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Coyotes rookies show well at NHL Prospect Showcase tournament

 

KyleWood+AnthonyDemeo

The recent 2017 NHL Prospect Showcase tournament provided a competitive edge to rookie camps being conducted by the Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche and San Jose Sharks.

The four-team event, hosted by the Sharks Sept. 9-12, featured round-robin games between the teams, with each team playing the other once for a total of three games.

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The Ducks rookies won the tournament with a 3-0 record, followed by the Sharks at 2-1, the Coyotes at 1-2 and the Avs at 0-3.

Colorado hosted a similar three-team event last year, going undefeated against teams representing Anaheim and San Jose.

Games in this year’s expanded tournament took place at both the SAP Center and Solar4America Ice, the Sharks’ training facility.

The four-team get-together was designed to help rookie players prepare for main NHL training camps.

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“If you look across the league now, quite a few teams are doing it,” Coyotes general manager John Chayka said. “The logic is we can give our players some structure, but for the most part allow them to kind of show what they’ve done over the summer and show us whether they’re ready to make our team or be a big part of the American (Hockey) League or earn a contract. So, the only way to really judge that is to get them to play games.”

The Coyotes lost 4-1 to Anaheim, lost 5-3 to the Sharks and captured a 4-3 overtime matchup against Colorado.

The Coyotes brought the youngest team to the four-team event, with an average age of 19.7 years. Eleven of the 29 players on the roster were teenagers.

Just three players — forwards Christian Fischer, Clayton Keller and Dylan Strome – had previously played in an NHL game. All three prospects played brief stints with the Coyotes last season.

The showcase tournament spotlighted four of the Coyotes’ recent first-round draft picks: Strome and fellow forward Nick Merkley, both from the class of 2015, Keller (2016) and Pierre-Olivier Joseph (2017).

This was the third rookie camp for Strome.

Chayka had a lot of positives to say about the performance of the Coyotes’ prospects during the Bay Area tournament.

“I thought the competition was good,” Chayka said. “There were a lot of older teams, which is good for our group. We’ve got some young guys and they’re going to have to play against older guys in the NHL anyway, so they might as well get started now. And we had some older players who worked really hard and played with good structure. Our goal was to let these guys play and be intuitive and it was good.

“The guys that we expected to be good were good, and the guys that we needed to have a confidence-building tournament were able to do that. I’m excited to see what’s next from them once the big boys show up.”

Twenty of the 29 prospects from the rookie camp will attend the Coyotes main training camp Sept. 15 to Oct. 1.

Fischer and Merkley led the Coyotes in scoring at the showcase tournament with two goals apiece while Strome, Tyler Steenbergen and Lane Pederson also potted goals.

Merkley, 20, a first-round pick in the 2015 draft (30th overall), scored the game-winning goal on a breakaway in the overtime win over Colorado. He turned in a highly productive career in the Western Hockey League with the Kelowna Rockets by racking up 85 goals and 259 points in 245 regular season games.

“He was definitely one of our top forwards,” Chayka assessed of Merkley’s performance in the showcase tournament. “He’s smart, he’s competitive and he played with his edge.”

Fischer, 20, a second-round pick in the 2015 draft, played in seven games with the Coyotes last season, scoring three goals. He tallied 20 goals and 47 points in 57 games with the Tucson Roadrunners, the Coyotes affiliate in the American Hockey League (AHL) in 2016-17.

Chayka said Fischer (6-2, 214) plays a big, heavy, power-forward style of game.

“In this type of tournament, he was able to dominate physically, but he is working on other parts of his game that maybe aren’t what is calling card is,” Chayka noted.

Strome, 20, the third player taken overall in the 2015 draft, appeared in seven games last season with the Coyotes, recording one assist, before returning to the OHL Erie Otters where he collected 75 points in 35 games. Strome proved to be a scoring machine with the Otters, producing 114 goals and 354 points in 219 regular season games. He had 14 goals and 34 points in 22 playoff games last season for Erie.

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The NHL continues to call to him.

Keller, 19, a former player with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, was the seventh player taken overall in the 2016 draft. He played three games with the NHL team last season after suiting up 31 times his freshman year for Boston University.

Joseph, 18, collected six goals and 39 goals in 62 regular season games last season in his second year with the Charlottetown Islanders in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He finished the 2016-17 season with a +14 plus-minus rating.

Chayka admitted that Joseph, the 23rd player tabbed overall in last year’s draft, is “still raw” but noted that “all the fundamental pieces are in place for him to play in the NHL.”

Eight of the players on the Coyotes showcase tournament squad donned uniforms for the Roadrunners last season: Fischer, forwards Ryan MacInnis and Conor Garland, defensemen Kyle Wood, Kyle Capobianco, Dysin Mayo and Jalen Smereck, and goaltender Adin Hill.

Wood, 21, a third-round pick in the 2014 draft, earned accolades in his first professional season by being named to the AHL All-Rookie Team after collecting 14 goals and 43 points in 68 games with Tucson.

MacInnis, 21, son of Hall of Famer Al MacInnis and a second-round pick in the 2014 draft, tallied eight goals and 17 points in 68 games last season in Tucson with 50 penalty minutes after collecting 79 goals and 180 points in 192 regular season games with Kitchener in the OHL.

Hill, 21, a third-round pick in the 2015 draft, posted a 3.06 goals-against average and .906 save percentage in 40 games in Tucson last season; he allowed eight goals in the showcase tournament.

Strome and Garland, 21, tied for the Canadian Hockey League’s top scorer award in 2015. Garland appeared in 55 games with the Roadrunners last season, accumulating five goals and 14 points. In four seasons with Moncton in the QMJHL, Garland gained notice with 104 goals and 328 points in 206 regular season games. He tallied a 129-point season in 2014-15 and a 128-point season in 2015-16.

Hunter Miska, who played in 39 games last season for the University of Minnesota Duluth with a 2.02 GAA and .920 save percentage, shared goaltending duties with Hill at the prospect showcase. Miska, who received high marks from Chayka on his speed and ability to track the puck, allowed four goals in the tournament.

Of the 29 players the Coyotes invited to rookie camp, the breakdown included 19 forwards, eight defensemen and two goaltenders.

The camp began with practices for two groups Sept. 7 at Gila River Arena. A single practice took place Sept. 8 at the Ice Den in Scottsdale before the team headed north to take part in the prospect showcase tournament.

Mike Van Ryn, recently hired as new head coach of the AHL Roadrunners, conducted on-ice sessions with his staff during the opening two days of camp.

New Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet, who took over duties two months ago, used the rookie camp to get to know the prospects first as people, then as players. Tocchet said he is particularly interested in how each player interacts with other players and members of the team’s coaching and training staff.

Of course, playing skills are equally as important. In regard to that department, Tocchet said he will be assessing players’ work ethic, hockey IQ and skill level.

First impressions are key to catching notice in any camp situation, Chayka pointed out.

“We’ve got a new coaching staff in Tucson and a new coaching staff up here, so it’s a chance to make a first impression,” Chayka said in regard to the 29 prospects invited to the rookie camp. “As coaches and managers, we try to stay away from making too quick of judgments, but it’s tough.

“Things that they do always catch your eye and it sticks, so it’s important that they get off on the right foot and get some momentum because that’s how you make this team. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, but at the same time you’ve got to build momentum and build a bit of a profile in these camps.”

The goal for all the players in the rookie camp is to make the NHL roster. Some will get an extended look while others will be assigned to the Coyotes AHL affiliate in Tucson or return to their junior teams for further development.

Fischer and Wood were prominent standouts with the Roadrunners last season.

Fischer is focused on earning a full-time position with the Coyotes this season.

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“I want to try to be a leader,” explained Fischer, an Illinois native. “I’ve played at a higher level. Personally, I’m trying to show what I’m worth. We’ve got a whole new coaching staff in the AHL and NHL. It’s first impression time. The goal is to get better each day.”

Fischer said his time with the Coyotes last season was invaluable in terms of gauging his own level of play.

“Knowing the level of compete and speed (in the NHL) is important,” he said. “I think you don’t know how fast the game is until you play in one. It was nice to get a couple games up there and process the strength I need to be at and the speed I need to be at.”

Wood (6-5, 223) is also hoping to attract attention at camp after working on his skating skills during the offseason.

“Over the summer, you work on the things you need to work on,” Wood explained. “That was definitely my skating. I think I’ve really improved I that area of my game. I want to show that I’m capable of playing at the NHL level.”

Wood made an instant splash in the AHL last season, earning AHL Player of the Month honors for October 2016 besides being selected to play alongside teammate Fischer at the midseason AHL All-Star Classic. At the AHL All-Star skills competition, Wood won the hardest shot competition while clocked at 99.3 MPH.

“Everything went pretty well for me last year,” Wood acknowledged. “I’ve never had a stretch like that and it was cool to go through that. I was awesome to win the hardest shot competition. But it was disappointing that the team didn’t make the playoffs. It was definitely a good season for myself but I wish the team could have done better during the season.”

Prospect development camp

A total of 38 players attended the Coyotes prospect development camp held June 26-30 at AZ Ice Peoria. All nine of the Coyotes’ selections in the 2017 NHL Draft participated: forwards Mackenzie Entwhistle, Steenbergen, Nate Schnarr and Erik Walli Walterholm and defensemen Filip Westerlund, Cameron Crotty, Noel Hoefenmayer, Michael Karow and Joseph.

Also present were four players from the Roadrunners: Fischer, Garland, Capobiano and Smereck.

The camp provided players with NHL coaching and instruction in both on and off-ice workout sessions.

This year’s development camp had a distinct Arizona flavor to it. Phoenix native Jaxon Castor, 20, a product of the Jr. Coyotes youth program and a commit to Arizona State University, participated as one of four goaltenders at camp.

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Castor earned two USHL Goaltender of the Week awards with the Dubuque Fighting Saints during the 2016-17 season and finished 23rd in the NHL Central Scouting Final Rankings (April 2017).

Castor posted a 30-13-1 record, 2.35 GAA and .902 save percentage in 50 games played with Dubuque last season.

“Thank you @arizonacoyotes for an awesome week at development camp,” Castor posted July 2 on his Twitter account.

Photos/Norm Hall/Arizona Coyotes

— Phillip Brents