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Division Champion Roadrunners were in Calder Cup Conversation

Coyotes' AHL affiliate captured its second Pacific Division title

by Alex Kinkopf @AEKinkopf / Arizona Coyotes

This certainly wasn't the end Tucson Roadrunners General Manager Steve Sullivan envisioned.

His Roadrunners were running away with first place in the Pacific Division, with a shot at securing the best regular season record in team history, not to mention a chance at contending for the Calder Cup.

On Monday, the American Hockey League (AHL) cancelled the remainder of its season and playoffs.

"They were in a position where they could, at least, put themselves in the conversation as one of the favorites to try to win it [all]," said Sullivan. "So, I think it's very discouraging for them and very disappointing that they won't be able to finish it out."

Tucson owned a 36-19-1-2 record through its first 58 games and a playoff berth was almost certain. Only two teams sported lower magic numbers to clinch.

"Some of the players have never been to the playoffs as a professional hockey player," Sullivan said. "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."

Sullivan knows opportunity and success. He won a Calder Cup championship as a member of the Albany River Rats in 1995, his first professional season. He led the team in scoring with 81 points. He went on to play more than 1,000 NHL games, but testifies to the importance of the AHL experience.

"Massive," he said of his time in that league. "That's where I had to learn how to play. The systems became very important, the teamwork; you have to learn how to use your teammates, you've got to learn how to play the game. So, it just got very detailed for me." 

Now, as Roadrunners GM, he has watched his players experience the same sort of growth. His roster supplied eight players to the Coyotes during the year.

"We had multiple players get called up for the first time," Sullivan said. "We had others who had longer stints and success, and we had players that put themselves in a position to be a [consistent] call-up. We know what our goal is in Tucson. Our main focus is to try to help the big club and help our players make it to the National Hockey League. I think that we were successful in that feat."

Tucson finished with the fifth-best win percentage in the league (.647) and three of its players - Brayden Burke (21-31=52); Michael Bunting (12-37=49), and Andy Miele (15-33=48) - finished in the Top 20 in scoring. Only three teams scored at a higher rate than the Roadrunners' 3.41 goals per game.

Burke, 23 and 5'10", paced the Roadrunners' scoring and finished tied for second in the league with 13 power play goals, a team record. His 25 power play points ranked third, as did his seven game-winning goals. 

"He's got some fire in his belly and he's very emotional, and I think that's what makes him special in certain ways," Sullivan said. 

Burke earned his first NHL call-up on December 12.

"What we loved about him was his passion, his obsessiveness to want to become an NHL player," Sullivan said. "I feel like those are characteristics in a player that I truly believe give them the best opportunity to have success."

Sullivan can especially identify with the undrafted Burke. The Tucson GM was drafted in the ninth round of the 1994 NHL Draft. That round no longer exists.

"To make the National Hockey League is to be obsessed," Sullivan said. "You watch how Burke plays. The reason he does have success is because he hunts pucks. His work ethic, both on forecheck and backcheck, that's where it starts. That's where he catches your eye. How hard he competes. He gets into battles and he's not afraid to be the first one there."

When it comes to obsessiveness, Conor Garland's success resonates, too. Garland played two and a half seasons with the Roadrunners before becoming a permanent fixture in the Coyotes' lineup.

"Garland, when a switch went off, he realized how he needed to play and what he needed to do to be successful," Sullivan said. "It's that hunting style, what our fans see, that work ethic and that compete, that never-give-up attitude. I think those are the same attributes that we see in Brayden Burke, so that's what's going to give him a chance to have success." 

Sullivan is well aware of one certainty in the AHL: the uncertainty of the roster.

The Coyotes also recalled Roadrunners Kyle Capobianco, Michael Chaput, Jordan Gross, Adin Hill, Aaron Ness, Ivan Prosvetov, and Robbie Russo.

"We had some stretches where maybe our lineup was a little thinner than our coaches wanted," Sullivan said. "For our players to fight through -- we had to put players in different situations in different roles for short periods of time to make sure the team had success. We went through a couple bumps there in early January to almost the first week of February, but we came out of it. And we were coming out of it with flying colors. So, what stood out to me was the resiliency in our group."

Sullivan says he and his coaching staff - Jay Varady, John Slaney, Steve Potvin, Brady Morgan -- continue to analyze and to try to implement the system used by the parent club.

"That doesn't stop," he stressed.

"I think there's a lot of symmetry between our coaching staffs," Sullivan said when discussing the staffs of both teams. "They're not just co-workers but they're really good friends, bouncing ideas off of each other. There's a lot of cohesiveness in their working styles and coaching styles." 

And the 2016 relocation of the Coyotes' AHL affiliate to neighboring Tucson continues to pay dividends.

"Being so close, we reap the benefits of being able to be way more hands-on with our hockey club," Sullivan said. "And for our staff, they don't have to travel across the country to watch them play. You don't have to plan it, it just falls in your lap, being an hour and 40 minutes down the road.

"On the players' side, being connected to the club, and I guess even from the fans' perspective too, being able to have a connection to both teams so close. When you're across the country and there's a three-hour time change, it's hard to stay tied-in and have that connectivity to both clubs."

But the connectivity is more than what is provided by Interstate 10.

"We're connected - all three - from the business side, the management side, the players and fans side," Sullivan said. "It's a win-win-win for all three."

Lead Photo Credit: Chicago Wolves // Second Photo Credit: San Diego Gulls // Third Photo Credit [Sullivan]: Lisa Meyer - Getty Images // Fourth Photo Credit [Burke]: Shane Abbitt - Iowa Wild // Fifth Photo Credit [Group]: Ashley Potts - Colorado Eagles // Footer Photo Credit: Jessie Harsen - Ontario Reign

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