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Coyotes’ Rebuild Has Different, More Positive Feeling Heading Into Training Camp 

By Seth Askelson

The direction for the upcoming season is clear for the Arizona Coyotes – it is a rebuild year. The fans know it, the media know it. The players, head coach and general manager admitted it during Media Day on Wednesday morning, just 24 hours prior to the team’s first main training camp scrimmage.

It is the second rebuild in the last eight seasons, but this one feels a lot different. This Coyotes team is not a failed retool of a roster that was two season removed from a Western Conference Finals appearance; this is a team that is about finding that right mix of youth and veterans to compete every night, and contend within the next couple of years.

There are a lot of veterans, and winners at that, to go along with the younger core of players. The Coyotes acquired players like Andrew Ladd and Jay Beagle who know what it takes to win Stanley Cups. Loui Eriksson is a perfect guy to help the younger forwards find their strides and become a top point producer in the league.

Those types of players have something to prove, especially Laad and Eriksson, as their stays on previous teams did not have the ideal finishes. Another player like that is defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who fell out of favor in Philadelphia despite a decent showing during the 2020-2021 season.

It is a chance for players that were once at the top of their games just a few seasons ago to find their strides again. There is no pressure in like in the past three season, where occasional flashes out of a decent roster brought playoff hopes for a postseason starved franchise.

The question entering training camp that General Manager Bill Armstrong alluded to getting a lot recently is – what type of hockey team did he build? The answer is a simple one, and one that may seem cliché, but when looking at the players who will most likely be in the permanent Kachina outfits this fall, the description is right on the nose.

“We built a hungry hockey team,” Armstrong said. “Everybody that comes through the door [Wednesday] morning has an opportunity to make an impact. There’s veterans that need contracts next year. There’s American league players that want to make the jump. Everyone has something that they’re looking for this season.”

There is a new coaching staff in town, lead by new bench boss Andre Tourigny. The former QMJHL, OHL and CHL coach of the year will have to find a system that will work for some of the 10+ year veterans, along with some of the younger players and rookies that might crack the roster.

Tourigny was able to shed some light on what his system will look like for a revamped Arizona squad. The plan includes a lot of hard work out of every player, and an intensity on both ends of the ice.

“It’s a system where we want to have a lot of layers without the puck,” Tourigny said. “Offensively, we want to possess the puck. Everything we do is in order to possess the puck. You need to play really well defensively and play kind of in-your-face type hockey because you want to recover the puck.”

A lot has been made about the new acquisitions, and mainly the draft picks that came along with some of the new players. The returning players cannot be forgotten though, because there is still a lot of talent left behind from the roster reconstruction. Jacob Chychrun, Clayton Keller and Nick Schmaltz still have a lot of talent and games left to push this team where they want to be, and maybe earlier than expected.

As much as the outside world would like to think the players ignore all the projections and social media comments on the season outlook, the advent of smartphones and applications can keep those things right in the forefront. Forward Christian Fisher said the notification of the white Kachina jersey return was “the best one in the last couple of months” surrounding the organization. With the first training camp practice tomorrow, theopportunity is there to forget all the preseason noise and get ready for the start of the year.

“I think we have a real opportunity to turn some heads this year,” Chychrun said, “to find some people and to really start to change the culture here moving forward and develop that money mindset. We’re obviously a few years out from being where we want to be, but it starts this year, coming together as a group and really starting to evolve.”

The outlook for this year’s Coyotes team is not pretty, especially with a move to the Central Division. No matter what direction the season goes, hockey in Arizona should be fun to watch.

There are players, both old and young, looking to prove themselves, and get back to the hockey players they know they are. While another rebuild is not what was hoped for as the franchise continues its instability off the ice, this time around it feels a lot different than the last.

 

Arizona Rookie FaceOff 2021

By Seth Askelson

The Rookie Faceoff is now in the rearview mirror for the Arizona Coyotes, but it allowed the franchise to view the road ahead, as the 2021-2022 training camp is fast approaching. The team had a busy offseason, dealing away many pieces of a team that never quite seemed to reach its potential.

As hoped, ninth overall pick Dylan Guenther showed his scoring prowess, something the team has been lacking seemingly since the late 90’s. Through the early and mid 2010’s, the high draft picks never seemed to pan out, but the hope is the next few drafts are a different story.

While Guenther was becoming a social media sensation, highlighted by his bottle-popping goal in the showcase’s first game, other Coyotes made themselves known as well. Liam Kirk played a solid three games, and Tucson Roadrunners assistant coach Jim Slaney was able to notice the jump in the British-native’s play.

The player who really made himself known over the showcase was Ben McCartney. The forward from Manitoba put together an impressive final game on Monday, scoring twice and adding an assist.

The two goals McCartney scored were ones to talk about. On a powerplay, the winger stripped a Ducks prospect and wacked home the puck to finish an impressive effort play.

His second one is already a goal of the year candidate before main camp even opens. McCartney brought the puck from his own end on a penalty kill and was tripped up twice before scoring top left corner from his knees.

McCartney could turn out to be the steal of the 2020 draft for the Coyotes, a batch of picks where the Coyotes chose for the first time during the fourth round, and had to renounce that player due to racially targeted bullying.

While McCartney will most likely start the year in Tucson, where he put up four points in four games last season, and Roadrunners head coach Jay Varady took notice of the young winger. He said that he plays with a “big engine”, an excellent component to go along with his growing game.

“[McCartney] was competitive, but I don’t think his offensive upside had really shown in junior yet,” Varady said. “They went into that bubble last year and he did a good job in the Western Hockey League in terms of point production.”

Guenther failed to disappoint all weekend long, scoring three times and showcasing the shot that catapulted him into the top ten of the 2021 draft. He is a player that seemingly is not afraid to fire the puck from anywhere, and is looking like a top level scorer the Coyotes have not seen in its uniform since the Roenick-Tkachuk-Doan days.

While the games and practices are a chance for the front office and coaching staff to see what talent they have in the system, it is also a chance for the players to learn what it is like being a pro. From the Arizona side, practices and games were all held at Gila River Arena, allowing for the prospects to get a taste of the day-to-day of the NHL.

That process is important for a lot of the players, especially those who are expected to take part in a little bit of main camp. The mix of prospects ranges from fresh out of juniors to those who have had a taste of the North American professional hockey stage, and they all play a role in learning what it takes to get to the highest level with more than the physical aspect.

“I learned to be more professional,” Manix Landry said, “being with older players that have some experience in the American Hockey League… so just grasping a bit of everything and putting it together.”

While some teams brought players who were able to get a few games of NHL experience last season, there was not one player on the roster who played in the big league. This led to some of the older guys to help navigate the first time players and help them understand what its like to go through a development camp.

“In terms of helping the other guys, I think it’s trying to make everyone feel comfortable,” Cam Crotty, former Boston University assistant captain who played in Tucson last season, said. “I remember my first dev camps and when you’re getting into the organization for the first time, everyone’s a little stressed, a little nervous. So trying to create that comfort level, being a loud guy on the ice, being a loud guy in the locker room, talking to people.”

The games are against other teams are also important because an organization can only get so much out of a practice. The three games over the last four days allowed the Coyotes prospects to get a chance to play against other talent, and they seemed excited to see a different group of faces.

“It was getting old playing against other players in Coyotes jerseys for the last week and a half,” defenseman Ty Embersonsaid. “Coach Varady said ‘now is the time to prove what you have and if you want to run someone through the end wall, itsyour chance’.”

Arizona got an excellent look, and solid production, from its top prospects this week as main camp opens up Wednesday. With no expectations coming into the season from an outside standpoint, it is not too far fetched to think a couple players in Coyotes uniforms the past few days will be putting them on once again in a few months.

NCHC Media Day 2021

By Joe Paisley

You may never see a group of college hockey players and coaches so happy to be surrounded by the media again.

The return of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference media day at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center this Thursday after cancelling last year’s gathering was a welcome signpost en route to a “normal season.”

Yeah, no one is entirely sure what that means in 2021 thanks to an ongoing pandemic, but most assume upcoming games will be played in front of fans under local guidelines.

For Denver, which did not qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007, normal means returning to the national postseason.

“There was a lot of work to get our summer back to normal,” coach David Carle said. “Last summer our building was closed off to us. This summer we were able to put in the time and work to get off to the start we are accustomed to. Failure is a really good motivator in life.”

A good start against nonleague foes would be a huge help for the Pioneers after not having any nonconference games leading into last year’s NCHC Omaha pod. It was a lack of nonconference games that contributed to DU not qualifying for the NCAAs. Denver went 18-1-1 in nonleague play the previous two seasons.

This fall, all eight NCHC schools have nonconference games scheduled and for a league with an NCAA-best .636 winning percentage, that weighs heavily into the conference’s chances for at-large berths through the Pairwise rankings.

“It’s been a huge part of our ability to move up the Pairwise,” Carle added before noting the team’s 0-3 start in the pod and 10-13-1 record last season. “We didn’t play to our standard and we take responsibility for that.”

Does that motivate the Pioneers?

“One-hundred percent,” said senior captain Cole Guttman. “When you are playing for Denver hockey you expect to make the tournament and you work toward that. Last year was very disappointing but we don’t want to focus on that.”

Instead, the Pioneers are readying for the upcoming season.

“We are looking forward to more regular preparation and our guys are hungry to put last year fully behind us,” Carle said.

Electric sophomore forward Carter Savoie turned a lot of heads with 20 points (13 goals) in 24 games as a freshman while Carle said junior goalie Magnus Chrona knows what he needs to do to return to his stellar rookie form. Guttman is the top returning scorer with 22 points.

On paper, the Pioneers look primed for an NCAAs return with a strong incoming class that includes 2021 draft picks Shai Buium, Sean Behrens and Carter Mazur.

Carle also hopes the seven returning sophomores will improve.

“To win in college hockey, you have to get it done with a really good sophomore class,” Carle said. “We had (Dylan) Gambrel, (Troy) Terry, Jarid Lukosevicius, (Blake) Hillman, (Logan) O’Connor and Colin Staub on our (2017 NCAA) championship team and they didn’t have a sophomore slump. They elevated from Year 1 to Year 2. We hope for the same from this (sophomore) class.”

It’s a winning formula for DU, which was picked to place fourth in the NCHC preseason media poll, which typically requires a near .500 league record. A strong nonconference mark determines where a team rests in the Pairwise rankings. The top 13-15 usually make the tourney field, which includes a regional in nearby Loveland, Colo.

Expectations are lower for Colorado College with a last-place preseason prediction. That’s not unusual for a program that has finished no better than sixth place in the NCHC regular season.

But this is not your usual preseason with a new coach, Kris Mayotte, and an on-campus arena creating a considerable buzz around the league.

The Tigers are looking forward to all the trappings of a full season.

“I still think it is our responsibility to make sure it keeps going that way,” Mayotte said. “It’s normal but there is still a lot of thought and planning that will need to go into it. Guys have to wear a mask in buildings at CC so it’s a constant reminder for our guys and the program that we are lucky to be doing what we’re doing.”

They are not taking anything for granted. Senior defenseman Bryan Yoon was on the bus to North Dakota when the 2019-20 season came to a sudden end.

“It’s something you have to think about and be grateful,” Yoon said. “Last year was definitely weird and the end of the prior season, especially for the seniors, was heartbreaking.”

“It will be a great feeling to get back in the swing of things. It feels like a very long summer.”

Yoon will be looking to bounce back from that weird season with transfers Danny Weight (Boston College) and Noah Prokop (Omaha) coming in to bolster a forward corps that returns sophomore Hunter McKown (six points).

Goalies Dominic Basse and Matt Vernon also return behind what is expected to be an improved blue-liner group paced offensively by Jack Millar (six points) and freshman Nathan Schweitzer, a former Minnesota Mr. Hockey finalist. CC may lean heavily on its 14 sophomores.

Ultimately, the players, coaches and league officials are excited about the possibility of a regular season with few disruptions. 

Commissioner Josh Fenton said at least 90 percent of the teams are fully vaccinated. That gives him hope the league will resume a conventional schedule.

“After 18 months, that feeling has never been more apparent,” he said during his State of the NCHC speech. “We are really looking forward to what we can call a normal season followed by when we return here for the Frozen Faceoff here in March.”

Robson Ribbon Cutting

By Joe Paisley

Years of work came to fruition Saturday with the official opening of the Ed Robson Arena on the Colorado College campus.

“It’s emotional,” said CC athletic director Lesley Irvine. “You have worked so long buried in the details that today we can step out of the weeds and see the facility as a whole and witness the reaction of the fans.”

Ed Robson Arena will enhance our ability to compete, however, the opportunity to build community on campus and within the city is beyond exciting,” she added. “This was a transformational day for Colorado College.”

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the 3,407-seat arena and adjacent Mike and Barbara Yalich Student Services Center drew 300 people who came to recognize this milestone for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference program.

“I want to thank everyone who worked so hard to make this dream realized,” said new CC president L. Song Richardson. “For the first time in Colorado College’s (83-year hockey) history we have an on-campus hockey arena. We are so grateful for the support of the city’s voters led by Mayor John Suthers.”

The $52 million complex is one of five facilities that were part of Colorado Springs’ City for Champions effort that used state tourism revenue as seed money. The state legislature made the funds available in 2013 to better draw in state and regional tourism.  The need for an on-campus facility was identified as part of the 2015 campus master plan with more alumni support after Robson donated $8 million toward a new $10 million practice rink.

City for Champions funding and that seed money led to bigger plans for the complex, which added a parking garage and the adjacent Yalich Student Services Center. That houses the student wellness center, health services and counseling, the bookstore and mail center, as well as an art studio, café, and restaurant.

The center honors the contributions of Barbara Yalich, a longtime champion of mental health services at CC and in Colorado Springs, and her late husband Milo “Mike” Yalich, who captained the 1949-50 Tigers to the NCAA national title.

The groundbreaking was on February 15, 2020.

Robson Arena is the final piece to open following the Air Force Academy visitors center, the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs William J. Hybl Sports Medicine and Performance Center and Weidner Field, home of the Switchbacks pro soccer franchise. Three of the facilities are in or near downtown Colorado Springs, including Robson Arena.

“It never gets old celebrating the opening of one of our City for Champions facilities,” Suthers said. “The City for Champions effort will continue to transform downtown Colorado Springs and build upon our city’s reputation as a sports leader.”

Saturday also was about celebrating those who were instrumental in building the complex.

“I am really humbled by all this,” Robson told the crowd before he entered the facility for the first time. “Really (former CC coach) Cheddy Thompson’s name should be on it. He’s the one who put me on the right path.”

More work continues as the Robson Arena staff, some of whom started a few days ago, will finalize details before the Oct. 2 exhibition against Air Force and the official opening game on Oct. 8 against ECAC member St. Lawrence.

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