Photo by Zachary BonDurant
If the Arizona Coyotes are to beat the Nashville Predators in the best-of-five play-in series to start the resumption of play in the NHL, a lot of the Coyotes roster will see its first playoff action. While the games against the Predators do not count as playoff games in the official stat book, they will carry the exact same intensity seen every Spring and early Summer.
Two members of the young Coyotes core who are more than capable of playing at a playoff intensity are forward Conor Garland and defenseman Jacob Chychrun. When healthy, they are two of Arizona’s hardest working players on the ice.
These two had different paths to the NHL. Chychrun was a highly-touted prospect headed into the NHL draft, but fell in the draft right into the laps of the Coyotes, who eagerly used the 16th overall pick they acquired from the Detroit Red Wings in the salary-dump trade of Pavel Datsyuk.
Garland, on the other hand, was the first ever draft pick of John Chayka. At the time, Chayka served as the assistant general manager of the Coyotes, and the GM Don Maloney gave him the reigns to make that fifth round pick at the 2015 draft. Garland grinded out two and a half years in the American Hockey League before becoming one of the fastest-rising goal-scorers in the league.
Arizona has players who have won Stanley Cups and possess a plethora of playoff experience, but those accolades and playoff games played takes a steep drop after names like Nik Hjalmarsson and Brad Richardson. Many young players on the Coyotes have yet to see a second of playoff action, but Garland has played at that intensity level in professional hockey.
The 2017-2018 season saw the Tucson Roadrunners, the Coyotes AHL affiliate, put together a campaign that ignited excitement in the Old Pueblo. The team put together a 42-20-6 record that was good enough for 90 points and the top spot in the AHL Pacific Division.
While the Roadrunners got out of the first round with a 3-1 series over the San Jose Barracuda, they ultimately fell in five games to the Texas Stars, who tied with the Roadrunners at the top of the division in the regular season and eventually represented the Western Conference in the Calder Cup Finals.
The NHL and AHL are two totally different leagues in terms of skill level, but the nature of the game remains the same. Players are competing at their best to win a championship, and Garland learned a lot that he will transfer to the upcoming games up in Edmonton.
“Understand how big every play is,” Garland said. “Guys are going to finish their checks more and more. You got to get the puck in deep. You can’t try to look for an extra play as much as you maybe do in October. Everything is amplified. Every mistake is amplified and every goal is as well.”
Garland will have a familiar face in which he shared that playoff experience with when the Coyotes resume play. Winger Lawson Crouse also participated in all nine of the Roadrunners 2018 Calder Cup Playoff games, recording two goals and eight total points. He and Garland were huge pieces in Tucson’s success, and they will have to make an impact for Arizona to be successful as well.
“We both kind of hit our strides as players in that playoff run,” Garland said. “He was obviously a monster for us and just realizing in that series that he wasn’t going to be in that league [the AHL] for long. He plays so hard and he’s built for playoffs.”
Chychrun may not have a guy that he’s gone into playoff battle with on the back end, but he has plenty of defensive teammates to draw experience from. Hjalmarsson and Alex Goligoski both have had their names etched into the Stanley Cup, and Jason Demers has played 52 postseason contests in his career. Even captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson can easily relate to the 22-year-old Chychrun, as Ekman-Larsson played in his first Stanley Cup playoff game at the age of 20 and can help the young defensemen heading into August.
“We’re going to definitely lean on those guys,” Chychrun said. “They’re going to have to be a big voice for us and be big leaders down the stretch for us here because you really need that experience when you’re in the thick of things.”