Now that we are in early September, the dog days of the professional hockey calendar are almost over as we are now just weeks away from the start of NHL training camps and about a month away from the start of the regular season. To kick off the pro hockey season in Tucson this year, the Arizona Coyotes will be hosting an NHL preseason game this month, downtown at Tucson Arena. It will give Tucson its first taste of NHL action in 20 years, and the game will be played against the Anaheim Ducks on Monday, September 25th at 7:05 pm. Tickets are still available on the Roadrunners website.
It will give Tucson Hockey fans the chance to see both NHL and AHL players on the same sheet of ice before rosters are set in October. As in any sport, one of the primary functions of the NHL preseason is for management to decide who makes the big club up in Phoenix and who will remain in the minors down in Tucson. In the Coyotes’ case, the organizational depth chart shows that the rosters are pretty much set for goaltenders and defencemen. Barring any significant developments or injuries, there should be few surprises in both of these areas come October.
The Forward group, however, is a different story as there appears to be two NHL roster spots open and three talented young players that will be competing for them. Dylan Strome, Christian Fischer, and Clayton Keller will be fighting for the roster spots come October; two will start with the Coyotes, and one will likely be sent down to Tucson for the start of the season.
Dylan Strome (Center, 20 years old)
Selected third overall in the 2015 draft behind generational talents in Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, Strome has taken much longer to develop than other top prospects taken in his draft year. Besides a stint with Coyotes that saw him resister only one assist in seven games, he spent the majority of the last four seasons playing Major Junior with the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters.
Strome has been a somewhat frustrating prospect for both management and fans because of where he is at in his development compared to other players taken in the top ten in his draft year. Connor McDavid (1st overall), was named the captain of the Edmonton Oilers, led the NHL in scoring with 100 points and was named league MVP all at the age of 20. Jack Eichel (2nd overall) despite missing 21 games to injury, led his Buffalo Sabres in scoring with 57 points. Mitch Marner (4th overall), shone playing next to Arizona-native Auston Matthews, scoring 61 points in 77 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Noah Hanifin, Ivan Provorov, and Zach Werenski selected 5th, 7th and 8th overall respectively, each played full seasons bolstering their clubs depth on the blue line.
For better or worse, Strome’s comparisons to his peers has made fans and management anxious and put a tremendous amount of pressure on the former third overall pick. Strome’s two biggest assets are size and his playmaking ability, but his skating ability has been criticized. At 6’3″ and 198 pounds, he already has NHL size which will help him compete in a tough and physical Pacific Division. Strome also has great vision and playmaking abilities, totaling 53 assists and 75 points in just 35 OHL games last season. Despite these successes in Major Junior, Strome needs to prove that he can be an effective NHL player and needs to show management why he was taken third.
Christian Fischer (Right Wing, 20 years old)
The next young player that is contending for an NHL roster spot is a player that should be quite familiar to Roadrunners fans. A second round pick (32nd overall) in the 2015 draft, Christian Fischer played 57 games for the Roadrunners last season, scoring 20 goals and 27 assists; impressive numbers for a young player in his first season of professional hockey. He also played a 7 game stint with the Coyotes, where he scored three goals and zero assists.
Fischer was consistently one of the best players in Tucson’s lineup last season. He is a two-way player that knows how to play a 200-foot game in both zones; displaying excellent offensive and defensive awareness. Also at 6’1″ and 212 pounds, Fischer will certainly be strong enough to compete at a NHL level this year. Overall, there was nothing not to like about Fischer’s first full season with the Coyotes Organization, and he will be rewarded for it with a legitimate shot at making the big club.
Clayton Keller (Center, 19 years old)
Lastly, the third and final player that will be vying for one of those two roster spots is Clayton Keller, the Coyotes 7th overall selection in the 2016 draft. Last season Keller was one of the best players in college hockey, scoring 45 points in 31 games in his freshman year with the Boston University Terriers. At the end of the season, Keller decided to go pro by signing his first professional contract with the Coyotes on March 26, 2017. Since it was the end of the season and the Coyotes were well out of playoff contention, management decided to give him a taste of the NHL where he scored zero goals and two assists in three games.
Although Keller is a gifted offensive player, his major drawback is his size. His 5’10”, 168-pound listing raises significant concerns on how well he could physically handle the wear and tear of a full 82-game NHL season. As with any college player making the jump to the pros, a huge concern is endurance; because historically, many college players have had a difficult time transitioning from a 34 game NCAA schedule to an 82 game NHL schedule.
Final thoughts and predictions
All three players are extremely talented and have bright futures in the NHL. However, due to the realities of the NHL roster, two will most likely make the Coyotes, and one will at least start the season in Tucson with the Roadrunners. Given size, skill and their resumes, I think Strome and Fischer will start the season with the Coyotes and that Keller will be in Tucson. Strome’s pedigree as a top three pick is making management anxious for him to show what he can do in the NHL and Fischer’s hard work last season in Tucson will be rewarded. Meanwhile, Keller, although highly skilled, is only 19 and at 5’10”, 168 pounds is a bit small for the NHL, which is why I believe he will start with the Roadrunners come October.
Some other media outlets are predicting that all three will be on the opening night NHL roster, but it won’t make much sense to have all three playing for the Coyotes if one is going to be sitting up in the press box every night. Especially when someone like Keller could be playing 20 minutes a night in the AHL with the Roadrunners. Ultimately, that is why management will make the smart choice and not have these talented young players trade turns in and out of the lineup every night.