AHL’s Roadrunners had makings of Calder Cup favorites in ’19-20 season
When the hockey world came to a sudden pause on March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2019-20 edition of the AHL’s Tucson Roadrunners was well on its way to placing its name among the best in franchise history.
The Roadrunners, the top developmental affiliate of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, had recorded a 36-19-1-2 record, 75 standings points and a .647 winning percentage through 58 of 68 regular-season games. The winning percentage ranked third best in the Western Conference and fifth best in the 31-team league.
The Tucson club was in first place in the Pacific Division standings. The team had held that lofty position since Nov. 3 – a span of 131 days and 47 games – before the league suspended play due to health and safety concerns.
The Roadrunners appeared to be ending the 2019-20 season with a rush as the team chased the club record of 42 wins, 90 standings points and a .662 winning percentage set during the 2017-18 season. With 10 regular season games remaining, the team had a legitimate chance to set a new standard for excellence.
But the Coyotes’ top developmental affiliate never got the opportunity to get a proper measure of itself when the AHL subsequently canceled the Calder Cup playoffs.
That’s the disappointing part of an otherwise shining season.
“I thought we got off to a pretty hot start and we got rolling there for a period of time,” second-year head coach Jay Varady said. “We were able to stay right atop that Pacific Division even though it ebbed and flowed there for a period or time. I thought over the last couple of weeks, our game started to pick up again.”
The cancellation of the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs was a first for the league since its formation in 1936.
In making its announcement after a lengthy review process, the league made all standings and individual statistics final as of March 12. As a result, the Roadrunners were awarded the regular season Pacific Division championship – the club’s second in three years.
It was more than just a consolation prize in the eyes of club administrators.
Tucson general manager Steve Sullivan felt the team had placed itself in “the conversation” as one of the favorites to win this season’s Calder Cup championship.
“We are very proud of our players and staff in Tucson,” explained Sullivan, who serves in a dual role as assistant general manager with the parent Coyotes. “We had a very good 2019-20 season but unfortunately it ended unexpectedly. We were in first place since November and excited to compete for the Calder Cup.”
Sullivan termed it “very discouraging” and “very disappointing” that the team was unable to complete what could very well have been a deep playoff run.
“Some of the players have never been to the playoffs as a professional hockey player,” Sullivan told ArizonaCoyotes.com. “You always want to try to win a championship when you start the year, and you don’t know how many times you’re going to get those opportunities,”
Varady noted that hanging championship banners in the team’s home nest is an important part of establishing legacies, of creating something meaningful for future generations.
Obviously, the Roadrunners will be out to conclude unfinished business.
“Starting now, all the work applied to this past season is now focused on preparation for 2020-21, and our organization and individual goals remain the same,” Sullivan said.
After another review process, the AHL announced that the 2020-21 season would not begin prior to Dec. 4.
That’s not soon enough for the Tucson organization.
End of the road
The Roadrunners had just completed a two-game home ice series against the San Diego Gulls at the schedule pause.
Tucson defeated visiting San Diego 3-0 in a game on March 10 as goaltender Adin Hill stopped 26 shot to earn his second shutout of the season. Blake Speers, Jordan Gross and Kyle Capobianco each scored goals for the hosts.
In what turned out to be the Roadrunners’ final game of the 2019-20 season, the Gulls iced the Tucson squad, 4-2, on March 11 as Tyler Steenbergen and Capobianco both scored for the hosts.
None of the seven teams in the Pacific Division finished regular season play with an equal number of games, so winning percentage determined final placement in the division standings.
The numbers were close, befitting a mad dash to the finish.
The Roadrunners finished four-hundredths of a percentage point ahead of the Colorado Eagles, who secured second place in the division standings with a 34-18-3-1 record and .643 winning percentage.
Correspondingly, the Stockton Heat (30-17-4-4, .618 winning percentage) edged the Gulls (30-19-6-2, .596 winning percentage) for third place.
The Ontario Reign (29-22-5-1) finished in fifth place in the division standings with a .561 winning percentage, followed by the Bakersfield Condors (21-27-5-3) in sixth place with a .446 winning percentage.
The San Jose Barracuda (21-27-5-2) finished at the bottom of the division standings with a .445 winning percentage.
At the time of the schedule pause, San Diego was the hottest team in the division with a 7-2-1 record in its last 10 games while Stockton was 7-3.
Colorado had two games in hand on Tucson.
The division title looked to be a fight to the finish.
In fact, Tucson needed every single point to secure the regular season title – one less point in the standings (a regulation loss instead of an overtime or shootout loss) and the division title would have gone to the Eagles.
“It’s good all the way through,” Varady said of the Pacific Division lineup. “I don’t think there’s an easy game in this league now.”
Tucson trailed only the Central Division-leading Milwaukee Admirals (41-14-5-3, .714) and Central Division runner-up Iowa Wild (37-18-4-4, .651) for the lead among Western Conference teams. The Admirals’ winning percentage ranked first in the AHL.
Varady said his team’s focus was on nailing down a Calder Cup playoff berth when the league suspended the season. It appeared the Roadrunners were very close to accomplishing that with six wins in their previous 10 games.
The next step was to take that momentum into postseason play.
By the numbers
The Roadrunners did not lack for offensive production during the 2019-20 season after setting a new team record by averaging 3.41 goals per game. A total of 18 players scored in double digits while 12 players collected more than 20 points. Seven players finished the season with more than 30 points and four players racked up 40 or more points.
Brayden Burke led the Flock with 52 points (21 goals, 31 assists) in 51 game appearances, followed by Michael Bunting with 49 points (12 goals, 37 assists) in 58 games. Andy Miele collected 48 points (15 goals, 33 points) in 58 games while 2016 Stanley Cup champion Beau Bennett (with Pittsburgh) followed with 40 points (12 goals, 28 assists) in 55 games.
Burke, Bunting and Miele finished among the top 15 scorers in the league.
Capobianco, a three-time AHL All-Star selection, led the team’s defensemen in scoring with 37 points (10 goals, 27 assists) in 42 games while fellow blueliner Dysin Mayo finished fourth in the league with an impressive +24 plus-minus rating.
Hill posted a 15-5 record with a 2.40 goals-against average and .918 save percentage in 20 games with Tucson while splitting time with the parent Coyotes this season (13 games).
Hill, who owns nearly every Roadrunners goaltending record, has logged 30 NHL games with a 10-12-3 record, 2.81 GAA and .907 save percentage.
Hill, a third-round pick (76th overall) in the 2015 NHL Draft, and Capobianco, also a third-round pick (63rd overall) in the 2015 draft, have received call-ups to the Coyotes in each of the past three seasons. Capobianco has appeared in 12 NHL games with one goal and 47 penalty minutes.
Tucson has definitely lived up to its end in developing talent for the Coyotes.
A total of 33 players have dressed for both the Roadrunners and Coyotes over the last four seasons. During that span, 21 Roadrunners have made their NHL debuts.
“Our goal has to have these guys prepared to help the Coyotes win when they are there,” Varady said.
Burke, Capobianco and forward Lane Pederson represented Tucson at the 2020 AHL All-Star Classic along with Varady, who served as coach of the Pacific Division team.
Capobianco won the puck control relay for the second consecutive year while Burke finished fifth in fastest skater contest at 14.3 seconds
Bunting, a fourth-round pick (117th overall) in the 2014 draft, represented the Roadrunners at the 2019 AHL All-Star Classic.
“It was cool,” 24-year-old winger said. “It was an experience I will always remember.”
Bunting, who has logged 316 AHL games over the past five seasons while playing five games with the Coyotes, has been patiently waiting for his chance to make the Big Show.
“I was called up six or seven times this year, it was cool,” Bunting said. “I scored my first NHL goal. That was cool. I’ve had the taste and now I’m going to work as hard as I can to be able to get back there.”
He’s not alone in the dressing room.
Coyote draft picks as well as free agent signings were both well represented on this year’s Tucson team. Varady said the mix of youth and veterans defined the overall success of this year’s squad.
Nate Schnarr, a third-round (75th overall) pick by the Coyotes in the 2017 draft, topped the team’s large rookie class of 10 players with nine points (one goal, eight assists) in 27 games while Kelly Klima (six goals, one assist) and Kevin Hancock (four goals, three assists) both chalked up seven points.
Schnarr won an Ontario Hockey League championship with Guelph in 2019 to conclude his junior career.
Rookie goaltender Ivan Prosvetov appeared in 27 games, logging a 14-10-1 record, 2.88 goals-against average and .909 save percentage.
Varady said he was impressed by the progress made by several players who were rookies last season.
“Maturity, we saw a lot of their games picking up at the end of their first year,” Varady said. “Brayden Burke as an all-star this year, leads our team in a number of categories and I think his game really matured as he went along offensively.
“Tyler Steenbergen is another player and his reliability defensively really continued to show and we relied on him in a lot of situations. Kelly Klima just added a lot every night. He added energy for us. When we need a shot in the arm, he was there for us; when we needed a key goal he scored a couple of those for us this year, a player who found his role on the team even as we progressed this year.
“Jordan Gross played his first NHL games this year as a defenseman in the organization. I thought that was a huge accomplishment for him. He was a player who was used in all situations, almost more than anybody else and we counted on him a ton every night. Whether it was on the power, penalty-killing, against teams’ top players, he did a lot of really good things for us. Just to name a few players there.”
Burke, who signed as an undrafted free agent in March 2018, led all Tucson rookies in games played (67), goals (13) and points (33) during the 2018-19 season. He joined the Roadrunners in the 2018 Calder Cup playoffs after concluding a memorable career in the WHL after racking up 113 points with the Moose Jaw Warriors in 2017-18 prior to topping the league with 82 assists with the Lethbridge Hurricanes in 2015-16.
Veteran leadership on the team was definitely a defining team strength, according to Varady.
“As a whole, they’re a really good unit,” the Tucson coach said. “Michael Chaput being our captain and growing into that role. He spends a lot of time listening to what the players have to say and does a really good job of carrying the coaches’ message, too. From his experience with the organization, with our coaching staff, he was able to answer a lot of those questions and that’s what leadership does and guys like Andy Miele, Robbie Russo, Hudson Fasching, Beau Bennett; those guys answer a lot of questions that you don’t even know about and those guys really buying into the process is important.
“I like the balance of our team. We have a group that has chemistry all the way through. We play the same no matter what the score is. We want to play the same style. We want to play our game.”
The Tucson franchise was a winner off the ice as well after recording four-year highs during 2019-20 in corporate sponsorships, season tickets sold and group tickets sold.
The Roadrunners were averaging 4,057 fans per game when the season was suspended. Tucson had six home games remaining and was expected to boost that attendance average with several big promotions on tap.
In their four years since relocating to the Arizona desert from Springfield, Mass., the Roadrunners have compiled a 141-96-19-6 record and attracted 558,663 fans to Tucson Arena – an average of more than 4,000 fans each season. The Roadrunners have posted the best record in the division over the past three seasons at 112-65-11-6 with a .621 winning percentage.
Fasching, who represented the United States at the 2014 and 2015 World Junior Championship, was voted Tucson’s IOA/American Specialty Man of the Year for his outstanding work in the Tucson community, highlighted by his visit to Diamond Children’s Medical Center in January.
“I think the award is a good indicator of who he is as a person,” Varady said of Fasching, who signed a two-year two-way contract with the Coyotes in July 2019 after appearing in 22 NHL games over a three-year period with the Buffalo Sabres. “He’s a good man that takes care of his family, his teammates and the community. He goes about his business is professional in all aspects. I think he’s done a good job in Tucson and also with our team in our locker room.”
The Roadrunners aspire to make a difference in the community. The team held its first community event of the summer with Dusty’s Blood Drive on July 1 in support of Vitalant, one of the nation’s oldest and largest non-profit community blood service providers.
Club president Bob Hoffman was on hand at the La Quinta in Tucson to donate blood.
“The Roadrunners are a friend to everyone here in Tucson and Southern Arizona,” Hoffman said. “We’re looking to do more things in the community geared toward the trials that we’re facing now.”
Besides the Roadrunners and Admirals, other teams named as AHL division champions for 2019-20 included the Providence Bruins (Atlantic Division) and Belleville Senators (North Division).
— Phillip Brents
(Sept. 11, 2020)