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Roadrunners end 2017 in first place in AHL’s Pacific Division

 

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The Tucson Roadrunners finished the 2017 calendar portion of their 2017-18 American Hockey League (AHL) schedule atop the Pacific Division standings with a 16-9-2-1 record and .625 winning percentage.

It’s familiar territory for the AHL club, which flirted with capturing the division championship last season before a late season downturn landed the team out of the Calder Cup playoffs.

This season could very well hold a better finish for the top developmental affiliate of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes.

READ OUR DECEMBER 2017 ISSUE

Young guns

The Roadrunners have used a young lineup to find success so far this season. The team’s top two scorers are both rookies, as are three of the top six and four of the top eight scorers on the roster.

Overall, there are 10 rookies on this year’s Tucson roster. The rather extensive list includes nine skaters and one goaltender.

“That’s kind of how our team is made up,” explained Roadrunners head coach Mike Van Ryn, who will coach the Pacific Division All-Stars at the 2018 AHL All-Star Classic Jan. 28-29 in Utica, N.Y.

“Our older guys are more depth guys, complimentary pieces. We try to keep our young guys in premier roles for them. They’ve done a great job of that.

“I’ve got a great group. I’m pretty fortunate that they all play for each other. The team comes first and no one complains. It makes my job easy when you can just roll the lines out there and let them do their thing.”

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“I think we have a great team,” explained rookie center Dylan Strome, the third overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. “We’re a really fast team, we score goals … it’s a lot of fun to play on.”

Strome and right wing Nick Merkley, both 20-year-olds from the same 2015 draft year and both tabbed to play in the upcoming AHL All-Star Classic, were tied for the team lead in scoring with 30 points at the year-end break. Merkley had logged 15 goals and 15 assists in 24 games while Strome had collected 11 goals and 19 assists in 19 games.

Strome led the league’s rookie skaters with a 1.58 points per game average while Merkley, the 30th overall pick in the 2015 draft, averaged 1.25 points per game (second among league rookies). Merkley’s scoring stats included a team-high nine power-play goals and one shorthanded goal.

Both Tucson players ranked just one point behind Manitoba’s Mason Appleton for the AHL rookie scoring lead. Appleton, a 21-year-old native of Green Bay, Wis., and a sixth-round pick (168th overall) by the Jets in 2015, had collected 31 points (12 goals, 19 assists) in 33 games for the Western Conference leading Moose (24-6-1-2, .773 winning percentage).

There appears to be no shortage of young talent on this year’s Tucson team.

Defenseman Kyle Capobianco ranked third among the Roadrunners rookies in scoring with 15 points (two goals, 13 assists) in 25 games, followed by forward Lane Pederson with 11 points (six goals, five assists) in 25 games.

Goaltender Hunter Miska, meanwhile, had appeared in 14 games with an 8-3-0 record, 3.09 goals-against average and .895 save percentage.

Capobianco, 20, is a third-round pick (63rd overall) also from the 2015 draft year, while both Pederson, 20, and Miska, 22, were both signed as undrafted free agents.

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Another rookie worth mentioning is forward Jens Looke. The 20-year-old Swede, a third-round pick (83rd overall) in 2015, had collected four goals and nine points in 26 games, potting two power play goals. He ranked fifth in scoring among the team’s large class of rookie skaters.

It appears the 2015 draft year was a big one for the Coyotes, with many of those prospects currently excelling on the Tucson roster.

Strome has appeared in 11 games with the Coyotes this season, with one goal to his credit. He has logged 18 total NHL games over the past two seasons with one goal and one assist.

After tearing up the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) with the Erie Otters for four years, Strome has had to make an adjustment to playing at the pro level – and not just on the ice.

“There’s obviously a lot more games, a lot tougher travel schedule, so you’ve got to get used to it,” explained Strome, a native of Mississauga, Ontario. “Living on your own is a big part of things; you got to find a way to learn how to cook for yourself and get enough good meals in and things like that. That’s the biggest adjustment.”

He’s definitely earned his place in the AHL, however, with two Player of the Week awards (for the periods ending Oct. 29 and Nov. 26) and the Rookie Player of the Month award for November. He’s received two call-ups this season to the Coyotes.

“You just keep working hard hopefully you’re playing well enough to get called up,” Storme said. “All you can do is work hard and work on your game, and when you get up there, make the most of it.”

He scored his first NHL goal in a 5-0 win over the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 2.

“It was pretty cool; it was obviously exciting,” he said. “I was waiting a little while for it, so I was happy to get it over with. Hopefully, I’ll get a lot more.”

Merkley, Capobianco and Miska have all received their first NHL call-ups this season. Merkley and Capobianco each saw action in one game for the Coyotes while Miska served as a backup for two NHL games.

Merkley was recalled on Dec. 15.

“It was pretty special,” explained Merkley, a native of Calgary, Alberta, who played parts of five seasons with the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League (WHL), scoring 85 goals and 259 points. “It’s always special to playing at the next level. I got my opportunity; obviously you want to stay there. You got to keep well playing down here and hopefully get another one.”

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Capobianco appeared in a Dec. 7 game for the Coyotes against the Boston Bruins.

“We got to play in Boston, which was nice,” said Capobianco, who, like Strome, hails from Missassauga. “My family was there. It was extra special.”

“It was pretty cool experience for me as a rookie to get the call up there and get around the guys and feel more comfortable up there,” added Miska, a native of North Branch, Minn., who was recalled on Oct. 29.

All the rookie players interviewed acknowledged there are definite challenges in making the jump to the pro level.

“There’s just less time and space out there, you’ve got to adapt quickly,” Merkley said. “I thought I did that pretty well. I have some good line mates. It’s going good so far.”

“You got to play a quicker game, faster,” noted Capobianco, who played four seasons with the OHL Sudbury Wolves before making the jump to the AHL.

“The road trips are a lot harder. You play a lot closer games in the OHL – three-hour road trips. Here you go a lot father. Back-to-backs are a lot tougher here.”

Miska played one season at the University of Minnesota-Duluth before turning pro. He appeared in 39 games for Duluth with a 27-5-5 record, five shutouts, a 2.20 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.

“It’s a little more quicker-paced from college hockey,” Miska said. “The guys are a little older and more mature, experienced. For me, I’ve got to work on being patient and getting more experience at this level.

“That includes trusting my feet. I don’t want to be flying around like I used to; I want to simplify my game a bit.”

“It’s nice there are other guys who are going through the same experience,” Capobianco said. “I think we’ve bonded well together.”

Making the grade

Tucson assistant coach Steve Potvin is in his first season with the Roadrunners after spending last season as the Arizona Coyotes skills coach where his focus was on player assessment and individual skill improvement.

Potvin’s professional playing career included 478 games with AHL and top European clubs. He recorded 31 goals and 75 points in 158 career AHL contests and 133 goals and 184 assists in 350 games across 10 seasons in Europe.

He works extensively with the Tucson club’s rookies in their day-to-day development as professional players.

“The biggest challenge for some of these guys is that they’ve encountered so much success as a junior and they want that to translate that to the pro game,” Potvin explained. “A lot time it just doesn’t translate. In junior they were able to beat guys one-on-one, possibly once, twice, three times in a single shift, and have the puck on their stick for a lengthy period time. That’s not going to happen (in the pros).

“Getting them to transition to a give-and-go game has been their biggest challenge, understanding when to challenge the D-man or just when to put pucks behind them and skate after them. Those are some of the biggest challenges the forwards have faced.

“The goalies, a lot of times, they get excited and they want to chase the puck a little bit. They’re up and down. Just chasing some of the pucks sometimes they can get out of position. Just maintaining their poise is sometimes the key to their development.”

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Potvin said consistency is the key to player development, especially for rookies.

“Consistency in the process — just understanding that every day we’re trying to get one percent better,” Potvin explained. “A lot of times kids will come in and they’re very flighty. They’re up and down because they want to conquer the world in one day. Unfortunately, Rome wasn’t built in one day. One percent a day is the message for our guys.”

Potvin said what he likes the most about this season’s group of Roadrunner youngsters is their enthusiasm.

“We’re a youthful bunch,” Potvin said. “I love their enthusiasm. They’re committed to learning. They’re committed to coming every day. They expect a lot of themselves. Sometimes we’ve got to minimize their expectations and bring their workbooks first. But they’re always enthusiastic.”

Back on top

After being swept from first place by the visiting Stockton Heat during a two-game set Dec. 22-23 at Tucson Arena, the Roadrunners went about reclaiming the top spot in the division standings by sweeping a three-game road trip to end the calendar year.

Tucson recorded a 4-1 win Dec. 27 in San Diego, then topped host Bakersfield, 5-4, in overtime on Dec. 29 before closing out the calendar year with a tight 2-1 victory in Ontario on Dec. 31.

After being outscored in 4-1 and 2-1 losses to the visiting Heat, the Roadrunners roasted the host Gulls on the strength of one power-play goal and three even-strength goals to face off the three-game road swing with a key victory.

Merkley (power-play goal) and Michael Bunting (even-strength goal) help Tucson jump out to a 2-0 lead at the Valley View Casino Center. Following a second period goal by San Diego’s Corey Tropp to halve the Arizonans’ lead, the Roadrunners potted a pair of even-strength goals by Tyler Gaudet and Mike Sislo to ice the win.

The key for Tucson was coming out fresh and focused following the short Christmas break. Merkley earned first star honors with a goal and assist while goaltender Adin Hill slammed the door shot on the Gulls with 25 saves on 26 shots.

The Roadrunners won without Strome in the lineup in San Diego but the Coyotes’ top prospect figured prominently in the win in Bakersfield two nights later.

Strome, fresh off a second stint with the Coyotes in the NHL this season, registered two goals and one assist in the win in Bakersfield, including the game-winner in overtime. The Roadrunners sped to the win on the strength of three power-play goals.

Gaudet, Pederson and Merkley also scored single goals in the game while Miska stopped 36 of 40 shots he faced against the Condors.

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Tucson tied the game as Pederson and Gaudet each scored goals in the final four minutes of regulation play. Merkley and Strome supplied the assists on Gaudet’s game-tying goal at 17:11.

Strome scored an unassisted goal to win the game just 49 seconds into overtime as the Roadrunners took advantage of a late penalty called on Bakersfield that lapsed into the extra period.

Sislo scored a power play goal in the first period and Merkley tacked on an even strength goal in the second period to propel the Arizona team to a 2-0 lead over the host Reign. Ontario received a goal from Philippe Maillet with 57 seconds to play in the third period but Hill closed the door with 25 saves on 26 shots to pick up the win between the pipes.

The Roadrunners resume play by hosting Ontario Jan. 5-6 at Tucson Arena before embarking on another three-game road trip to Stockton (Jan. 10), Ontario (Jan. 12) and San Diego (Jan. 13).

Tucson roundup

Second-year players on the Roadrunners have also been big contributors to the team’s success this season.

Hill, a third-round pick 76th overall) in the 2015 draft, sported a 7-6-1 record with two shutouts, a 2.19 GAA and .919 save percentage at the year-end break while defenseman Kyle Wood, a 2017 AHL All-Star Classic selection and member of the 2017 AHL All-Rookie Team, had collected two goals and 11 points in 24 games.

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Silso (10 goals, six assists) and Bunting (eight goals, eight assists) ranked in a tie for third in team scoring at the year-end break with 16 points each.

Sislo, 29, is an eight-year AHL veteran who has 42 career NHL games to his credit while Bunting, 22, was drafted by the Coyotes in the fourth round (117th overall) in 2014.

All-Star Classic

Van Ryn will serve as one of four coaches for the 2018 AHL All-Star Classic. Coaching positions were determined by which teams led their respective divisions on Dec. 31.

Van Ryn will coach the Pacific Division team while Manitoba coach Pascal Vincent will coach the Central Division team. Jay Leach of the Providence Bruins will coach the Atlantic Division team while Sheldon Keefe of the Toronto Marlies will coach the North Division team.

Van Ryan said he was obviously honored by the selection but referred to it as a “team thing.”

“I’m just going as basically a representative for the team; it’s all about the work the guys have put in,” he told TucsonRoadrunners.com. “It’s an organizational thing, really; the drafting, the development in the summer, and the stuff our strength coaches have done with our guys. This is an organizational thing, not a personal achievement.

“The guys are the ones who have done the work, they’re the ones who are performing on the ice. It’s great to go, it’s an honor to go, but it is an organization thing more than it is individual.”

Van Ryn served as the Coyotes’ development coach during the 2016-17 season and worked regularly with the organization’s top prospects in Tucson.

His primary focus is the ongoing development of top prospects and playing talent the Coyotes have drafted.

“We look at our room and try to push,” he told TucsonRoadrunners.com. “Our players know, on an individual basis, that if they get better the team gets better, and we’ve done that so far this year, now we just need to figure out ways to keep doing it.”

The 2018 AHL All-Star Classic will feature two separate events. The 2018 AHL All-Star Skills Competition on Jan. 28 will pit the All-Stars from the two Eastern Conference divisions (Atlantic and North) against those from the two Western Conference divisions (Pacific and Central) in seven skills events.

The AHL’s All-Stars will be divided into four teams, one representing each of the league’s four divisions, for the 2018 AHL All-Star Challenge on Jan. 29. The teams will participate in a round-robin tournament featuring six games of 10 minutes each, played entirely three-on-three. The two teams with the best records at the end of the round robin will face off for the championship in a six-minute game also played three-on-three.

The AHL All-Star Classic annually features some of the best young talent in the AHL. Since 1995, more than 93 percent of All-Star Classic participants have gone on to compete in the NHL.

Strome and Merkley are among 12 players named to the Pacific Division all-star team.

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The Pacific Division team also includes Rocco Grimaldi from the San Antonio Rampage as well as San Diego defenseman Andy Welinski, goaltender Cal Petersen and forward Brett Sutter from the Ontario Reign, forward Andrew Mangiapane and defenseman Rasmus Andersson from the Stockton Heat, forward Ty Rattie from the Bakersfield Condors, goaltender Antoine Bibeau from the San Jose Barracuda, forward Curtis McKenzie from the Texas Stars and defenseman Jordan Schmaltz from San Antonio.

Sutter will serve as the team captain for the Pacific Division all-stars.

San Diego native Thatcher Demko will represent the Utica Comets as a goaltender on the North Division all-star roster.

Complete rosters for the 2018 AHL All-Star Classic are available at www.theahl.com.

Add Cunny

Van Ryn, Strome and Merkley will be joined at the 2018 AHL All-Star Classic by former Tucson team captain Craig Cunningham, who was previously announced as one of two honorary captains for the event.

Cunningham, the recipient of the 2016-17 Fred T. Hunt Memorial Award as the AHL player who best exemplifies sportsmanship, determination and dedication to hockey, is in his first season as a scout with the Coyotes following six seasons of pro hockey that included 319 games in the AHL.

The captain of the Roadrunners during their inaugural season in 2016-17, Cunningham has been an inspiration to the entire hockey community through his recovery and rehabilitation following a career-ending and life-threatening medical emergency last November.

Cunningham skated in 63 NHL games with Arizona and Boston with three goals and eight points before his pro hockey career ended prematurely.

He had played in 11 AHL games with 13 points to his credit to face off the 2016-17 season when he suffered an acute cardiac arrest on the ice prior to the face-off of a regularly scheduled game against Manitoba on Nov. 19, 2016. Emergency CPR on the ice and additional emergency life-saving techniques were performed once he was transported to a nearby hospital.

Cunningham survived an experimental technique called ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation). However, because of an infection that developed following the procedure, doctors had to amputate part of Cunningham’s left leg, which ended his playing career.

The Roadrunners formally retired Cunningham’s No. 14 jersey this season during a ceremony on Oct. 27 at Tucson Arena.

A TSN original film titled “All Heart” premiered on the Canadian sports network on Oct. 25. The 11-minute film documents Cunningham’s medical emergency and the miraculous road to rehabilitation afterward.

Produced and directed by Josh Shiaman, the compelling documentary paints a full picture of the extraordinary Cunningham saga , including the impact it had on the Tucson hockey community.
Shiaman said the title has obvious double meaning: it relates to both the medical side as well as Cunningham’s trademark steadfastness for excellence.

The film can be viewed here on YouTube.

Photos/Phillip Brents

— Phillip Brents

(Jan. 6, 2018)