Future Watch: Ryan Keller
27-year-old Oklahoma City Barons winger has had a tumultuous six-year pro career
|Ryan Keller has scored 5 goals and 14 points in 18 games this season with the AHL's OKC Barons (Photo by Steven Christy).
"I haven't really been given anything," said the winger, who's amassed a 5-9-14 stat-line through 18 games with the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons this season.
The Saskatoon product has seen it all since his career began in the 2001-02 season with the WHL's Blades. A phone call started his ride there; it did, once more, several seasons later when he procured AHL and NHL-starter deals.
The humble, hard-working beginning has, in Keller's mind, elevated an already lethal inner-drive.
"I wasn't selected at the WHL or NHL level," he recalled. "Those are things you have to deal with as a pro in this business; you have to work for everything you get, which isn't a bad thing. It makes you appreciate everything a little more and work harder to get back to it."
Prior to his stop in Oil Country, Keller took another, more unusual and less-traveled route to help develop his budding pro game. He spent three seasons in the AHL and UHL, but hopped across the ocean between 2007-2009 to experience something new.
"I spent two years in the minors on AHL-levels deals," he said. "For guys in that situation, it's tough; NHL teams want their guys that are under contract playing the big minutes and important situations, so you get pushed aside a little bit and may not get the same opportunity as other players."
He wound up in Espoo, Finland, playing with the SM-Liiga's Blues. There, he posted 43 goals and 99 points in 101 games in Finland's top pro league.
"I thought I could go over, get away from that 'stigma,' I guess you could call it, and get an opportunity to play in critical situations and improve my game; the bigger ice over there helped my skating, too, and it gave me more time with the puck to make decisions.
"Finland's game is so similar to the NHL; there's so much physical play, and the scores are all close. I think it was a good development tool for me, which is a little more unusual to hear when you think about some European leagues."
The 5'10", 196-pound winger then returned to North America in 2009 when he signed with the Ottawa Senators. Having blossomed into a legitimate scoring threat, Keller produced 34 goals and 68 points with the AHL's Binghamton Senators upon his assignment to the Sens' farm club that season.
It also earned him a six-game NHL audition in 2009-10. Without a doubt, he came back with an enriched, stocked and prepared big-league toolbox.
A season later in 2010-11, Keller had another strong campaign, which included an enormous post-season showing in which he registered 10 goals and 25 points in 23 spring contests; as the team's captain, leading them to a Calder Cup championship.
"Things went well that season," Keller laughed. "I was on a one-year deal with the Senators, so I was hoping to have some options as we headed into the summer.
"I met with my agent in early July and we narrowed it down to a couple teams that had interest in us, and that we had interest in them. We thought Edmonton would be an excellent option. It's a young organization that's on the rise, and they were giving players an opportunity to step in and produce."
Making the decision easier, perhaps, was his relationship with Oklahoma City Barons Head Coach Todd Nelson, who coached the UHL's Muskegon Fury in 2005-06; Keller scored 41 goals and 81 points in 65 games that season, and spoke highly of Nelson's tutelage both past and present.
"He's a really good players' coach," he explained. "[Nelson] communicates his message well to the players. Being someone that's played the game and has gone through the daily grind of a full season, and knows what we go through both mentally and physically, so he understands and it's nice to have."
Nelson and Keller's Barons have had vaulted out to a 12-5-0-1 start this season, sitting in second spot in the AHL's West Division with room to grow.
"We ended up losing 7-0 on opening night, and it was one of those things where everyone was scratching their heads wondering how the rest of the season would play out, but we quickly turned the corner and got things together," said Keller, whose Barons are heading into a tough three-in-three road set this weekend.
"As much success as we've had, there's a lot of learning to do and potential that we haven't reached yet," he added. "We're still learning to play the pro game, so we're still understanding how to manage games and win games. It's a good sign that we're this high in the standings at this point in the season, but there's still a lot of room for improvement, which is great to see."
When he signed a one-year deal with the Oilers back on Jul. 4, Keller knew it would be a challenging slope. With depth, skill and so much more on display, the Oilers' lineup became a tough one to crack. But as a consummate pro, the energetic winger has accepted this assignment like all the rest.
"It's not going to be easy," he said. "But it's never been easy to get here, either. I'm excited about showing them what I can do, and that includes playing well down here in Oklahoma City.
"(Oilers Head Coach) Tom Renney and the other coaches gave me some excellent advice during training camp. They want me to be down here playing my best and being the leader that I can be. They're looking for organizational depth and that's something I can provide."
In a pre-season game vs. Minnesota on Sep. 29, the Oilers lost Taylor Fedun, Taylor Chorney and Ladislav Smid in the same period to various injuries. Keller stepped in, patrolled the blueline phenomenally and completed the game with over 24 minutes in ice-time.
Don't think that ever goes unnoticed or is unappreciated. Keller's shot in orange and blue will come soon enough.
"You never hope to see players go down, but that's part of the game and they need guys to be able to step in when needed. I've only played in six NHL games to this point in my career, but I'm hoping more will come soon."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick
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