Young Roadrunners picking up experience in AHL preseason
The Tucson Roadrunners and San Diego Gulls met 12 times during the regular season in 2016-17.
The Gulls won 10 of those meetings to have a big say in the Roadrunners failing to qualify for the Calder Cup playoffs and, conversely, San Diego securing a runner-up berth in the American Hockey League (AHL) Pacific Division standings.
It was time to wipe the slate clean when the teams met in a preseason exhibition game Sept. 30 at the Valley View Casino in San Diego. The Roadrunners dished out a measure of revenge with a 2-0 victory.
It was the second preseason game for the Gulls in the span of three days – the first ever at the Valley View Casino – and the second in two nights for the Roadrunners, who were coming off a 5-3 loss to the host Ontario Reign on Sept. 29. The Reign topped the Gulls, 4-3, in a shootout on Sept. 28.
It’s clearly a busy time for AHL teams as they end training camps in preparation for regular-season openers the weekend of Oct. 6-7.
Players are still arriving on assignment from parent clubs in the NHL. General mangers must still decide on cuts to ECHL affiliates. Players on tryout contracts are still hoping to stick somewhere.
Throw untimely injuries into the mix and teams may end up with a few twists in their opening night lineups.
Tucson hosts San Diego in its regular season home opener Oct. 7. Face-off is 7:05 p.m. at the Tucson Convention Center.
New Tucson head coach Mike Van Ryn feels he definitely has something to work with as the 2017-18 season gets underway. He said preseason games offer multiple benefits from a coaching standpoint.
“You get to see all your young guys, you get to see potential call-ups, everybody is fighting for a spot,” he explained. “For us, we’ve had a complete system change within our organization on how we want to play now. For us, it gives us reps to play this new system. It’s a difficult one, so it’s taken us a bit to get used to. But our guys have done a good job so far.”
Van Ryn, who previously was involved with player development with the Arizona Coyotes, the Roadrunners’ NHL parent club, before taking over reins as Tucson head coach, said what he likes most about the current edition of the AHL Tucson team is the determination shown by its players.
“It was a gritty win,” Van Ryn said in reference to the Sept. 30 preseason win over the Gulls. “They dug down deep tonight. We lost a forward last game and we lost a forward tonight. It’s been pretty taxing on our forwards the last two games but they’ve dug down deep and kept their feet moving. The effort’s been good. Tonight they blocked a lot of shots and found a way to win. It was a lot of fun coaching that group.”
Van Ryn said the biggest challenge for the team will be successfully transitioning into a new defensive system.
“It’s a big change for us on how we play it,” he said. “It’s going to take us a bit to get used to that, trigger points and things. That will probably be the biggest thing, and obviously our special teams. Our penalty kill was a lot better tonight. We talked a lot about it today, getting our power play going, getting the guys familiar with each other, stuff like that. All the regular kinks that everybody takes but for us that will be the biggest thing.”
New kids on the block
The Tucson roster for its preseason game at Ontario featured just 10 returners off last season’s team.
Right wing Jens Looke led the Roadrunners with a goal and assist while defenseman Jalen Smereck and center Ryan MacInnis each scored goals in the loss. Center Dennis Kravchenko, right wing Artur Tyanulin and defensemen Kyle Capobianco and Kyle Wood each picked up assists.
Goaltender Adin Hill finished the night with 17 saves on 22 shots.
Looke, 20, a third-round pick by the Coyotes in the 2015 draft (83rd overall), picked up the primary assists on both goals in San Diego to finish with points (one goal, three assists) on four of the five goals scored by the Roadrunners in their two preseason games.
Smereck, 20, signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Coyotes in October 2016. He registered 45 points in 60 games with the Flint Firebirds in the Ontario Hockey League last season before recording a goal and assist in two games with the Roadrunners. Smereck, a Detroit native and the first African-American to play for the Firebirds, attended the Coyotes player development camp in June and the team’s rookie camp in early September.
MacInnis, Hill and Wood were all regulars on last season’s Tucson team.
MacInnis, 21, a second round pick by the Coyotes in the 2014 draft (43rd overall), played in all 68 regular season games for the Roadrunners in 2015-16, picking up eight goals and 17 points.
Hill, 21, a third-round pick by the Coyotes in the 2015 NHL Draft (76th overall), posted a 16-14-6 record with a 3.16 goals-against average and .906 save percentage in 40 games in Tucson last season.
Forwards Emerson Etem, Lane Pederson, Mike Sislo, Zac Larraza and Michael Latta, along with defensemen Andrew Campbell, Dysin Mayo and Kevin Ekman-Larsson and goaltender Hunter Miska, all made their preseason debuts for Tucson in the game in San Diego. Campbell, Latta, and Sislo served as alternate captains in the preseason finale.
Wood, 21, a third-round pick in the 2014 draft (84th overall) and a member of last season’s AHL All-Rookie Team, put Tucson up 1-0 at the 7:12 mark of the first period on a shot from the point 11 seconds after a power play had ended. Looke and left wing Ryan Graham picked up assists.
The Roadrunners defended their tenuous 1-0 lead until Larraza, a Scottsdale native, finally punched in an insurance goal with 49.2 seconds left in the third period. Time had just expired on a five-on-three opportunity for the visitors when Larraza, taking advantage of a turnover in the neutral zone, slid the puck under San Diego goaltender Angus Redmond on a breakaway. Assists went to Looke and Etem.
Miska joined the Roadrunners in California after being assigned by the Coyotes on Sept. 29. He had an immediate impact in the Tucson lineup by stopping all 26 shots he faced to pick up the shutout win over the Gulls.
The Roadrunners swept all three star of the game awards: Miska (first star), Wood (second star) and Larraza (third star).
Miska, 22, appeared in 39 games for the University of Minnesota-Duluth last season, recording a 27-5-5 record, 2.20 GAA and .920 save percentage.
Mayo, 21, a fifth-round pick by the Coyotes in the 2014 draft (133rd overall), played 25 games with the Roadrunners and 25 games with the Rapid City Rush, Tucson’s ECHL affiliate, last season with a combined two goals and 19 assists.
Sislo, 29, joins Tucson after playing with both the AHL Toronto Marlies and San Antonio Rampage last season. He has 42 NHL games under his skates with the New Jersey Devils.
Latta, 26, played in the AHL last season for the Reign and Rockford Ice Hogs. He has 113 NHL games to his credit with the Washington Capitals.
Campbell, 29, was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the third round of the 2008 NHL Entry draft (74th overall). He’s played in 42 NHL games for the Kings, Coyotes and Toronto Maple Leafs during his nine-year pro career.
Power plays, penalty killing and stalwart goaltending proved to be a recurrent theme throughout the contest against the Gulls. The game featured 21 total penalties and 61 penalty minutes (41 assigned to San Diego). Yet neither team could score in the 16 resulting power plays.
The Roadrunners and Gulls each finished 0-for-8. Tucson was whistled for 10 minor penalties in the game.
“It was a big goose egg for both teams tonight,” Van Ryn said. “Five-on-threes, two on both sides, you don’t usually see that, both goalies were good.”
Kevin Boyle, who went 10-5-1 with a 2.27 GAA and .924 save percentage for the Gulls last season in split duty between the AHL and ECHL, started the game for San Diego and was relieved by Redmond (22-10-5 with a 1.85 GAA and .917 save percentage in 38 games at Michigan Tech last season) with 5:11 remaining in the second period. Each goaltender allowed one goal.
Boyle, who was assigned to the Gulls earlier in the afternoon, stopped 13-of-14 shots taken against him in his preseason debut with San Diego while Redmond made 14 saves on 15 shots in his second preseason contest.
None of the three goaltenders in the game allowed a power play goal.
The Roadrunners finished with a 29-26 edge in shots in the game.
Pederson, 20, who played the last four years in the Western Hockey League, was the recipient of a wicked hit by San Diego left wing Mike Liambas with 3:23 left in the first period. Liambas, on his way to the San Diego bench after serving a kneeing penalty, lined up Pederson along the boards and delivered a hard hit to the shoulder that sent Pederson flying backward.
Besides receiving a five-minute major penalty for boarding, Liambas, who signed a one-year, two-way deal with the Ducks in July, also received a game misconduct.
Tucson’s Cody Sol, a six-foot-six, 242-pound defenseman who had spent the last four seasons in the ECHL, got into a display of fisticuffs with San Diego veteran Stu Bickel with 1:32 elapsed in the second period. Both players received roughing penalties.
The preseason game in San Diego provided a homecoming for a pair of former Gulls/current Roadrunners: Larraza and Etem.
Etem, a first-round draft pick by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2010 NHL Draft (29th overall), signed a one-year, two-way deal with the Coyotes in July. He was assigned to Tucson’s training camp on Sept. 29.
Etem signed for a second stint with Anaheim last season following a 58-game stint in the NHL with the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks. He appeared in one game in 2016-17 with the Gulls, scoring a goal, before suffering a knee injury that required surgery that would sideline him for the remainder of the season.
He appeared in a total of 112 regular season games in an Anaheim uniform over the course of parts of four seasons with 15 goals and 31 points. He appeared in 23 playoff games with six goals and eight points.
Overall, he’s played in 173 career NHL games with the Ducks, Rangers and Canucks. However, he had scored just 15 points in 61 NHL games over the past three seasons.
The 25-year-old Long Beach native caused a sensation in 2011-12 after racking up 107 points in his final season with the Medicine Hat Tigers in the WHL.
Etem recorded an assist in the Coyotes’ 5-1 preseason win at Anaheim on Sept. 20. He drew a starting assignment for the Roadrunners in the preseason game against San Diego. He drew a hooking penalty at 6:29 of the second period and later assisted on Larraza’s insurance goal.
Etem said he enjoyed playing back in his home state.
“It feels good, feels good to get the legs going, first game back,” he said. “It was definitely a full 60-minute win. The team showed some heart. Obviously, with all the penalties, there was a lot of special teams play.
“In this game, our special teams gave us a really good chance to win. Our penalty-killing was really good. We could use a little work on the power play but I think we definitely gained momentum on the penalty kill.”
Etem said what he likes most about this Roadrunner team is its “battling” mentality.
“We might not be the most skilled team, our goaltenders have come up huge,” the former first-round NHL draft pick assessed. “Hunter had a huge game for us, that always helps. Once we start to get traffic in front of their net and get more shots, we’ll get a little more offense and go from there.”
The AHL is not unfamiliar ground to the California native who has picked up 52 goals and 93 points in 120 career AHL games. He looks to be a contributor in Tucson.
“Any time I’m down here (in the AHL), I just try to move my feet,” he said. “I’m playing more of an offensive role, getting a little more time on the power play, a little bit more time on the penalty kill, that with a combination of playing a solid five-on-five. I’m just trying to help this team any way I can.”
Larraza appeared in 29 games for the Gulls over the past two seasons before signing a one-year contact with the Roadrunners during the offseason. He tallied six goals and 13 points during his two-year stint in San Diego and added seven goals and 16 points in 15games last season with the Utah Grizzlies, the Gulls and Ducks’ ECHL affiliate.
Originally drafted by the Coyotes in the seventh round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft (196th overall), Larraza played four years at the University of Denver (2011-15) before making the jump to the pros.
He said he’s glad to be playing pro hockey in Arizona.
“It’s nice actually – it’s just an hour and a half up the road, family, girlfriend, everybody will get to come to a bunch of games,” Larraza explained. “It’s nice to stay close to home for a year.”
He said he enjoyed playing against his former teammates in San Diego. Scoring a goal topped off the experience, he said.
“I had a great time here last year, I still have a bunch of really close friends on this team,” he said. “It was awesome seeing those guys, coming out here, playing a good game and getting a win, and we’ll see them again Saturday in Tucson.”
Larraza said he’s encouraged about the prospects for the upcoming season based on what he’s seen so far.
“We’re really young,” he said. “We’ve got some exciting talent up front, our top six, a lot of good goalscorers, guys who can make plays, and we have some young D-core as well, it’s the same way. They’re going to put up some points this year.
“We’ve got some young goaltending as well. Overall, we have a young team. Players like myself and Latta and others, who can chip in with some goals and and provide a leadership role for this these young kids.”
The Coyotes assigned defenseman Dakota Mermis to Tucson on Oct. 1 to reduce their training camp roster to 26 players. Mermis, 23, played in 67 games for Tucson last season, collecting two goals, 12 points and 75 penalty minutes.
Right wing Christian Fischer, who tallied 20 goals and 47 points in 57 games as a rookie for the Roadrunners in 2016-17, remained in the Coyotes’ training camp following the conclusion of preseason games. He scored three goals in seven NHL games in call-ups to the Coyotes last season.
Forward Brendan Perlini, who scored 14 goals and 19 points in 17 games with the Roadrunners last season, scored two goals in the Coyotes’ 4-0 preseason win over the host San Jose Sharks on Sept. 30. Perlini scored on a third-period breakaway goal and added an empty-net goal.
“That was the game I needed to finish on, not just because of the goals, but I felt really good out there tonight, my speed and cardio felt good,” said Perlini, who tallied 14 goals and 21 points in 57 games with the Coyotes in 2016-17. “It’s exciting going forward into the season.”
Clayton Keller and Max Domi, both recent first-round draft picks by the NHL Arizona club, each chipped in with assists.
Keller, 19, a first-round pick in the 2016 NHL Entry draft (seventh overall), collected 45 points in 31 games last season with Boston University before picking up a pair of assists in three games with the Coyotes. He scored the lone goal for the Coyotes in their 4-1 loss to the Kings on Sept. 28.
Domi, 22, a regular the last two seasons with the Coyotes, was selected in the first-round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft (12th overall).
The Coyotes wrapped up their seven preseason games with a 2-3-1 record under first-year head coach Rick Tocchet, who called the win over the Sharks “a good game to finish on.”
“San Jose has a great team, and they had pretty much most of their guys in, so to get a shutout was great and we’re looking forward to the start of the regular season now,” Tocchet told the Coyotes’ website.
The Coyotes face off regular season play Oct. 5 in Anaheim.
The Fort Wayne Komets will serve as the ECHL affiliate for the Coyotes and Roadrunners this season.
— Phillip Brents
(Oct. 2, 2017)