TUCSON – When the Tucson Roadrunners, the Coyotes’ new American Hockey League affiliate, start playing games this fall, the team's roster likely will feature multiple high-level NHL prospects.
That’s a major plus for a team looking to make a big splash in a new market.
“The Hockey News recently rated us No. 1 in terms of our prospect base for a reason, and we have an amazing graduating class from junior hockey coming to us this fall,” Coyotes General Manager John Chayka said. “Our scouts have done a phenomenal job and these players are ready to turn pro and, not only play at the AHL level, but be impact players. As they continue to evolve throughout the season and progress, I expect them to be big pieces of what we’re doing there.”
Coyotes Head Coach Dave Tippett agrees.
“We have a lot of good prospects coming out of junior hockey this year,” Tippett said. “It’s exciting to have those players coming to our organization to start playing pro, whether they make our lineup here or they go down to Tucson.”
Forwards Dylan Strome, Christian Dvorak, Brendan Perlini, Ryan MacInnis and Conor Garland all are junior hockey stars who will play for the Roadrunners if they don’t make the Coyotes roster after training camp in September.
Other players who also could be bound for Tucson include young pros Henrik Samuelsson, Laurent Dauphin and Tyler Gaudet, all of whom have played a handful of NHL games over the past few seasons.
“Those players are hungry to make it to the NHL for good and they’re going to push hard to make our team, but if they don’t they’ll play in Tucson,” Tippett said. “It should end up being a real good mix of some highly-touted junior players and some good young pros and be a real competitive AHL team.”
Arizona’s AHL affiliate, which it purchased and moved from Springfield, Mass., this off-season, will play at the Tucson Convention Center as a member of the AHL’s Pacific Division with other affiliates such as the Ontario Reign (LA Kings), the San Diego Gulls (Anaheim Ducks) and the San Jose Barracuda (San Jose Sharks).
The team’s coaching staff has yet to be named, but the system the team will play closely will resemble what the Coyotes play at the NHL level.
Chayka said fans in Tucson should be excited for hockey to return there, and that they’ll be pleased with the level of play they will witness. More than 88 percent of today’s NHL players are American Hockey League graduates.
“The AHL is a rich league in terms of talent,” Chayka said. “I don’t think people quite understand how hard that league is. There’s a very small difference between the AHL and the NHL in terms of the talent level of the players. The guys who are able to separate themselves and rise above that league are the ones who make it in the NHL, but that league is certainly challenging for all those players. It’s a great place for those young players who think they’re going to turn pro and just dominate to learn that it’s a process, and that’s because the quality of play in the AHL is at such a very high level.”
Chayka encourages fans in Tucson to embrace the team and to institute a catch-a-rising star mentality.
“From a fan’s perspective, it will be fun to track some of these players as they begin their pro careers and know that they were there to see them play at the ground level when they started,” Chayka said. "Our prospects right now are the highest caliber in the NHL and will play a fast, up-tempo, possession game that will excite fans for years to come. We are committed to doing whatever it takes to ensure we have a competitive team night in and night out.”
Here’s a closer look at some of the prospects, listed alphabetically, who could play for the AHL team in Tucson next season:
Drafted: 58th overall in 2014
Facts: Dvorak helped lead the London Knights to the Ontario Hockey League championship this season thanks to a remarkable 52-goal effort in 59 regular-season games. In the playoffs, he produced 35 points in 18 games as London marched to the league title with 13 straight playoff victories.
Drafted: 123rd overall in 2015
Facts: Garland was the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League scoring champ for a second consecutive season in landslide fashion this season. The 5-foot-8 winger, who played for the Moncton Wildcats, finished the regular season with 128 points in 62 games. He scored 39 goals and served up a league-best 89 assists. The runner-up finished 20 points behind him. Garland also led the QMJHL in scoring in 2014-15 with 129 points in 67 games.
Drafted: 43rd overall in 2014
Facts: As team captain, MacInnis led the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League with 38 goals this season and co-led the team with 81 points. A product of the U.S. National Development program, MacInnis recently was named Kitchener’s Team MVP for a second consecutive season.
Drafted: 12th overall in 2014
Facts: Perlini just finished a four-year junior career playing for the Niagara IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League. He notched 25 goals or more in all of his last three seasons with Niagara and helped the IceDogs reach the OHL title series this season. He also played for Canada at this year’s IIHF World Junior Championship.
Drafted: 27th overall in 2012
Facts: Samuelsson has spent the past two seasons playing for the team’s AHL affiliate. In 111 AHL games, Samuelsson has notched 21 goals and 31 assists. He closed his junior hockey career by helping the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League win the Memorial Cup in 2013-14.