What was Clayton Keller playing for?
The Arizona Coyotes are the worst team in the Western Conference, long officially eliminated from the playoffs. Yet there was Keller, late in the third period, cutting hard to the net to try to add to a 3-2 Arizona Coyotes lead.
Coyotes forward Clayton Keller was taken off the ice on a stretcher after a scary fall late in the Sharks' loss pic.twitter.com/3spu7h0BbI
— Sharks on NBCS (@NBCSSharks) March 31, 2022
Every year, when an Erik Karlsson or another San Jose Sharks player goes down with an injury late in the season, I hear the same refrain, why was so-and-so playing with nothing to play for?
And Keller’s injury would seemingly be an argument for mothballing your best players when you’re out of the playoff hunt.
Want to thank my teammates, the fans, and medical personnel for the love and support last night! Unfortunately the season’s over for me, but I’m resting comfortably at the hospital in good spirits. I will be back better than ever for day 1 next season!!!! 🙏
— Clayton Keller (@ClaytonKeller37) March 31, 2022
On the other hand, Keller – or any elite athlete, really – isn’t likely to become Keller if he’s picking and choosing when to play hard or sitting when he can play.
Giving your all might expose to you to more injury, but it’s also what gets you into the NHL and keeps you there. That’s not to fetishize Keller’s injury – this isn’t a paean to the “price to pay.”
San Jose Sharks captain Logan Couture, the first Shark to reach Keller after his ugly fall, had an interesting response when I asked him if seeing that type of injury gives players pause, a moment to reflect on how dangerous the sport of ice hockey can be.
“You don’t think about that while you’re on the ice. Because if you think about getting hurt, you normally do,” he offered. “But once the game ends, you think about it, our guys in our room, we’re talking about it and obviously thinking about him.”
I’m sure there are no statistics for this: “If you think about getting hurt, you normally do.” I suspect this is a bit of confirmation bias that many athletes believe to get the most out of themselves.
After all, injuries in hockey – skate blades slicing across the ice at over 20 MPH, vulcanized rubber rocketing around at five times that speed, every player swinging a rifle-shaped stick, all in a closed environment – are often so random.
Couture’s thought was a window into the mindset of an elite athlete.
It’s what you want on a winning hockey team too, right? Let’s be honest: For better or worse, you don’t want guys whose top priority is staying healthy. You want guys who are always giving their best.
That’s in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Final or in Game 67 of a “meaningless” regular season.
Keller’s injury overshadowed the game – a 5-2 San Jose Sharks’ loss to the Coyotes – but one bright spot for San Jose was Brent Burns’s offensive and defensive play.
Now full transparency, I thought on the first period Nick Ritchie goal, Burns (88) could’ve done a better job of identifying the eventual open man in Ritchie (12).
RITCHIE IN RED. 🥵 pic.twitter.com/aoVNtQQDxJ
— Arizona Coyotes (@ArizonaCoyotes) March 31, 2022
San Jose Sharks color commentator Bret Hedican noted the same thing between the periods, also pointing out that Jaycob Megna (24) vacated the front of the net too early.
But from the second period on, I thought Burns was San Jose’s best player.
Burns starts it off with a good defensive play on Galchenyuk, then have to love Meier showing why he leads the Sharks in Zone Exits and Zone Entries: Enough speed/size/skill to back Coyotes offhttps://t.co/QWke3pDyqo
— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) March 31, 2022
Burns’s defensive play can be much-maligned, but he remains, at 37, still tough to beat in one-on-one situations, as exemplified here. There’s a reason why, by the way, he’s still a linchpin on one of the league’s better penalty kills over the last half-decade.
Timo Meier (28) does a great job of limiting Shayne Gostisbehere’s options here, and the 6-foot-5 Burns’s reach and feet do the rest here, beating Keller (9) and Gostisbehere (14) to the puck along the wall.
“I thought his energy was good tonight. Sometimes, he was leading the rush. He was bringing a lot of pucks up the ice. He was keeping pucks alive on pinches. He was shooting the puck,” Bob Boughner offered. “That’s what we need from him on a nightly basis.”
He looked like vintage Burns at times.
But that’s the rub, right? At 37, you shouldn’t expect him to be able to play like this every period, every night.
Burns, however, reminded us last night that he can still be part of a winning solution for the San Jose Sharks, if he can get more help.
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