John Chayka was pretty fresh on the job in 2016 when Clayton Keller became the first player drafted under his tenure as GM of the Arizona Coyotes. The scene was exactly what you’d expect after Keller’s name was called seventh overall; big smiles, hugs from the family, a bunch of people on stage wearing their best suits. Despite posting killer numbers with the U.S. National Team Development Program, Keller’s slight frame had introduced the possibility he might slip a bit down the board — and opened Chayka’s decision up to potential criticism — but it was no real shock to see a guy with his talent get snatched up. “He is an excellent skater. [He’s got] vision, hands — I love this pick for Arizona,” said analyst Mike Johnson. “This is where the league is going.”
Three years on, an occasional reminder of Keller’s talent is still required. His rookie campaign was a 65-point success, but his sophomore season brought a 22-point dip. He has just one goal this year and is producing at about a 55-point pace on a club that doesn’t win games by outgunning opponents.
Lose yourself in the lows and it’s easy to wonder why Keller was offered a seven-year contract worth $7.2 million annually a full month before he was to begin the third and final season of his entry-level deal and basically a year in advance of restricted free agency. Look around the league, though, and you’ll soon find that some of the best deals going these days — for the teams, that is — were signed more as a show of faith than a reward for what was already on the record.
Young players are influencing NHL games like never before and as the I-deserve-to-get-mine mentality spreads to the point of orthodoxy among them, the challenge of transitioning from their CBA-mandated, entry-level deals to their second contracts isn’t going away for teams weighing a risk-reward scenario while making calls on players with small bodies of work at the highest level. There are no sure things when you’re in what Chayka calls “the projection business,” but increasingly it seems there’s enormous upside for teams that trust their evaluations and come to the table early prepared to talk about six or seven years.