Joey Keane cruised over the Niagara IceDogs blue line. As teammate Zach Magwood hauled in a loose puck along the back boards, the Barrie Colts defenceman jumped into the slot and cocked his stick. Magwood looked up and spotted an open Keane, who took the backhand pass and, in one motion, hammered a shot past the blocker of Niagara goaltender Stephen Dhillon.

Whether it’s jumping in from the point, leading the rush or being a stable force in his own end, Keane has taken his game to a whole new level this season with the Barrie club. The second-year Colts blueliner is easily among the most improved players in the Ontario Hockey League thanks in large part to the world of confidence he shows when the puck is on his stick.

A strong skater, Keane’s ability to hit the go-button and rush the puck up the ice has made him an offensive weapon on the back end for Barrie.

“He can really move it and get it going,” Colts head coach Dale Hawerchuk said of Keane. “He’s got that ability to separate himself from people when they think they have him. He’s kind of a smooth fast. Sometimes those kind of guys they’re deceptive and all of a sudden the defender thinks they have him and then he’s gone.”

After scoring just once and collecting 19 points in 67 games last season, Keane has well surpassed his rookie totals with 12 goals and 44 points in 62 games regular season games. Despite the huge step he’s taken this year, Keane has still to find his way onto the NHL draft rankings. A surprise to some who have watched him on a nightly basis.

Still if there’s any disappointment, the defender isn’t showing it. His focus, he says, remains on improving his game and helping his team win hockey games.

“Honestly, we just try to go out there every game and play hockey,” said the 18-year-old native of Homer Glen, Illinois, who was Barrie’s fifth-round pick (87 overall) in the 2015 OHL Priority Selection. “I’m not trying to overthink anything. We’re playing good hockey now and we just need to keep it going.”

Colts general manager Jason Ford believes Keane will hear his name called at this year’s NHL Entry Draft in Dallas in late June. And Hawerchuk believes the tools are there for Keane to play pro hockey.

“At the next level, they’re looking for guys that are consistent. Game-in-and-game-out you know what you’re getting and they’re bringing it every game,” explained Hawerchuk. “That’s the big thing we try to stress with everybody. Just be consistent and do all the little things well. Recognizing when you’ve got to get it up quick or when there’s time to go with it, or your defensive play in your own end, just doing all the little things consistently will draw the attention of those guys (scouts) for sure.”

Keane credits the mileage he gained last season for his improved play. With the Colts in a rebuild and the focus on development, he was one of six rookies on the blue line who received a fair bit of ice time. That experience has proven valuable and is a big reason why the Colts have gone from last overall to clinching their fourth Central Division title in the last six years.

“I think there’s a number of us that could say the same think,” Keane said of just how important that playing time has been to their games. “Coming into this year we had a lot of confidence and it’s really helped us. Coming in, I knew we had a tough year, so I just worked as hard as I could over the summer. I wanted to be a top guy.”

Being a quick learner has also helped Keane. Coming from the United States Hockey League (USHL), the American defenceman found the OHL faster than he first thought. He made strides late in the year as a rookie, but the work he did this offseason has paid off.

“He obviously came to camp in good shape and got off to a good start, and he’s gained confidence from it,” Hawerchuk said. “He’s a great skater, both forward and backwards, so it’s a big asset for him.”

Keane’s play without the puck in his own end has also taken great strides. He finished third overall in the league this season in plus/minus with an impressive plus-45. A far cry from the minus-28 he posted as a rookie.

“It definitely feels good to have that stat,” Keane said. “It doesn’t tell everything, but I think it’s good to be up there.”

The important thing is he’s playing with confidence at both ends of the ice.

“When I get the puck I just try to get my head up and try to make the easy play,” he said. “If not, just try to hold on to it and make the simple play and get it behind the net.”

Hawerchuk has noticed how Keane doesn’t get beat one-on-one very often.

“You look at plus/minus and it’s not always an indicator of it (defensive play), but when your number is that big he’s doing something right,” the head coach said. “For him, he’s on pucks quick and when he’s moving them up quick and busting when he’s got time and space then that’s less time in your own end.”

Keane loves to contribute to the offence as much as he can, but he knows he has to pick his spots. It also helps that his forwards are always there to cover when needed.

“Sometimes I do get caught, so I do have to make sure that I’m 100 per cent sure when I’m jumping in,” he said.

Where he gets himself in trouble the odd time, Hawerchuk explains, is when he carries the puck deep into the zone and tries to make a pass back to the high slot.

“Now we’re a little bit trapped,” Hawerchuk said. “I think it’s recognition of our players that he’s moved up and somebody’s got to cover and we still need a high forward. The thing with Keaner is he’s got that ability you’re not sure how far he’s taking it, if he’s going to shoot – he’s got a good shot – and then all of a sudden he’ll make that one more fake and take it much deeper. He’s got some offensive creativity that way.”

 

Photo: Joey Keane is enjoying a breakout season on the blue line with the Barrie Colts. Photo courtesy of Miranda Zilkowsky.