might eventually play with in that new arena is a subject of much speculation. The Coyotes have a 7.5% chance to win the first overall pick in the NHL draft lottery on May 8, and the chance to select Connor Bedard, the Canadian junior hockey phenom.

“He’s such a special player and any team would love to have him,” Keller said. “But I think at the end of the day, you just focus on the next day and the next game and you play to win. Whatever happens after the season, happens.”

When the 2022-23 season started, many assumed that the Coyotes would have higher draft lottery odds. But that was before “Mullett Magic” made them a competitive team at home. And that was before Clayton Keller’s outstanding season, among the best in Coyotes history.

Now, Armstrong is just hoping karma smiles upon Arizona for playing hard while other teams raced to the bottom.

“Listen, I’ve been involved with the draft for over 20 years now. Only one team hits it every year,” he said. “If karma comes our way in and that’s our day and our number comes up, so be it. If not, then we’ll be back to work as usual. There’s only one team winning [the Stanley Cup]. There are 31 that are gonna stand there and be jealous.”

Source link

Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes reflect on surreal year