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Fresh start for Coyotes, Roadrunners entering 2017-18 season

 

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The Tucson Roadrunners are set to face off their second season in the American Hockey League (AHL) on Oct. 7 when they host the Pacific Division rival San Diego Gulls.

The Roadrunners will be sporting a new look in 2017-18, and it’s not necessarily a makeover in jersey design. It’s a makeover in the organization.

The Roadrunners welcome new general manager Steve Sullivan and new head coach Mike Van Ryn.

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The new season will, of course, usher in a new group of prospects for the Tucson club to develop for the parent NHL club, the Arizona Coyotes, who also experienced a head coaching change during the offseason.

Call it a fresh start organization-wide.

The Coyotes installed Sullivan as Tucson’s new general manager on May 18 — five weeks prior to the NHL team’s prospect development camp (June 26-30 at AZ Ice Peoria).

Besides his role as Tucson GM, Sullivan will also oversee the Coyotes’ amateur player development staff. He remains an assistant GM with the Coyotes.

The NHL team announced the hiring of Van Ryn as the Roadrunners new head coach on July 26. John Slaney and Steve Potvin were named assistant coaches for the Tucson club.

In a sweeping move, the Coyotes declined to renew the contracts of Roadrunners head coach Mark Lamb and assistant coach Mark Hardy, as well as scouts pro scouts David MacLean and Jim Roque, and fired Tucson general manager Doug Soetaert.

Soetaert, Lamb and Hardy helped guide the Roadrunners through their inaugural AHL season. The team was formidable on the ice to start the season but wound up missing the Calder Cup playoffs by 11 points following a perilous second-half dive in the division standings.

Tucson finished its maiden season 29-31-8 but lost 22 of 26 games during a stretch that proved fatal to its playoff chances. The team finished sixth in the eight-team Pacific Division.

Soetaert, who was let go first, drew praise for his part in handling the Craig Cunningham crisis that saw the Roadrunners captain nearly lose his life after suffering a heart attack during on-ice warmups. However, Soetaert later drew criticism for the team’s on-ice plummet following mid-season trades.

The offseason proved to be one of change throughout the Coyotes organization as the NHL team saw the departure of both longtime player/captain/fan favorite Shane Doan as well as head coach Dave Tippett.

The Coyotes announced internal changes on June 22 when Tippett and the NHL team agreed to mutually part ways.

Arizona owner, chairman and governor Andrew Barroway announced the coaching change in a team press release.

“On behalf of the entire Coyotes organization, I would like to sincerely thank ‘Tip’ for all of his hard work and the many contributions he made to our organization,” Barroway said. “‘Tip’ is a man of high character and we are very grateful for his leadership during his tenure as our head coach. Ultimately, we have some philosophical differences on how to build our team. Therefore, we mutually agreed that it is in everyone’s best interest to have a coaching change.”

“After some thoughtful discussions with Andy, we both agreed that it was best for me to move on,” Tippett said. “I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Coyotes and wish Andy and the entire organization all the best in the future.”

Tippett, who signed a new five-year contract in May 2016 that added the role of executive vice president of hockey operations to his head coaching title, coached eight years with the Coyotes, going 282-257-83 to earn distinction as the franchise’s all-time winningest coach. The Coyotes made the playoffs during Tippett’s first three years as head coach and reached the Western Conference Finals in 2012.

He earned distinction as the 2010 NHL Coach of the Year.

Doan, 40, had been with the Coyotes since their move to Arizona from Winnipeg in 1996. He played in 1,540 NHL games with 402 goals and 972 points and was the most recognizable face on the Coyotes.

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The Coyotes did not offer Doan a contract at the end of last season; Doan, who had served as Coyotes captain from 2003-17, officially announced his retirement from the NHL on Aug. 30. He thanked fans for their longtime support over the past two decades with a warm-hearted letter published in the Arizona Republic newspaper.

Continuing the organization’s makeover, the Coyotes announced the hiring of former Pittsburgh Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet as head coach on July 11.

Tocchet, 53, was seen as being instrumental in helping the Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.

Tocchet, whose NHL playing career spanned 18 seasons, previously played for the Coyotes from 1997-2000 and served as an assistant coach under Wayne Gretzky in 2005.

This is Tocchet’s second NHL head coaching job after leading the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2008-10.

Coyotes president of hockey operations and general manager John Chayka called Tocchet “an excellent coach and a proven winner.”

“While with the Penguins, he won a Stanley Cup as a player and two cups as a coach,” the Coyotes GM explained. “He’s experienced, knowledgeable and is a great leader and communicator. He’s also a former Coyotes player and assistant coach and the perfect fit for us. We’re thrilled to have him re-join our organization.”

Among Tocchet’s first duties was helping oversee the Coyotes’ rookie camp Sept. 7-12. The team’s main training camp runs Sept. 15 to Oct. 1.

Arizona has seven preseason games scheduled during which Tocchet will continue to evaluate talent, including a Sept. 25 game in Tucson against the Anaheim Ducks.

The Coyotes face off the 2017-18 NHL season Oct. 5 in Anaheim and will play the expansion Vegas Golden Knights in their home opener at Gila River Arena on Oct. 7.

The Coyotes then venture to play the Golden Knights in the Vegas home opener on Oct. 10 – a game that will be nationally telecast on the NBC Sports Network.

New horizons

The Roadrunners’ new coaching staff brings experience to the rink both as former players and as coaches at various levels.

Van Ryn, a former NHL defenseman with St. Louis, Florida and Toronto, previously coached the Kitchener Rangers in the Ontario Hockey League in 2015-16. The Rangers finished 44-17-5-2 with the fourth most points in the league.

VanRyn

Van Ryn had joined the Coyotes in August 2016 as the team’s development coach and was responsible for working with the Coyotes top prospects in Tucson last season. He’s thus already familiar with many of the parent club’s top young prospects.

Potvin joined the Coyotes in August 2016 as the club’s skills coach. His main focus was player assessment and individual skill improvement. The ex-forward compiled 158 AHL games to his credit as a player and more than 350 games in a 10-year career while playing in Europe.

Slaney had served as an assistant coach with the Coyotes the past two seasons. Prior to that, he was an assistant coach with the Portland Pirates, the Coyotes’ former AHL affiliate. As a player, Slaney won a Calder Cup championship with the Philadelphia Phantoms in 2005 and was a two-time Eddie Shore Award winner (emblematic of the AHL’s top defenseman) while with the Phantoms.

Many consider Van Ryn, 38, to be part of the Coyotes’ new youth movement.

Chayka credited Van Ryn with a great knowledge of the game and called him “an excellent communicator.”

“He did a great job working with and developing our top prospects in Tucson last season and together with John and Steve, will form a very good coaching staff for us,” Chayka said.

The Roadrunners remain a key component in the Coyotes’ ongoing player development process and it will be important not only to provide prospects a suitable proving ground in the AHL but to also mirror what the parent club is doing in development strategy.

Van Ryn said he’s blessed to have the opportunity to continue working with the organization’s young prospects in Tucson, and looks forward to building that relationship with Roadrunner players over the coming years.

“It’s a great place to be,” Van Ryn told the media.

Van Ryn photo/Kitchener Rangers; Tocchet photo/Arizona Coyotes

— Phillip Brents