University of New Hampshire senior right wing Tyler Kelleher is a marked man when he climbs over the boards for each and every shift.
Opposing teams have become all too familiar with his offensive prowess the past four seasons. The Longmeadow, Mass. native has 22 goals and and 37 assists for 59 points in 34 games this year. He ranks first in assists and is tied for the national lead in points scored with Northeastern senior Zach Aston-Reese.
His 108 career assists ranks tied for eighth all-time at UNH. 163 career points is tied for 17th in school history. He's surpassed all three of his coaches, including Mike Souza who amassed 156 points in a stellar career.
Kelleher isn’t the fastest or strongest player in college hockey, but he makes up for that with his elite hockey sense. It doesn’t take long to notice Kelleher’s innate ability to find seams in opposing defenses and be one step ahead of the play.
“My hockey sense, my hands and my quickness,” said Kelleher, when asked what he views as the strengths to his game.
Hockey IQ isn’t something that can be taught. Coaches can teach systems and hope that players execute game plans, but being in position and slowing the game down aren’t necessarily coachable traits.
“I’ve played a lot of hockey, whether it be games on the ice or playing street hockey in the driveway. I’ve just played a lot of hockey,” Kelleher explained.
“He’s very smart and very aware when he’s on the ice,” added UNH coach Dick Umile.
Often times coaches and scouts judge a player based on how he performs at making his linemates more successful. Over the last two seasons, the proof is in the pudding as to how well Kelleher has done in that regard.
His center, Michael McNicholas, has 11 goals and 27 assists for 38 points after producing just 13 points during his first two seasons in a Wildcats uniform. Jason Salvaggio, the line’s left wing, has 21 goals compared to just three over his first two years in Durham. Last year, Kelleher aided Andrew Poturalski into nearly doubling his point total and earning a pro contract in the Carolina Hurricanes organization.
“He makes other players better. He helped make Poturalski one of the top point getters in the league. He’s done that this season with Salvaggio and McNicholas along with putting up some pretty big numbers himself,” Umile said.
Kelleher has long been considered an elite offensive talent. After one season at Longmeadow High School and one at Deerfield Academy, he played his two final seasons of high school with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“He’s a dynamite player. He’s a threat when he’s on the ice. When the puck is on his stick he can create offense. He can do it one-on-one. He can find people and get them open,” said Umile of Kelleher’s skill set.
However, there has always been one physical characteristic that coaches and scouts point to when putting an asterisk next to his name. Kelleher stands at just 5-feet-6 and 154 pounds. Bulking up and becoming stronger has been something that playing college hockey has allowed him to do.
“I came in as a true 18 year old freshman so I was weaker than some of the guys I was playing with or against. I’ve gotten a lot stronger. I think I’m pretty strong for my size now, but it’s something I’m working on still,” said Kelleher.
Kelleher will sign a two-way NHL entry-level contract following the conclusion of the season. He knows that success offensively in college hockey alone isn’t going to earn him playing time or a chance to prove himself on the game’s biggest stage.
“I’m always working on everything and trying to become a more well-rounded player,” Kelleher said.
Not only is Kelleher gaining attention from NHL scouts, talk about his candidacy for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as college hockey’s top player has heated up. Kelleher tries to keep all the potential off-ice distractions on the back burner.
“I don’t think about those things at all. Winning games with my teammates right now is the only thing I’m thinking about. It’s what is important. The rest will all take care of itself,” said Kelleher.
Playing for one of the legendary figures in college hockey history was a major reason he chose UNH in the first place and has been something that Kelleher will always remember.
“Coach Umile is an unbelievable coach. He’s helped me out and has made me a more well-rounded player and person,” Kelleher said.
Kelleher’s younger brother, Charlie, currently playing for the Sioux City Musketeers in the USHL, will be a freshman at UNH in the fall. Kelleher says he wouldn’t give much advice to his brother in terms of what do to on the ice, but he has a general message for any incoming college hockey player.
“Time flies by. These four years have gone by fast. Just have fun. Durham is a great spot to go to college. Don’t take yourself too seriously, but work hard.”
Despite the Wildcats not having the type of success the program has been accustomed to, Kelleher said he’ll look back fondly on his time at UNH.
“The white-out games at the Whitt and the two trips we made to the TD Garden for the Hockey East semifinals,” said Kelleher of his highlights so far at UNH.
If Kelleher is going to make one more trip to the TD Garden in a UNH uniform, he and his teammates will have to pull off upsets in back-to-back series starting with this weekend’s first round matchup at Merrimack, the team that knocked the Wildcats out of the post-season last March.
“As soon as I found out we were playing them, the first thing I thought of was that we could get back at them for last season. They’re a talented team and they work really hard. They play physical,” said Kelleher.
“It’s a small rink with a great atmosphere. They take advantage of playing in that rink,” said Kelleher of Merrimack’s Lawler Rink.
For UNH to have any form of success at Merrimack this weekend, Kelleher will need to be a big part of it, something that won’t be lost on either side come Friday night.
“He’s gotten an awful lot of attention from our opponents. In a two-out-of-three series he’ll be a threat. He’s our guy offensively,” said Umile.
“He’s a dynamic player,” added Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy.