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Coyotes relying on Strome, Merkley to help reverse fortunes

Forward prospects each invited to AHL All-Star Classic after strong starts with Tucson

by Patrick Williams / Correspondent

UTICA, N.Y. -- Multiple NHL organizations have demonstrated that long-time success starts with strong work at the NHL Draft. That work often continues through the development stage in the American Hockey League.

The Chicago Blackhawks, Nashville Predators, and Pittsburgh Penguins are among the longtime successful organizations that invested the time, patience, and resources needed to produce a steady flow of NHL-ready players from the AHL.

The Arizona Coyotes have plenty of promise playing with their AHL affiliate, the Tucson Roadrunners. Leading the way have been rookie first-round selections Dylan Strome and Nicholas Merkley.

Strome (6-foot-3, 185 pounds) is a 20-year-old center playing a dominant role for the sixth-best offense in the AHL (3.26 goals per game). Arizona selected him in the first round (No. 3) of the 2015 NHL Draft.

Merkley (5-11, 192) is a forward with 11 power-play goals (second-most in the league) at age 20; Tucson is tied for sixth in the AHL on the power play (19.4 percent). Merkley was selected 30th in 2015 by the Coyotes.

In 30 games, Strome has 40 points (17 goals, 23 assists). That puts him in a third-place tie in AHL scoring and second among rookies. Merkley has 35 points (18 goals, 17 assists) in 29 games, fourth among AHL rookies. He is tied for fifth in the league in goals, and third among rookies.

Merkley has missed six games in January because of an upper-body injury, and Strome was away for three weeks on recall to the Coyotes before returning to Tucson on Dec. 19. Since his return to the AHL, Strome has 14 points (nine goals, five assists) in 15 games.

When Strome and Merkley have been in Tucson's lineup, they have spent time with another NHL first-round pick, forward Lawson Crouse. The Florida Panthers selected Crouse 11th in 2015 before he was traded to Arizona on Aug. 25, 2016. Crouse has 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) in 27 AHL games.

"Strome has got that shot and is really strong with the puck and creating the ice," Merkley said. "Crouse has that big body (6-4, 215), plays hard, and creates space for Strome and me to make plays."

Video: NJD@ARI: Strome goes five-hole for first NHL goal

Strome said, "I think we all bring something a little different. We can all shoot the puck. [Merkley] is great at finding me and Crouse, and Crouse is very good at creating open ice for us. He can fly and likes to use his body. He is definitely a huge part of it. I think we all complement each other well."

That play earned Strome and Merkley an invitation to the AHL All-Star Classic. Joining them from Tucson at the event are rookie defenseman Kyle Capobianco and rookie coach Mike Van Ryn.

"We're all kind of going through our first seasons together," Merkley said. "It's a learning process for all of us, so it's nice to go through it together."

The AHL named Coyotes pro scout Craig Cunningham an honorary captain for the two-day event that finishes Monday with a 3-on-3 round-robin tournament among the four divisions (Atlantic, North, Central, and Pacific). Van Ryn will coach the Pacific Division team.

Tucson has a 23-13-2-1 record and the second-best point percentage in the Western Conference (.628).

The Coyotes relocated their AHL affiliate from Springfield, Massachusetts, to Arizona before last season, which kept them on pace with the NHL trend of geographically convenient AHL affiliates.

Plans to move their AHL affiliate much closer to home were already set before John Chayka was hired as Coyotes general manager on May 5, 2016, but rebuilding the organization at the AHL level has continued. Assistant general manager Steve Sullivan, a veteran of 1,011 NHL regular-season games as a player, took over as Tucson general manager before this season.

Van Ryn was also named Tucson coach after having a role in player development.

The moves could go a long way toward establishing a winning AHL culture for Coyotes prospects. Arizona AHL affiliates have reached the Calder Cup Playoffs four times since the 2000-01 season.

After they leave Utica this week, Strome, Merkley and their teammates have a chance to experience a second-half race for a playoff spot.

"The team is winning games, and it makes it a lot easier to play and to have fun," Strome said.

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