Young college try: Boeser, Keller impress as NHL rookies
By STEPHEN WHYNO
WASHINGTON (AP) In his final season at the University of North Dakota, Brock Boeser took a high-level course on what life in the NHL would be like.
He aced it.
Boeser fought through a wrist injury that required surgery and was defended like the star he is quickly becoming as a rookie with the Vancouver Canucks.
"More guys started keying on you, so I think you learn from that," Boeser said. "The frustrations, I think you really can develop from that."
Boeser developed into the NHL's only rookie All-Star and is making a quick adjustment to the professional game along with fellow NCAA product Clayton Keller, who went from Boston University to a substantial role with the Arizona Coyotes in his first season. Five of the league's top eight rookie scorers came out of five different college programs: Boeser, Keller, the Boston Bruins' Danton Heinen from Denver, the Winnipeg Jets' Kyle Connor from Michigan and the Colorado Avalanche's Alexander Kerfoot from Harvard.
"The facilities and stuff they have really allowed you to grow (and help) your body get stronger," Boeser said. "I think college hockey is a great route to go through. Keller's one of my buddies, too, and to see him have that success doesn't surprise me."
Boeser and Keller each benefitted from not coming into the NHL cold during training camp. The Coyotes and Canucks decided to sign them late last season and plug them directly into the lineup, which gave them a head start.
"I got a little bit of a taste last year, so I knew what to expect," said Keller, who's third among rookies and leads Arizona with 32 points. "It was huge. You never really know how hard it is until you play in the NHL and see how fast and strong guys are."
No matter how fast and strong the rest of the league is, it hasn't slowed these college-cultured rookies. Boeser is fifth among all players with 22 goals and is by far Vancouver's leading scorer with 40 points.
"I'm not worried about the next step for him," Canucks coach Travis Green said. "The league's been trying to focus on him for a little while here, and he seems to be doing all right. If things don't go his own way, good players find a way to get themselves out of it."
Like Boeser, Keller knows what he doesn't know, namely what an 82-game schedule would be like after college games were mostly on weekends. Halfway through, he has begun to figure it out.
"You never really get much rest, and I think the days that you do get off, you really have to recover and take care of your body," Keller said. "It's definitely a grind and I think you've just got to take care of your body and good things will happen."
Keller is one of the best things to happen this season for the NHL-worst Coyotes, who could use him as a building block for their future. First-year coach Rick Tocchet noticed Keller in rookie camp and has seen the 19-year-old Missouri native's defensive game and quickness to the puck improve with experience.
"He's got a very outstanding hockey IQ," Tocchet said. "I think if you're a young player and you have a high hockey IQ you can have a really good chance to be a good player in this league. ... He doesn't force passes, too. That's what I like about him. He just doesn't throw pucks away. A lot of his goals are around the net. He's a 19-year-old, 180-pound kid that is not afraid to go to the net."
Boeser isn't afraid of anything at age 20 and has the kind of shot that Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz compares to Alex Ovechkin's. Ovechkin teammate T.J. Oshie, a fellow North Dakota product, worked out with Boeser last summer and was impressed by his shot, his strength and ability to make the right play.
"He seems not to overthink with the puck," Oshie said. "Skating, the thing that surprised me most was the jump in his speed, how quick he was from a standstill, and also his shot. He doesn't have the biggest (stick) curve, but the way he's able to release the puck is really quick, really hard."
Boeser arrived in the NHL with that kind of shot and gained confidence from playing nine games with the Canucks last spring. He also came equipped with the same kind of smarts Tocchet raves about with Keller, so perhaps it's not surprising that Boeser having similarly positive results.
"He understands the game for a young guy," Green said. "He understands the importance of play away from the puck, which at times he does get away from it and he's not afraid to admit it. That's also important for young players to understand when they're playing not as good as they can and why, just as importantly."
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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Updated January 11, 2018