Amongst the incoming stream of top prospects that come with a rebuild, some players tend to get lost in the crowd. The constant noise and exposure for players like Vitali Kravtsov, Kaapo Kakko, or Lias Andersson overshadows the play of the forgotten third or fourth round selections from a few years back. New York Rangers prospect talk has been squarely focused on overseas talent, yet one of their most promising players is playing just one state over. Enter Joey Keane, who’s been playing phenomenally in his first year with the American Hockey League’s Hartford Wolf Pack.
There’s a lot of talent on this particular Wolf Pack team. They’re climbing the standings and look poised for their first playoff berth since the 2014-15 season. Between the arrival of Kravtsov, departure of Andersson, return of Yegor Rykov and stalwart play from Igor Shesterkin in net, it’s easy for a name like Keane’s to get overshadowed. Yet, the rookie defenseman is still anchoring the Wolf Pack’s defense and forcing people to start paying attention.
Numbers Don’t Lie
Keane was taken 88th overall in the third round of the 2018 Entry Draft. Following a 19-point campaign in his rookie season with the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League, Keane failed to get drafted in his first year of eligibility. He returned to the Colts as a 19-year-old, leading their defensemen with a stat line of 12-32-44 in 62 games. His play was good enough to catch the attention of the Rangers and warrant a third round selection. He would return to juniors for another year, bringing his career OHL totals to 102 points in 195 games and 12 points in 23 playoff contests. The Rangers would sign him to an entry-level-contract following his third OHL season.
Despite the AHL not posting their time-on-ice metrics, it’s safe to say that the 20-year-old leads the team in all facets. Head coach Kris Knoblauch has been using him in every situation this season, most notably quarterbacking the top power-play unit. For most teams, having a mid-round rookie selection running their defense would put a front office in full on panic mode, and yet the Wolf Pack clearly have all the confidence in the world with Keane as their backstop.
In his rookie season, the young right-handed defenseman has six goals and 15 assists in 30 games, tied for second in Wolf Pack scoring. He’s second in scoring amongst rookie AHL defensemen and his 0.7 points-per-game leads all players under-21 players who have played at least 10 games.
It’s worth noting that his numbers might be slightly inflated due to the play of the Wolf Pack. His six goals are particularly high considering his 40 shots on goal thus far this season. His 15% shooting percentage is unsustainable, especially for a defenseman. All six of those goals came in the first 11-games of the season, back when he had the help of Filip Chytil and Ryan Lindgren on the roster. Yet, he’s managed to produce offense no matter the roster in front of him, logging 13 assists in the following 19 games. The consistent production of assists is largely responsible of Keane teeing up trigger man, Vinni Lettieri, on the power play. Eight of his assists have come on the man advantage.
Complementary Style of Play
His offensive style of play certainly makes it easy for him to find plenty of offense. He rarely misses when he gets time from the point, logging most of his goals via shots through traffic. His above average skating ability makes it easy for him to join line rushes while his defensive partner, Mason Geertsen, often stays back to play his more stay-at-home style.
Despite his clear want of jumping into the rush, Keane also plays a fairly consistent defensive game. His speed makes him extremely adept at gaining an extra second on dump-in plays. Despite his smaller frame of 6-foot, 185-pound frame, he does a manageable job at leveraging his body to maintain possession, but he’s far more comfortable relying on his stick play and speed to cut down the gap, forcing the threat to the outside.
Despite the lack of exposure, Keane has been able to catch the eye of both Knoblauch and the Rangers head coach, David Quinn. As the Wolf Pack continue to improve and reverse the losing culture that had been built over the years, prospects such as Keane should continue to filter through the woodwork and find their game. Middle to low tier players should be able to find success in joining a winning culture and play meaningful hockey, even if it’s in the minors.
As the Rangers continue their lengthy rebuild, it’s important to note that keeping Hartford competitive is crucial for development. It may not work for some, but for players like Keane, it can be the precise kind of hockey that leads them to a path at the NHL level.