GLENDALE - The Coyotes are making final preparations for the 2017 NHL Draft, in which they own seven picks, including two in the first round. The team's Hockey Operations Department is eager to add more talented young players to the mix.
Quickly developing prospects into NHL players has become a big part of the team's recent operating strategy. Last season, nine players made their NHL debuts playing for the Coyotes, and the team ranked second in the NHL in rookie scoring with 110 points.
"We invested a lot in the group that's in our room, a lot of sacrifice and a lot of hard work," General Manager John Chayka said after the season. "I think it's something that will pay off in the future. It's not easy to go through a season like this, but at some point I think as an organization you have to look at what you've got and this year we got a good, long look at our young players. They lack experience and they lack some strength. What they don't lack is talent. This is a league built on talent, and for a long, long time we've been lacking a lot of talent. No longer do I feel that that's the case. We've got a lot of talented players in premiere positions and moving forward they're going to pay off in a big way for us."
Forwards Christian Dvorak and Brendan Perlini, and defenseman Jakob Chychrun were the most productive of Arizona's rookies last season.
Dvorak played more games (78) than any other freshman, and quietly ranked fourth on the team in goals with 15. He led all Arizona skaters in plus/minus at plus-7 and in shooting percentage at 17.0 percent. Dvorak also impressed in the face-off circles, in which he won 471 draws, the most by a rookie in Coyotes history.
Perlini scored 14 goals in 57 games and became the first British-born player to light the lamp in the NHL since Kevin Brown did so for the Los Angeles Kings in 1994-95. He also tallied 14 goals playing for Tucson of the American Hockey League, giving him 28 total goals in his first pro season.
Chychrun, who made the team as an 18-year-old, notched 20 points in 68 games, the most by a Coyotes rookie defenseman since 2005-06. Only Zach Werenski of the Columbus Blue Jackets scored more than Chychrun's seven goals among NHL rookie defensemen. Chychrun also blocked 99 shots, the fifth most on the team.
"The sky is the limit for us as a young group here," Chychrun said. "I think we all grew a lot this year on the ice and we became really close as a group. It's good for us to have one another because it can be tough for a young guy if you don't have other young guys to hang out with or just talk about the game with throughout the year. We were lucky to have that. Our potential is looking really good right now. Now it's just a matter of keeping on track and keeping focused, and preparing for next year and building off of what we accomplished last year."
Forward Lawson Crouse and defenseman Anthony DeAngelo also took major steps in establishing themselves as NHL players in their first seasons.
Crouse, who ranked fourth among NHL rookies with 160 hits in 72 games, chipped in five goals and seven assists, and DeAngelo produced 14 points (five goals and nine assists) in 39 games, including eight power-play points. DeAngelo also scored the game-deciding goal in a memorable 11-round shootout vs. the Kings, which many observers consider Arizona's signature victory of the 2016-17 season.
Meanwhile, forwards Dylan Strome (seven games), Christian Fischer (seven games) and Clayton Keller (three games) all experienced a brief taste of the NHL and are expected to play major roles in the team's future.
Arizona's young players benefited greatly from having solid veteran leadership in the room during their rookie seasons. Radim Vrbata and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, for example, showed them how NHLers prepare day in and day out and how NHLers keep an even keel throughout good times and bad times.
And 40-year-old captain Shane Doan was a rock, on and off the ice.
"It meant the world to us to have Shane around," Chychrun said. "For me, one of the biggest reasons I wanted to make the team last year was because I knew it could possibly be Shane's last year and I wanted to have at least one year with him. Being his teammate was very special. He's an unbelievable guy and an unbelievable role model for us young guys, and he's somebody I would like to be like on and off the ice."
Before departing for the off-season, Doan warned the rookies not to get too comfortable with the success they experienced in their first NHL seasons, and he also advised them not to rely on the emotion of playing in the League to carry them throughout their second seasons and beyond.
"Your first year, it seems emotion can carry you a long ways," Doan said. "... Then in your second year, that enthusiasm, it's not gone, it's there, but it's just not near as strong, and now you mentally have to be able to get yourself up to playing each game ... It's really, really tough. In every single sport, everyone talks about the sophomore jinx ... It's hard to not take a breath and kind of relax and be like 'I made it. I achieved my dream and this is going to be a lot easier now.' And it just gets harder."
This year's NHL Draft is set for June 23-24 in Chicago. Barring trades, the Coyotes will make two picks in the first round (seventh and 23rd) for the third consecutive year and for the fourth time in the past eight years. Arizona also owns one pick in the second round, two picks in the third round, one pick in the fifth round and one pick in the seventh round.
Video: Impressive Rookies of the 2016-17 Season