Tucson Roadrunners ride perfect development tandem into AHL postseason
For the first time since the 1997-98 season, when Shane Doan and Danny Briere were still in the AHL as 19- and 20-year olds, an Arizona Coyotes minor league affiliate will head into the postseason as their conference’s regular season champions.
The Tucson Roadrunners wrapped up their 2017-18 campaign on Saturday night, when they hosted the San Diego Gulls at the Tucson Convention Center.
In a show of surprising dominance for the club, though, their spot in the standings had already been secured. With a 41-20-5-1 record heading into that last contest, they could have finished with no fewer than 88 points and 40 regulation/overtime wins.
When they took home a 6-3 victory to finish it off, they ended with the third-best points percentage in the league and 42 wins, tied for the most in the West despite playing seven fewer games (due to a shortened schedule out on the Pacific coast) than the other three 42-win teams.
It’s a meteoric rise for the Roadrunners, who went 29-31-8-0 in their inaugural season out in the desert. And although their NHL affiliate up in Glendale didn’t see the same level of overall success this year, a number of shared improvements made – most notably either in or related to their goaltending situation – put them in a promising position moving forward long-term.
THE SHIFT IN NAMES AND FACES
Of the team’s goaltending depth chart from just two years ago, Arizona still has just one netminder under contract in their system; Marek Langhamer, who was loaned to Brno Kometa in the Czech Republic midway through the season.
The rest of the names are new.
Mark Visentin, the team’s second 2010 first-round selection, played just one game in Austria this year before mutually terminating his contract due to a long-term injury.
Louis Domingue, drafted four rounds after Visentin in 2010, was dealt to the Tampa Bay Lightning early in the year after his season-opening struggles contributed to the team’s 0-10-1 start to the year. Mike Smith – their NHL starter for that 2015-16 season – was dealt to the Calgary Flames in June to make room for a fresh start in net.
Anders Lindback is back in Nashville’s system, Niklas Treutle has returned to dominance as a starter in Germany, and 2009 third-round pick Mike Lee has formally retired in lieu of coaching for St. Cloud State, while 2013 selection Brendan Burke never signed a deal with the team at all.
Even their coaching staff has seen a near-complete shift in the last two years.
2015-16 Coyotes assistant coach John Slaney is now an assistant in Tucson, and video coach Steve Peters is the only holdover at the NHL level. Both goaltending coaches from that season remain, but Jon Elkin – previously brought on to help Mike Smith at the NHL level – is now doing development work in Tucson, while former development coach Corey Schwab is up at Gila River Arena.
With a vastly new staff has come a significantly new system, but the team has an entirely new depth chart to implement it – and as Tucson is quickly showing, the dividends are paying off in quick order.
At the NHL level, Antti Raanta made a quick transition from career NHL backup to Vezina-quality starter, boasting a league-best .930 save percentage in all situations through 47 games played.
His biggest knock, so to speak, was a nagging set of injuries that cost him entire chunks of the first three months of the season – which largely contributed to the team’s virtual elimination from playoff contention before Thanksgiving.
It certainly didn’t make things easy at the AHL level, either, where second-year returnee Adin Hill found himself shuttled between Phoenix and Tucson for the first chunk of the year to fill in the hole left behind.
Despite that, the Roadrunners – who, without Hill, had just Langhamer and rookie pro Hunter Miska to hold down the fort – had little trouble establishing a frontrunner position early in the year, which they held onto for virtually their entire regular season campaign.
Part of that, despite the early-season recalls and the coaching switch for Elkin and Schwab in December, can be largely attributed to the team’s new system and structure from the top down.
At the end of the year, Raanta told InGoal that Arizona had revamped their entire defensive structure following nearly a decade under head coach Dave Tippett.
With Tippett at the helm and Mike Smith in the puck-stopping driver’s seat, Arizona employed a strange mix of defensive-minded play and free-range goaltending. The blue liners spent a lot of time skating backwards, retreating into their zone to protect their net at all costs, but Smith spent just as much time leaving his crease to play the puck up and out, quarterbacking the breakout strategy as often as he could.
Under new head coach Rick Tocchet, both styles changed. The goaltenders were now encouraged to leave puck retrieval up to the defense, who handled the zone breakouts and joined the offensive rush in a transition towards an offense-first system.
It helped Raanta, who said he felt like he didn’t have to try and do too much and could focus on managing his depth and stopping the puck.
It also helped at the AHL level, though, where the team saw a strong level of two-way communication between Tocchet and Roadrunners head coach Mike Van Ryn to help establish an optimal system of development for the two back-end positions that teams so often have trouble with.
THE NEW SYSTEM
Van Ryn joined Arizona during the 2015-16 season, coming on board as a development coach after three seasons with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers.
After just one year, he earned a hefty promotion, taking over at the helm in Tucson to work with one of the deepest prospects systems in the league. He didn’t disappoint.
Van Ryn’s first reaction to hearing he would be talking about goaltending was about par for course with most head coaches. His audible groan came with an insistence that he had no idea what to say.
“Here’s my thoughts,” he joked. “Goalies should go back to playing stand up more. They’d stop getting beaten short side, they’re getting beaten short side all over the place!”
As the interview went on, though, it became clear that what he lacks in positional, technical proficiency is more than made up for in a strong emphasis on collaborative coaching between his blue line and his goaltenders.
For a guy who hates talking goaltending, there was quite a bit of insight into the position.
“As a defenseman, I like to sort of talk with my guys about where things are coming from,” he explained, shifting into a more serious mode after the quip he couldn’t help but make.
“Breaking down that communication, how both sides can help each other… I’ve been there, I try to make sure everyone is on the same page,” he continued. His goaltenders, he insisted, shouldn’t be left guessing as to why the blue line does what it does – and conversely, the blue line should know how to help the goaltenders as much as possible.
He’s also an advocate of getting to know the enemy, providing his players with all the necessary tools to scout the opposing team’s goaltenders ahead of a matchup.
Van Ryn confirmed that the team always makes sure to have video available on the other team’s goaltenders if they players wish to use it, hunting out weaknesses if they can and analyzing styles to help with their own.
While the coaches are always around to provide the information and break it down with the players, though, van Ryn very much believes in catering to all learning styles. If a player doesn’t want to throw his game off by micro analyzing the opponent in net, there’s no requirement to do so. Every man for himself, and no way is the wrong way.
“Some guys don’t do well with an overload of information,” he said, “and that’s okay. They don’t have to use that stuff if they don’t want to. If it makes them overthink, I’d much rather they did what suited them best in order to play well and win.”
“If you can provide the information, though, why not do so?” He asked. “We have the film, we have the video on all these guys… I always let my players know, if they want the resources to look at these guys and maybe see if they can’t exploit a weakness, the resources will always be there. I’ll always provide the information, it’s up to them if it can help them or not.”
He’s also willing to adjust his system if something isn’t working with one of his starters in, but always communicates the changes back to Tocchet to see where things can be improved long-term.
And when it comes to his rotation in net? That’s all open, too.
“I feel like every time we tried to ride one guy more than the other,” he explained, referring to the perfect season tandem split on the season for Adin Hill and Hunter Miska, “ we’d find ourselves going back to that split situation.”
THE YOUNGEST TANDEM
Sure enough, the pair made a perfect 36 appearances apiece, with Miska playing 1,950 minutes and Hill playing 1,451. Miska earned 22 wins to Hill’s 19, while Hill earned all four of the team’s overtime losses and posted five shutouts to Miska’s one. It was, in nearly every essence, a true tandem from start to finish.
Both Hill and Miska, throughout the year, found the situation more than fine. The pair are roommates on the road, learning early on that they got along well enough to spend that much time together both on and off the ice.
For Hill, it was a new situation; he was the ‘veteran’ goaltender with a year of pro experience already under his belt, while Miska was fresh off his near-perfect NCAA campaign with the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
“I was able to sort of help him out if he needed it to start, as the older guy,” Hill told InGoal, before pausing. He won’t turn 22 until May 11th, while Miska will be 23 in July.
“Well… I guess the more veteran guy,” he laughed.
The two have had a lot to offer one another throughout the year. Both on and off the ice, they’re about as different as can be.
Lanky and flexible, Hill’s first interview with InGoal in the summer of 2016 revealed that he loved his reflexive talent, but hoped to work on just about everything else in his game. From improving his depth as a taller goaltender to relentlessly developing his puck playing skills and tracking, the Comox, BC native went from an instincts-first game for the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks to one that constantly responded to the team around him.
Miska, on the other hand, didn’t actually become a goaltender until high school. Despite a love of the position that stemmed from his father’s mask-designing business, the Stacy, Minnesota native was encouraged by his mom to remain a skater until he finally took a stand his freshman year.
Although he was always the first to volunteer as a fill-in when a goaltender couldn’t make a game or tournament for his team, that left the 6-foot-1 Miska with a unique perspective in net. He lacked the years of rigorous coaching that so many young goaltenders have nowadays, and went through a few porous defenses in high school before getting to join the US National Development Program in 2011. He didn’t play his first NCAA season until he was 21, spending two years after high school in the BCHL and one in the USHL prior to committing to Minnesota-Duluth.
His game matches his path to the pros; where Hill is all far-reaching arms and legs, Miska’s evolution always seems to involve aiming to be more and more patient every year. And where Hill’s first interview was all about his areas of improvement, Miska’s radiated a quiet confidence; he knew he could get better, but he was pleased with his talent level already, as well.
Despite their differences, the pair embodied the Roadrunners as a whole. Both were fine with their rotated starts, and came away from the year genuinely using the word ‘fun’ to describe the regular season overall.
When the Roadrunners take on the San Jose Barracuda in the first round of the postseason, they’re a reasonable favorite to win the series. If they do so, they’ll become the first Coyotes team, either AHL or NHL, to advance beyond the first round of the postseason since 2012.
Part of that will be because of Dylan Strome, Lawson Crouse, Michael Bunting, and Andrew Campbell. More will be because of van Ryn, Schwab and Elkin, and the other assistant coaches who have worked tirelessly to usher the franchise’s entire system into a new era of play.
And at the back of the ice, part of that will be because of the young tandem – the youngest of any of the AHL’s Top-10 teams in the regular season, and by a few years.
It’s not an NHL playoff berth quite yet, and it’s certainly not a Vezina trophy – not even close. But it’s a start, and one that seems to have plenty more to come on the horizon.