Whether you call it his "welcome to the NHL moment," or "the moment he became a household name among Coyotes fans," it's probably safe to say that Coyotes forward Conor Garland won't forget the date January 12, 2019, anytime soon.
Of course, that was the night that the Coyotes were in Edmonton, playing the Oilers in front of millions of fans on Hockey Night in Canada. Garland, who was known mostly as an up-and-coming prospect at the time and had only been up with the big club for a little over a month after a rash of injuries depleted the Coyotes roster, created what's become a signature moment in his young career.
Early in the second period, with the Coyotes on a power play and the game tied, defenseman Jordan Oesterle directed a puck toward the net. Garland, who was parked in front of the net and trying to get up after getting tangled up with goaltender Cam Talbot, had the puck deflect off his face and in. Garland was credited with the power play tally, his first of two on the night as he went on to score the game-winning goal and earn a coveted Hockey Night in Canada towel for all his efforts.
While the moment gave Garland a spot on hockey highlight reels for the following week and endeared himself to Coyotes fans, his hard work in front of the net was a microcosm of something much deeper-the hard work that he had put in to transforming himself into an NHL-caliber player since the conclusion of his days playing junior hockey for the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL.
What he did in Moncton is well documented. Garland was a playmaker and major point producer, scoring 328 points (104-224-328) in 206 regular season games, including a staggering 94 assists the season before he was selected by Arizona in the fifth round (123rd overall) of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.
"I liked moving the puck," said Garland about his days in junior hockey. "I played with some really good line mates who could get open and let me buy time for them and just kind of let me hold onto it for a few extra seconds and let me find them. That was kind of the player I always was growing up, but obviously you move into the American Hockey League and there's guys who have been doing that role for their whole life.
"That wasn't really a role for me that first year," Garland continued, "I kind of had to transform myself as a player in those first two years so I could get in the lineup in the American League and then figure out that league as a different player."
In those first two seasons of professional hockey with the AHL's Tucson Roadrunners, Garland played in 110 regular season games, where he tallied 41 points (13-28-41).
Garland began last season in Tucson, where he showed major strides in his transformation to a professional player. He scored 25 points (12-13-25) in 21 games, before earning his call-up to the big club for his NHL debut on December 8 against San Jose, a game where he logged 10:30 of ice time.
While Garland has maybe made the transition to being a professional player look seamless at times, he says it wasn't without some growing pains.
"There's times when you want to go back to your old ways," explained Garland, a native of Scituate, Massachusetts. "Especially in the beginning, I kind of bought in and believed that I needed to change as a player and maybe if it wouldn't work I'd fight it and go back (to my old ways), but I had such a good coaching staff down there. (Roadrunners Assistant Coach) Steve Potvin was someone who I'd rely on heavily for advice. It is hard. Guys would come from junior and they can't make it because they can't change. I brought in pretty heavily and kind of did a 180 from the type of player I was."
Another person who played a key role in Garland's development is Coyotes Assistant General Manager Steve Sullivan. Before occupying his current role, Sullivan was the organization's development coach while Garland was still a junior prospect. Sullivan also built for himself a very solid 16-year NHL career despite his smaller stature, something that Garland aspires to do.
Sullivan has noticed a couple of key changes in Garland's game from his days in Moncton.
"The mental game, without a doubt," Sullivan noted. "The growth he did and just being able to self-evaluate his hockey game, understanding what was good and what was bad and knowing what it took to play (professionally) and make that transition."
"Without a doubt, the maturity factor of him coming in and just having to fight with the fact that how he played is not going to work was also great to see," he added. "His mental game is so strong right now that nothing is going to stop him from playing. It's his biggest asset right now and it was probably his biggest flaw from when he first turned pro."
While the sample size has been small, Garland has been thriving this season. Through Saturday's win against Colorado, he leads the Coyotes with a team-leading seven goals, which includes a two-goal night on October 10 against Vegas and the game-winning goal on October 19 against Ottawa that earned him his second Hockey Night in Canada towel.
Overall, through Saturday, he's ranked second on the team in scoring with nine points (7-2-9) in 13 games.
But while the whole development process might look complete to some, Garland is looking to continue building on everything he already has built and improve on being the speedy forward that is willing to do whatever it takes to help the Coyotes win.
"I'm not even 60 games into my career (through Saturday), so I'm still at a position where I want to solidify myself as an NHL player," said Garland. "I still think every game is still a tryout for me. I'm still trying to make sure I stay in this league and contribute. Even if I score 30 goals a year, there's 82 games. You're not going to be scoring every night, you have to do something else. My thought is to go in, have a good game, play hard, play fast and do the things that I do now to help the team win, and if I get a chance to score I got to make sure I finish it."