Small in stature, Kelleher making big impact on ice

Scott Paulus

By Jason Karnosky | AHL On The Beat

When you stand just 5 feet 6 inches tall, it’s easy to get overlooked.

Nobody knows that better than Milwaukee Admirals forward Tyler Kelleher. Now an undrafted rookie in the American Hockey League (AHL), the offensively-gifted Kelleher is turning heads each and every night that he takes the ice in an Admirals sweater—even though some might have to look down to find him.

“(Tyler) is a really skilled player, and his dynamic offensive mentality is dangerous,” Admirals forward Harry Zolneircyk said of Kelleher. “He’s fun to play with. I’ve been fortunate to be able to play alongside him a lot early in the season.”

From the opening puck drop, Kelleher’s bench boss has taken notice of the skill that his top rookie scorer possesses.

“(Tyler’s) not a big guy, but he plays hard and he goes to the net,” Milwaukee coach Dean Evason said. “He’s been rewarded this year for doing that.”

Why most scouts missed out on Kelleher remains a mystery, as his developmental pedigree was plenty impressive. Kelleher played on both the U.S. National Under 17 and 18 teams, scoring around 30 goals each season and contributing at nearly a point-a-game pace.

From there Kelleher’s hockey odyssey took him to the University of New Hampshire, where the Longmeadow, Massachusetts native needed just one season to adjust to the quality of play in Hockey East. Kelleher then posted seasons of 42 points, 46 points and a staggering 63 points in 2016-17.

Kelleher narrowly missed out on winning the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player during that senior season, but he did earn the opportunity to continue playing hockey in the professional ranks after signing a contract with Milwaukee back in March.

Kelleher joined the Admirals for six games to close out the 2016-17 season, picking up two points in that span. It was a far cry from Kelleher’s typical offensive production and proved to be an eye-opening experience for the freshly minted pro.

“Last year was definitely a whirlwind,” Kelleher said. “Looking back at it—the best thing I could have done for this year was coming out to Milwaukee for a month and a half at the end of last year. I got the chance to play in a couple of games and got to know some of the guys here.”

Kelleher returned to the club in 2017-18 determined to prove himself against the competition in the NHL’s top development circuit. Milwaukee fans have been the beneficiary of Kelleher’s improved play, which included scoring the Admirals first goal of the season. It was his first professional goal in a career that is sure to see many more.

“It was definitely felt awesome to get my first pro goal,” said Kelleher, who on the play blocked a shot from Iowa Wild defenseman Brennan Menell and then raced ahead alone on a rush. “I was just nervous that the defenseman was going to grab my jersey and try to haul me down. But before I knew it I was on a breakaway, so I just picked my head up and shot it real quick.”

The 22-year-old came flying out of the gates in  2017-18, posting points in six of his team’s first seven games.

“(Tyler’s) probably the most impressive guy on our team as far as improvement from what we saw last year to this year,” Evason said. “Because he’s a smaller guy, he needs to be quick and he needs to get away from people, so we asked him in the offseason to go back and work on his quickness and his explosiveness. Tyler went home and did the work and now he’s having success this year because of it.”

Kelleher’s play has not only impressed his coach, but it is also making the Nashville brass take notice of the unheralded prospect in their organization. Scott Nichol, Nashville’s director of player development, has been particularly pleased with Kelleher’s improvements.

“Kelleher’s been fantastic so far this year,” Nichol said. “What is so impressive about that is that he really struggled last year when he came out of college. I don’t know if he thought the professional game would be easier because of his success in college, or that he would have more time with the puck, but it ended up being the best thing for him to come here and struggle. Tyler put the work in during the offseason to get better. He came back and was our best guy during development camp, during the rookie games, and he’s just gotten better and better this season.”

The next steps for Kelleher are simple—continue his development in the AHL and help the Admirals stay among the league’s elite teams. If he continues to do both of those things, Nashville and other NHL teams will surely take a long look at the pint-sized scoring threat.