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Roadrunners’ first AHL season in Tucson termed a success

 

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The Tucson Roadrunners will face off their second season in the American Hockey League on Oct. 7 with a home game at the Tucson Convention Center.

The game is among six guaranteed home dates announced by the team on June 7.

Other guaranteed home dates for the 2017-18 season include Nov. 10-11, Jan. 26-27 and Feb. 24.

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A full season schedule, with opponents denoted, will be announced sometime later this summer, team officials said.

The Roadrunners’ inaugural AHL season in 2016-17 has to be considered a success even though the team did not qualify for the Calder Cup playoffs.

First and foremost, the Roadrunners fulfilled their primary duty as the top development team of the Arizona Coyotes by providing the parent club with players who could step in and play at the NHL level when called upon.

Twelve players donned jerseys of both the Roadrunners and Coyotes during the 2016-17 campaign.

In many ways, the team’s record was a reflection of the commitment to deliver players to the parent club.

Tucson finished sixth out of eight teams in the AHL’s Pacific Division standings with a 29-31-8-0 record (.485 winning percentage), including a 17-14-3-0 record at home (.544 winning percentage). The Roadrunners finished 11 points out of fourth place and the last playoff berth held by the Stockton Heat.

From a business standpoint, the new AHL team was clearly a hit at the box office with an average of 4,054 fans at the Tucson Convention Center.

Meep, meep

The Roadrunners’ inaugural season in the Old Pueblo couldn’t have started out better as the team raced to an 8-1-2-0 start (.818 winning percentage). Tucson, in fact, led the division standings as late as Jan. 18 on the strength of a franchise-long five-game winning streak.

But a second-half downturn caused by discontinuity in the line-up due to trades and call-ups to the Coyotes produced losses in 22 of 26 games to drop the fledgling club out of the playoff race.

The puck had been dropped, however.

“It was good to get it up and going,” former Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett explained of the symbiotic relationship between two Arizona teams. “Unfortunately, a lot of the players that we thought might be down there ended up playing for us this year, so the second half of the season was tough on them, but they got things up and running.”

Tippett said Tucson team officials deserved a lot of credit during the start-up season. “They did a remarkable job down there,” he said. “It’s a great start.”

Roadrunners head coach Mark Lamb noted the bulk of the team’s depth was with the Coyotes toward the end of the season, which hampered putting a winning product on the ice at times. It should be noted the team did win its final three regular season games on a season-ending five-game road trip, posting two wins against the division-leading San Jose Barracuda.

“As an organization it’s about growing, it’s about getting better all of the time, it’s about development,” Lamb noted during the team’s final practice at the TCC. “We’ve got a lot to look forward to next year.”

Alex Kinkopf, who serves as the Roadrunners’ manager of digital operations, summed up the season in three words: hardship, happiness and history.

All three were relevant story lines, he said, for the Coyotes’ first-year AHL affiliate.

First there was hardship: on Nov. 19 team captain Craig Cunningham collapsed on the ice during pregame warm-ups for a non-divisional game against the visiting Manitoba Moose. He lay unmoving and, as it later turned out, near death, as emergency personnel transported him to two local hospitals for treatment.

In attendance were about 4,000 bewildered fans, including Cunningham’s mother Heather, who had flown in from British Columbia to watch her son play.

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It was later determined that the younger Cunningham had suffered a heart attack and was so far gone that it took experimental treatment to bring him back to the world of the living. But the miracle treatment was not without its complications, and part of Cunningham’s left leg later had to be amputated because of an infection.

Cunningham, whose pro hockey-playing career was obviously cut short, would have to undergo months of physical therapy before he would be able to walk – and later skate – with the aid of a prosthetic device.

Happiness could be measured in many ways. Cunningham’s surprise return to the team’s locker room for a pregame chat with teammates prior to a Jan. 14 match-up against the visiting Texas Stars was obviously an emotional one for the team and fans. It was the first time that the Tucson captain had been back to the arena since his medical emergency.

The team’s early season record also had to be labeled the gold standard for the young club. The Roadrunners led the Pacific Division standings with a 15-6-4 record (.680 winning percentage) on Dec. 28 and stood atop the division with a 20-9-5 record at the halfway point of the season (.662 winning percentage) following their five-game winning streak in mid-January.

History? Well, the team’s first season – regardless of wins or losses – embodies that.

Goals for the team’s second season will obviously be to produce more consistent play and, in particular, a better second-half showing.

Making the grade

Still, there were plenty of bright spots from a player standpoint from the first season.

Defenseman Kyle Wood earned accolades as the AHL Rookie of the Month for October while left wing Brendan Perlini received recognition as the AHL Rookie of the Month for November. Rookie forward Christian Fischer was honored as the league’s player of the week for the period ending Jan. 25.

All three players were named to the Western Conference/Pacific Division roster for the AHL’s annual midseason All-Star Classic Jan. 29-30 in Allentown, Pa., though Perlini did not participate.

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Roadrunners receiving call-ups to the Coyotes during the season included forwards Laurent Dauphin, Anthony Duclair and Tyler Gaudet, defensemen Kevin Connauton, Anthony DeAngelo, Jamie McBain and Zbynek Michalek and goaltenders Adin Hill, Marek Langhammer and Justin Peters as well as Fischer and Perlini.

Four of those players made their NHL debuts.

Perlini, a first round pick (12th overall) in the 2014 NHL Draft, totaled 21 points (14 goals, seven assists) in 57 games with the Coyotes and 14 goals and 19 points in 17 games played with the Roadrunners.

Fischer played seven NHL games with the Coyotes (scoring three goals). The Illinois native, then 19, collected 20 goals and 47 points in 57 games with Tucson, finishing first in goals and second in points on the team. His 47 points ranked eighth among AHL rookies.

Wood, who turned 21 in May, went on to earn a spot on the 2016-17 AHL All-Rookie Team while posting 43 points (14 goals, 29 assists) in 68 games with the Roadrunners. He finished in a tie for third in points on the team (18th overall among league rookies), His 11 power play goals ranked in a tie for first among AHL rookies.

Fischer, a second-round pick (32nd overall) in the 2015 draft by the Coyotes, and Wood, a third-round pick (84th overall) in the 2014 draft by the Colorado Avalanche, combined to score 34 goals and collect 90 points in their first full pro seasons.

The team also received support from its veteran leaders.

Center Chris Mueller, 31, who has logged 53 career games in the NHL, led Tucson in season scoring with 67 points (18 goals, 48 assists) in 68 games. It was his most productive AHL season for the New York native since joining the league in 2007-08.

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McBain, a veteran of 348 NHL games, tied Wood for third in team scoring with 43 points (8 goals, 35 assists) in 64 games. It was the most productive season in his 10-year pro career.

McBain appeared in three games with the Coyotes this past season after playing in 44 games for the L.A. Kings in 2015-16.

Dauphin (17 goals, 11 assists) and left wing Michael Bunting (13 goals, 15 assists) each collected 28 points to rank in a tie for fifth in team scoring.

Dauphin, 22, a second round pick in the 2013 draft (39th overall) by the Coyotes, appeared in 32 NHL games the past two seasons, including 24 games this season (with two goals and one assist). He was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks on June 23.

Bunting, 21, recorded single-season highs for goals and points in completing his second pro season in 2016-17.

Gaudet, who joined the Coyotes for two games in 2014-15, was the seventh player on the team to amass at least 20 points this season with Tucson.

Gaudet, 24, appeared in 62 games with the Roadrunners in 2016-17, collecting 22 points (6 goals, 16 assists), a single-season AHL high. He also suited up four times for the Coyotes with one assist to his credit.

Tucson showed some toughness on the ice by accumulating 1,108 penalty minutes this past season. Team leaders in that department included left wings Eric Selleck (103 PIM in 46 games) and Jarred Tinordi (102 PIM in 64 games).

Both players have been with the Coyotes organization the past two seasons. Tinordi, 25, a first round pick (22nd overall) in 2010 by Montreal, has appeared in seven NHL games while Selleck, 29, has appeared in one NHL game.

Hill, 21, a third round pick (76th overall) in the 2015 draft by the Coyotes, logged the most minutes between the pipes this season for the Roadrunners, posting a 16-14 win-loss record, 3.16 goals-against average, one shutout and .906 save percentage in 40 game appearances during his rookie season.

Langhammer, 22, a seventh round ick (184th overall) in the 2012 draft, appeared in 25 games this past season with an 8-11 record, 3.36 GAA and .902 save percentage.

The Roadrunners combined for 10 overtime or shootout wins – tied with Texas for most in the division. The team also had eight overtime losses. Tucson’s 19.0 percent conversion on the power play ranked fourth in the division and its 79.2 percent penalty kill conversion ranked seventh in the division.

#CunnyDid

It wasn’t a surprise when Cunningham was voted the winner of the 2016-17 AHL’s Fred T. Hunt award, emblematic of the league’s top player embodying sportsmanship, determination and dedication to hockey. His personal storyline dominated headlines throughout the season not only in Tucson but around the hockey-playing world as well.

The top moment of the season, announced on the team’s website (www.tucsonroadrunners.com) on May 19, was the March 25 pregame ceremony honoring Cunningham at the TCC. It was termed the biggest night of the season for the young club – and not for anything on the ice but everything off of it.

Joining Cunningham were doctors George Haloftis of Carondelet St. Mary’s Hospital and Zain Khalpey of Banner – University Medical Center Tucson, two of the men who aided him on the evening of Nov. 19 when he suffered cardiac arrest on the ice and eventually made his remarkable recovery possible.

Also in attendance were Cunningham’s mother Heather, AHL president and CEO David Andrews — and 5,196 fans who watched an emotional tribute video played from the arena’s video board.

Andrews presented Craig with an AHL All-Star jersey that was autographed by all 48 players who participated in the AHL All-Star Classic, along with a framed photo of those players wearing his No. 14 jersey during warm-ups.

Cunningham dropped the ceremonial first puck to cap the evening’s tribute.

Following the puck drop, every member of the Barracuda skated by to give Craig a handshake, as well as the officials who were calling the game that night.

“When you think about Craig Cunningham, it’s the same thing that everybody says,” Lamb explained. “It’s the heart, it’s the character, it’s the will. Everybody that talks about him says the same thing; he’s just such a character guy, such a great guy, and that’s why he’s at where he is now.”

Cunningham’s name will likely be synonymous with the Tucson franchise for some time. On May 24, the parent Coyotes announced the team had signed him to a two-year contract as a pro scout.

Besides his scouting responsibilities, Cunningham will assist in player development with Coyotes’ prospects.

Cunningham, who wears a prosthetic device after part of his left leg was amputated on Dec. 24, was obviously elated at the chance to be able to contribute to the sport he loves.

“I’m very excited to begin the next chapter of my life with the Coyotes,” Cunningham said at the press conference called to announce the signing. “I’m very grateful to John Chayka (Coyotes general manager), Dave Tippett (former Coyotes head coach), the Coyotes and Roadrunners organizations, and all of the great fans across Arizona for the incredible support I’ve received over the past year. I’m looking forward to helping the Coyotes and I can’t wait to get started in my new role.”

Cunningham admitted it “will be a bit of a learning process to start.”

“I think everyone kind of has their own philosophy for ways of doing things, and you kind of have to figure it out yourself as you go,” he told the media.

Cunningham said he believed he primarily will be pro-scouting teams in the NHL Pacific Division and their affiliated AHL teams as well as assisting with player development in Tucson.

The 26-year-old said his age could work to his benefit in his new role with the Arizona organization. “I know most of the guys in the league, and not only as players but as people, too, and I think that goes a long way when you’re trying to scout guys and find the right mesh of players.”

Cunningham recorded 101 goals and 203 points in 319 career AHL games with Tucson, Springfield and Providence, serving as the Roadrunners captain in 2016-17. He had three goals and eight points in 63 NHL games with Arizona and Boston.

“I’m excited about the opportunity ahead,” Cunningham said. “It’s a great way for me to stay involved in hockey, and it’s something else for me to strive and push forward for.”

Cunningham presented Roadrunners head athletic trainer Deven Alves and assistant athletic trainer/strength coach Matt Harder with 2017 EMS Excellence Awards during the Professional Hockey Athletics Trainers Society (PHATS)/Society of Professional Hockey Equipment Managers (SPHEM) annual meeting June 12-17 at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort and Spa.

Also receiving the award were Jake Wolff and Scott MacLeod of the Manitoba Moose. Wolff, Manitoba’s strength and conditioning coach, along with MacLeod, the team’s athletic therapist, played major roles in aiding Cunningham on Nov. 19 when he collapsed on the ice and was experiencing a life-threatening cardiac issue.

The PHATS-SPHEM organization encourages and promotes the consistent application of the most advanced knowledge and techniques of the science of athletic training in the prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation of sports injuries to professional hockey players.

Happy trails

Michalek’s role with the Roadrunners was that of a veteran mentor, particularly to up-and-coming defensemen like Wood. The NHL veteran was a rock the younger players on the team could hold onto in the wake of the emotional cascade of events following the season-ending injury to Cunningham.

Michalek embraced his new role in Tucson and was rewarded with a possible final curtain call with the Coyotes on March 19. He appeared in three NHL games in what could be his final curtain call as a pro.

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“You learn new things as you go along, especially this year, with everything we’ve been through,” he told the Five For Howling website (www.fiveforhowling.com). “We’re definitely a close group and for a reason. Things like what has happened this season bring guys together.”

Michalek, who broke into the NHL in 2003-4, tallied six goals and 14 points with the Roadrunners in 43 AHL contests.

The 34-year-old Czech native appeared in 612 games for the Coyotes, starting in 2005-6, and logged 784 NHL games with the Coyotes, Wild, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues. He finished his 10-year career with the Coyotes with the second most appearances and seventh most points among defensemen in club history. His NHL totals included 42 goals, 178 points and 322 penalty minutes.

New horizons

The NHL parent Coyotes announced the signing of Steve Sullivan to a multi-year contract as the club’s assistant general manager.

Sullivan, who joined the Coyotes’ hockey operations department in September 2014 and had been promoted to director of player development in May 2016, will serve as the general manager for the Tucson AHL franchise besides overseeing the Coyotes’ amateur player development staff.

Sullivan replaces former Tucson GM Doug Soetaert, whose contract was terminated following the end of the 2016-17 AHL season.

Prior to joining the Coyotes front office, Sullivan, 42, played 16 seasons in the NHL with the New Jersey Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Blackhawks, Nashville Predators, Pittsburgh Penguins and the Coyotes. He also played 143 games in the AHL, winning a Calder Cup with the Albany River Rats in 1995 and appearing in two AHL All-Star Classics.

In 2009, Sullivan was the recipient of the Bill Masterton Trophy, which is awarded each year to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

Home cookin’

Tucson fans will see four new AHL teams coming to town for the 2017-18 season. While the Roadrunners will play 26 of their 34 home games against Pacific Division rivals, the team will host eight non-divisional games against opponents from the Western Conference’s Central Division.

Highlighting the non-divisional schedule will be visits by the defending Calder Cup champion Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit Red Wings) and the 2016 Calder Cup champion Cleveland (formerly Lake Erie) Monsters (Columbus Blue Jackets).

The Chicago Wolves, the AHL affiliate of the new NHL Vegas Golden Knights, and the Iowa Wild (Minnesota Wild) will also make appearances at the TCC.

Tucson will play each non-divisional opponent four times during the season — two home and two away.

Overall, Tucson fans will get a look at 11 of the AHL’s 30 teams in 2017-18. The Roadrunners will square off 12 times (six home, six road) for the second consecutive season against the San Diego Gulls (Anaheim Ducks) and will meet the Ontario Reign (Los Angeles Kings), Bakersfield Condors (Edmonton Oilers), San Jose Barracuda (San Jose Sharks) and Stockton Heat (Calgary Flames) eight times each.

The Roadrunners will play the San Antonio Rampage (Colorado Avalanche) and Texas Stars (Dallas Stars) four times each during the season.

“We are very excited that Roadrunners fans will have the opportunity to see more and different opponents this season,” Tucson team president Bob Hoffman explained. “This gives more value to our season ticket members with new visiting clubs while maintaining the connection to our fiercest rivals. We also like that so many people who have relocated to Tucson from the Midwest will have the option to see teams they may have a connection with like affiliates of the Wild, Red Wings and a team with such a strong following like the Wolves.”

Tucson fans will also get a preview of the 2017-18 NHL season when the Coyotes and Anaheim Ducks play a preseason game on Sept. 25 at the TCC.

“We’re excited to play an NHL preseason game (in Tucson),” Chayka said. “We were thrilled with the tremendous support the Roadrunners received last season and our players are looking forward to playing in this game in front of all of our great fans in Tucson.”

All eight AHL Pacific Division teams return for the 2017-18 campaign. The division’s five California-based teams, plus Tucson, will each play 68 regular season games while San Antonio and Texas will each play 76 games (as will the rest of the teams in the league).

With the realignment of the Central Division (the Charlotte Checkers move to the Atlantic Division in 2017-18), both the AHL’s Western Conference and Eastern Conference each will include 15 teams this coming season.

The AHL will announce the format for the 2018 Calder Cup playoffs at its annual Board of Governors meeting July 206 in Hilton Head, S.C.

Around the AHL

Western Conference champion Grand Rapids defeated the Eastern Conference champion Syracuse Crunch four games to two to win this year’s Calder Cup Finals. The Griffins won Game 6 by a score of 4-3 on June 13 to capture the best-of-seven AHL championship series.

The Crunch is the AHL affiliate of the NHL Tampa Bay Lightning.

Grand Rapids eliminated Pacific Division champion San Jose four games to one in the Western Conference Finals while Syracuse eliminated the Providence Bruins four games to one in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Barracuda eliminated Stockton and San Diego in back-to-back playoff series to capture the Calder Cup Pacific Division championship.

Photos/Phillip Brents

— Phillip Brents