Roadrunners off to promising start in Tucson


Roadrunners off to promising start in Tucson
  1. Roadrunners off to promising start in Tucson
    azcentral.com
    Growth remains the Coyotes' goal after a tough first half, but progress is trending elsewhere in the organization – particularly in the minors as the Roadrunners are finding their footing during the team’s first season in Tuc…
    Hockey

Tucson Roadrunners winger Christian Fischer.(Photo: Chris Hook Photography)

Spotting the improvement the Coyotes hoped to incite by renovating their franchise last offseason hasn’t necessarily been easy.

Arizona is stranded near the bottom of the NHL’s hierarchy and has totaled more than twice as many losses as wins through the first half after gutting approximately half the roster, changing the front-office setup and beefing up the development staff.

Growth remains the goal, and while the focus will stay on the Coyotes to see how much is accomplished when their season picks up Friday after a five-day break, progress is trending better elsewhere in the organization – particularly in the minors as the Roadrunners are finding their footing during the team’s first season in Tucson.

“Everything’s been going extremely well,” Roadrunners General Manager Doug Soetaert said. “It’s like we’ve been operating for years.”

RELATED: Coyotes remain in transition at midway point

On the brink of their 30th game, the Roadrunners ranked fourth in the American Hockey League’s Pacific Division entering action Wednesday amid a 16-9-4 showing – enough to be in a playoff position. Twice in the previous three seasons the Coyotes’ AHL affiliate finished last in the Eastern Conference.

Tucson was only four points shy of the top seed in the division, a position it once held after an impressive 8-1-2 start. But its momentum was derailed Nov. 19 when captain Craig Cunningham collapsed on the ice before a game, suffering ventricular fibrillation – a cardiac rhythm disturbance that caused his heart to stop working. Cunningham also had part of his left leg amputated Christmas Eve.

“It was a major blow to the players and the coaches and the whole organization and the city,” Soetaert said. “Obviously, we didn’t know if he was going to make it or not, honestly. We all just hung in there and as he continued to get better, our psyche, our mental well-being got better and everybody knew he was going to survive. When we knew he was going to survive, our players started to respond and started to compete again.”

The Roadrunners have stayed in touch with Cunningham as he continues to recover; his stall remains intact in the team’s dressing room, and the group is reminded daily about “how precious life is and what’s really important,” coach Mark Lamb said.

“He’s doing very good,” Lamb said of Cunningham. “He’s into a rehab place now continuing his life, but he’s a big part of our team still.”

Cunningham was among the team's more experienced players, but they’ve been able to call on other leaders.

Center Chris Mueller, who boasts 53 career NHL games, is tied for the team lead in points with 30. Winger Eric Selleck, although dealing with a broken foot, Soetaert said, has been another key veteran. And on the back end, Jarred Tinordi and Zbynek Michalek have been examples of what it takes to make it to the NHL.

“They show them how hard you have to work to be in the National Hockey League, and both of their games have been very good,” Soetaert said.

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Meriting a promotion to the Coyotes is no doubt one of the players’ ambitions, and the two organizations are working together to help make that a reality as the same structure and style of play is being stressed by both teams.

Coyotes coach Dave Tippett and Lamb communicate almost every day to keep both units in step, and building that synergy was a major reason the Coyotes' ownership group decided to purchase an AHL franchise last spring and move it to Tucson. The team's most recent affiliates had been stationed in Springfield, Mass., and Portland, Maine.

Cutting down on travel has made it easier to supplement the NHL roster when injuries hit, and it looks like the familiarity has helped call-ups adapt to the Coyotes' expectations.

Winger Brendan Perlini had four goals in 15 games after getting added, tied for the most among Arizona rookies, while defenseman Anthony DeAngelo has earned regular minutes and time on the power play.

“We’ve already had a number of players come up and make an impact on our group,” General Manager John Chayka said. “The young players that are down there are developing at a rate that’s never been seen before in this organization. Where we’re at in terms of our life cycle for our organization, we need that pipeline of good, young players that develop because drafting them is one thing. Now developing is that next stage of that.”

Defenseman Kyle Wood, whom the Coyotes acquired in the Mikkel Boedker trade with the Avalanche last year, has thrived in his first full pro season, as he’s tied with Mueller for the team lead in points. A right shot, the 20-year-old has become a power-play specialist and, while he continues to work at his play in his own end, his skill-set is certainly intriguing.

“He’s been a pleasant surprise,” Soetaert said.

Up front, winger Christian Fischer has also enjoyed a relatively smooth transition from juniors to the minors as a 19-year-old. His 13 goals are the second-most on the team, and he’s emerged as a strong power forward on the right side of the lineup.

“When you have offensive success, it’s nice to see,” said Fischer, who previewed the AHL for six games last season once his junior campaign ended. “But I’m just trying to develop my full game down here, and I think this is obviously a great league for it – a development league."

"So just working on my game as much as I can. Obviously, the goal is to end up playing in the NHL one day and this gives you a chance to do that.”

Embarking on this journey in Tucson has made the experience more enjoyable.

When they aren’t at the rink, players can get outdoors to hike or golf – capitalizing on the mild winter weather.

“It’s a little different life over here waking up and seeing mountains,” said Fischer, who's from Illinois and played in Ontario last season.

And the community has seemed to embrace the team.

Average attendance through 15 home games has been approximately 3,879 with full capacity 6,555, and 50 to 100 fans crowd outside the team’s locker room after games, Fischer said, to snag an autograph – interest that appears to be extending beyond Tucson Arena.

“When you’re out and you’re in the grocery store, whatever you’re doing away from the rink, there’s more chatter,” Lamb said. “Even sometimes you’re starting to get recognized. … When that starts to happen, it’s very positive.”

Sinking roots into the area and establishing an identity is an important part of this transition because as much as the Roadrunners are an extension of the Coyotes, they’re also their own entity.

Having players graduate to the NHL is a priority but it’s not the only objective.

“If we can do a good job here and have guys move up to the NHL, I think we’re doing our job,” Lamb said. “If we’re doing that, it means we have a good team and we’ll have success here.”

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