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The Desert Dog Blog: Rookie Camp Marks Start to New Season

by Dave Vest / Arizona Coyotes

GLENDALE – A lengthy off-season for the Coyotes and their fans ends this weekend when rookies report to Gila River Arena for the start of a weeklong training camp staged just for them.

Twenty-nine players – three goalies, eight defensemen and 18 forwards – will first take the ice on Saturday afternoon for a 60-minute workout that is open to fans at no charge.

Don Maloney. Photo by Norm Hall.

“If you look at the depth of talent coming to this camp there are literally six to eight players who could very easily play in the NHL this year,” General Manager Don Maloney told me as we eyed the rookie camp roster in his office this week.

First-round draft picks Henrik Samuelsson, Max Domi, Brendan Perlini and Dylan Strome will headline this year’s rookie camp along with newcomer Anthony Duclair. It’s no secret Domi and Duclair are considered strong candidates to win roster spots for this season, so I asked Maloney why even bother inviting them to the rookie camp.

His reply: “I think it’s very important for them to go through this process and to show us that they’re willing to put in the time and put in the work like everybody else.”

Duclair played 18 games for the New York Rangers last season before returning to junior hockey and then being traded to the Coyotes in March as part of the trade that sent Keith Yandle to the Rangers. His skill and enthusiasm for his new team/opportunity stood out at Development Camp in July, and Maloney is hopeful he shows the same this weekend and beyond when it matters more.

Max Domi and Anthony Duclair are good pals.

“This is really the first step for him with us,” Maloney said. “He has a head start on the majority of the other rookies at camp because he’s been around NHL players and NHL games. I’m excited to see him on the ice again. He’s such an exciting skill player and we feel he can help us.”

Regarding Domi, Maloney told me he’s convinced Domi is ready to jump from junior hockey to the NHL.

“This is his time,” Maloney said. “From a physical standpoint and a maturity standpoint, he’s ready to play in the NHL. I really feel that way. Having said that, he has to prove that to us this September.”

Ron Rolston, whom the Coyotes hired to coach the team’s American Hockey affiliate in Springfield this season, and his assistants will run the on-ice drills and scrimmages at the rookie camp. Rolston also will serve as the head coach when the Coyotes rookies play two games against the Los Angeles Kings rookies in El Segundo, Calif., on Sept. 15 and 16.

Ron Rolston. 

“What really attracted us to Ron was the teaching background that he has,” Maloney said. “He coached in college and he was with the U.S. Development program for years. His background is in teaching and making players better, and his record as a coach is quite strong. We think he’s a huge asset for us as we enter such a crucial stage in player development.”

The rookie games will be played at the Toyota Sports Center, which serves as the Kings’ practice rink during the season. These games are always intense and this year’s games promise to follow suit.

Maloney likes incorporating the games against the Kings rookies into the camp because he senses the players grow tired of competing against their buddies.

“The value is that they get to actually play a game against an opponent as opposed to a roommate or the guys you had dinner with the night before,” Maloney said. “Some teams play three or four games during rookie camp but we feel two games are enough because you don’t want guys beaten up for the main camp. Ultimately it’s the main camp where you have to show the NHL coaches that you can play, so we like the two-game format in rookie camp. I think it’s perfect.”

Aside from Duclair and the aforementioned first-round draft picks, here are just a few other players I suggest fans keep an eye on during rookie camp:

• Maloney continues to rave about Nick Merkley, whom the Coyotes selected with the 30th overall pick in this year’s NHL Draft.

Nick Merkley. Photo by Getty Images.

“This kid is good,” Maloney said. “I mean, I know he’s young but when I saw him in August (at Team Canada’s junior evaluation camp), he was a player who jumped out at everybody with his speed. He’s very dynamic and a fun player to watch because he’s so quick and skilled. Plus he has an edge to him. He doesn’t like being pushed. He’s not going to play just a perimeter game.”

Merkley, 18, is considered a long shot to make the Coyotes roster this season but Maloney said he expects him to make a great impression at his first pro camp.

“I missed the first game he played (at Canada’s camp) and more than one person came up to me and said ‘You should have seen Merkley,’” Maloney said. “Then when I saw him play the second game I was wowed. He was very, very good in that setting.”

• Christian Fischer is a power forward who will likely turn some heads at rookie camp, especially in the games vs. LA because they tend to be very physical affairs.

The Coyotes selected Fischer 32nd overall at this year’s draft and he’s eager to show the staff he’s worthy of being drafted so high.

Photo by Norm Hall.

• Dakota Mermis won’t dazzle anybody during the drills at camp but he likely will stand out in the games vs. LA. The Coyotes signed the undrafted defenseman after watching him defend Connor McDavid in the OHL playoff series between Erie and Oshawa last season.

“He did a terrific job shutting him down,” Maloney said. “He understands gaps and angles and how to neutralize (opponents)... He’s a subtle player and one of those players who just wins wherever he goes.”

Maloney said Mermis was signed for depth and the hope is he can go to the AHL and continue to develop.

•  Last but not least is forward Conor Garland, who is listed, generously, at 5-feet-8, 160 pounds on the rookie camp roster. Arizona grabbed Garland with the 123rd pick at this year’s draft after he led the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with an eye-popping 129 points in 67 games.

“Conor is coming here to earn a contract,” Maloney said. “He’s one of those really skilled and clever players. The question with him is is his skating quick enough for him to be an NHL player. If you’re a small player like that you have to be quick. Right now his skating is OK but it’s not at that next level. But he really impressed us at Development Camp; he had the puck the whole time. I suspect he may stand out again. We shall see.”


• The Coyotes have invited left-handed defenseman Keith Aulie, 26, to attend the main training camp on a PTO (Professional Tryout). Aulie has played 167 NHL games for Toronto, Tampa Bay and, most recently, Edmonton.

• The Coyotes also have invited right-handed defenseman Corey Potter, 31, to attend training camp on a PTO. Potter has played 129 NHL games for the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh, Edmonton, Boston and, most recently, Calgary.

• Defenseman Dylan Reese will be sidelined for four to six months due to an injury he suffered while training this off-season. Forward Jordan Szwarz also suffered an off-season injury while training and he may miss the first few skates at training camp.

• Fans are invited to attend all rookie camp workouts at Gila River Arena at no charge. For those planning to attend this Sunday’s workout from 11 a.m. until 12:50 p.m., please keep in mind that the Arizona Cardinals are playing a home game that day and the Westgate area will be very congested. Plus, fans should be prepared to pay to park.


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