After Auston Matthews there’s a steep drop off when it comes
to centers in the 2016 draft. Not that the next few options aren’t good, but
they are having difficulty climbing into the top ten rankings in draft year
that is much deeper on defensemen and power wingers.
One of the centers who could hear his name called early in
the draft is Clayton Keller. Keller’s offensive numbers certainly warrant him
being considered as he has put up 144 points in 86 games for the US Under 18
Team this year.

Rankings

For the most part Keller has spent the year in the mid to
low teen rankings across all scouting services. At this point everyone views
him as a top 15 pick, but only Corey Pronman sees him as a Top Five talent,
placing him 4th in his rankings, with Draft Buzz Hockey, Future
Considerations, and Sportsnet being the others who can see him going in the top
10.
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Perhaps the biggest case for Keller going later is that Bob
McKenzie’s definitive draft list is the one that has Keller the lowest.
Unfortunately points and talent have a hard time of convincing most scouts to
overlook the fact that Keller is only 5’10.

What He’s Good At

1.       Creative: Most Leafs fans will be
interested in the comparisons he’s receiving to Mitch Marner and Doug Gilmour,
probably the two names you’d most like to associate with 5’10 forwards in
Toronto. His crafty play often creates something out of nothing and his smarts
easily make up for his size.
2.       Heavy Shot: Having a guy who knows how
to find space is already nice, but having a guy who can hammer the puck from
the space he finds is even better. Having an NHL shot is maybe the strongest
argument for not treating Keller as someone who can only matchup against other
teenagers.
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3.       Versatility: In the past Keller has
been able to line up on either wing and that was the key to establishing
himself at the top of the lineup in a deep USNTDP program, now Keller has added
to that versatility by being a capable penalty killer and someone who can
lineup against the top lines of his opposition.

Drawbacks

The first couple of things are hard to count against Keller,
and that’s his size (5’10, 170 lbs) and the fact that he won’t likely be
considered for an NHL job next season as he’s committed to Boston University.
Given that Boston University often keeps Freshmen in the bottom six and limits
their minutes, Keller might be a couple of years out unless he puts on an
absolutely phenomenal showing in year one.
Beyond that, Keller looks pretty darn good. He doesn’t have
high end speed, but he’s a smart skater. He’s good in all zones, but if he’s
going to keep that 200 foot player label, he’ll need to do that against bigger,
tougher, better competition, and the NCAA is absolutely the right place to do
that.
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What Others Are
Saying

“Keller is a strong,
shifty skater with a powerful shot, displaying brilliance and hockey sense
strikingly similar to what Marner brings to the ice. And while Marner is a
winger, Keller is equally adept at bringing you out of your seat while leaving
amazed opponents on the very edge of theirs. He’s schooled amateurs of all ages
— U.S. college seniors, European stars, NHL-bound Canadian juniors; it doesn’t
matter. He’s a hard-nosed, fearless player with a lot of flash, but he’s been
Team USA’s leader and go-to option for every critical situation – defensive
zone draws, killing penalties, gaining entry into the offensive zone, etc. Does
he have franchise potential? We’ll let you judge for yourself, but keep in mind
he’s nearly produced as much as Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews did with the
NTDP. Keller is also nearly a year younger than Matthews, who set the NTDP
scoring record a year ago with 117 points. If Keller keep his current pace for
the rest of the season and through the 2016 U18 tournament, he’ll come close to
matching him.”
“Clayton Keller is a
special offensive talent and the most intriguing draft eligible player not just
on the USNTDP, but throughout the USHL. He has first line center potential, and
is clever enough to withstand strong defenders, although would be best served
by always playing with one or two brawny wingers to help create additional
space for him in the offensive zone. Keller is set to suit up for Boston
University next season and his CHL rights are owned by Windsor should he have a
change of heart.”
“Keller’s production
for the USA under-18 team can be ranked with
the all-time greats
 like Matthews, Eichel, Phil Kessel and Patrick Kane.
He has been great during USHL and college games he has taken part in for the
NTDP, and should contend for the top player award at the upcoming five nations
under-18 tournament. Keller is a dynamic scorer with top-end skating and skill
on top of being an excellent passer.”

Does He Make Sense for
The Leafs?

The Leafs are still incredibly thin on natural centers in
their system. Transitioning Nylander to center has worked out well, but Marner
has been moved back to wing for most of his season in London. After that the
Leafs are looking at bottom six type centers in Gauthier, and Hyman, so yes,
Keller is a player who makes sense for the Leafs, even if he doesn’t have the
desired size like fellow 2016 draft eligible centers Michael McLeod, and Tyson
Jost.
The problem with Keller making sense for the Leafs is that
if the Leafs are picking fourth, Keller is a bit of a leap for them and unless
he’s 100% the guy they want, they are probably better off trading down,
acquiring whatever asset they can along the way to pick Keller around 8th
or risk going even lower and being happy with which ever one of the McLeod,
Jost or Keller they can get when they are ready to select.
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Conclusion

Keller seems like a great prospect and I don’t think it’s
completely crazy to consider him with the fourth overall pick. Clayton has put
up points on par with Matthews, Eichel, Kane, and Kessel in the US National
Team program and you can’t overlook someone being in that company.
While there is certainly an appetite to find some size for
the Leafs top six, that can’t be deciding factor, especially with Babcock’s
preference to sprinkle his most talented forwards throughout his lineup and
giving them players like Leo Komarov to work with.
Keller might not be the guy you want to select at 4th,
but he’s the guy you should be targeting if you willing to drop a few spots in
the draft order.