There’s no doubt that it has been a very long season for Arizona Coyotes fans. In a year where it was expected that the team would take another step forward following their promising 78-point 2015-16 campaign, they’ve instead watched as their team has struggled badly in nearly every aspect of the game en route to the league’s second-worst record.
Many knew that there would be growing pains associated with having so many youngsters on the NHL roster, but no one thought the season could have gone this badly. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Many of the team’s rookies have started to make major contributions as the season has progressed, while other youngsters that have yet to reach the pros are tearing up the competition in their junior leagues while waiting eagerly for their turn.
Strome, Otters Eyeing Memorial Cup
We’ll start with perhaps the Coyotes’ most noteworthy prospect – center Dylan Strome. Ever since he was sent back to junior earlier this season after playing just seven games in the NHL, the Erie Otters captain has been playing like a man on a mission. After returning to the OHL in late November, Strome has been filling up the scoresheet with aplomb; he’s recorded 22 goals and 50 assists in 32 games this season and leads the entire CHL in points per game with an average of 2.25 per contest.
— Erie 🦦🦦🦦 (@ErieOtters) March 7, 2017
Not only has Strome been the OHL’s best player this season, he’s also the Captain of the league’s best team, as the Otters boast a stellar record of 48-14-3 this season. After being swept out of the playoffs in the Conference Finals by Christian Dvorak and the eventual Memorial Cup champion London Knights last season, Strome’s Otters appear to be the team to beat in the OHL this year. Led offensively by Strome, Taylor Raddysh, and three-time 50-goal scorer Alex DeBrincat, Erie has the talent and experience to go all the way.
Erie Otters Alex DeBrincat ties OHL record by scoring in 19th straight game
He shares record with Mike Ricci (Peterborough) set in 1988
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) March 11, 2017
However, Erie has been in this position before – the Connor McDavid-led Otters of 2014-15 entered the OHL playoffs with one of the league’s highest point totals, but they ultimately fell to the Oshawa Generals in the OHL Finals in just five games. Will this be the year they get over the hump and earn a berth in the Memorial Cup, or will Strome’s junior career end the same way McDavid’s did – with bitter disappointment?
Keller Leading Terriers as Freshman
As good as Strome has been this season in the OHL, Clayton Keller has been just as impressive while playing college hockey for the Boston University Terriers. Keller has been one of the best players in the United States this season; he has 19 goals and 21 assists in 28 games at BU and leads all NCAA freshmen in points per game with 1.43 per contest.
— Arizona Coyotes (@ArizonaCoyotes) March 9, 2017
Additionally, Keller had a big hand in the United States’ first World Junior Championships Gold Medal since 2013, as he had three goals and eight assists in seven games while finishing third in scoring at the tournament behind Kirill Kaprizov and Alexander Nylander. As a result of his all-around body of work, Keller was named as the #1 NHL-affiliated prospect by TSN’s Craig Button earlier this year.
Pre-game reading: Clayton Keller tops a good list to top https://t.co/9XUxtmei22
— NHL on NBC Sports (@NHLonNBCSports) February 23, 2017
There’s no doubting the fact that Keller has an extremely bright future; he possesses a high amount of speed and skill and likely will be a mainstay in Arizona’s forward group for a long time. However, there’s a chance that Coyotes fans could get an early glimpse of their future this season. Keller is eligible to turn pro when his season ends in the NCAA, and word is that he’ll be forgoing his final three years of college eligibility to turn pro following the season. Keep an eye on Boston University’s postseason this year – if they’re eliminated early, Keller could finish the year as a Coyote.
Merkley Comes Back Strong
Although Strome and Keller get much more attention from both Coyotes fans and the national media, Kelowna Rockets forward and alternate captain Nick Merkley is also having a big year over in the WHL. With 23 goals and 37 assists through 60 games, Merkley is the Rockets’ third-highest scorer this season and is primed to have a big impact in the postseason after recording 27 points in 19 playoff games two seasons ago.
— Kelowna Rockets (@Kelowna_Rockets) February 19, 2017
Just over a year ago, though, the 19-year-old’s future was very much in doubt; Merkley suffered a torn ACL in a game against the Spokane Chiefs on Feb. 5, 2016, and faced a long and painful road to recovery from a serious knee injury. However, Merkley, who was selected with the #30 overall pick in 2015, surprised nearly everyone by rehabbing from his injury quickly enough to participate in Arizona’s NHL rookie camp in September and was able to return to the Rockets in time for the start of the WHL’s regular season.
— Arizona Coyotes (@ArizonaCoyotes) September 18, 2016
Merkley will be turning pro following the completion of his 2016-17 campaign in Kelowna and should have a good chance to make the Coyotes’ opening night roster next season as a center due to his solid mixture of speed and skill. He’ll be a player to keep an eye on at training camp next season as he begins his professional career.
Capobianco Leads Resurgent Wolves
One Coyotes’ prospect who is also having a solid season but has flown significantly under the radar is Sudbury Wolves’ defenseman Kyle Capobianco. Capobianco, who was selected with the #63 overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, has recorded 9 goals and 32 assists through 61 games in the OHL this season and is Sudbury’s highest-scoring defenseman.
— Gino Donato (@GDonatoPhoto) February 19, 2017
Capobianco’s performance has also been a big reason for Sudbury’s improved play this season; after finishing in last place in the OHL’s Eastern Conference during both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, the Wolves have improved significantly in 2016-17 and are in playoff contention this season. For Capobianco, a playoff berth would be huge; he hasn’t had the chance to participate in any postseason games since his age-16 season in 2013-14 and will have the opportunity to make a name for himself on the big stage before beginning his professional career in Arizona next season.
Overall, the Coyotes have consistently been rated as having one of the best prospect groups in the NHL, and it’s relatively easy to see why. With the CHL’s best player and the NCAA’s best freshman along with a multitude of other talented prospects under team control, the Coyotes have an extremely bright future and should soon become one of the best and most dangerous teams in the NHL.
A lifelong Phoenix resident, Louis has been following hockey since 2010, has covered the Arizona Coyotes since 2015, and has been playing hockey since 2020. So far, Louis has visited eight NHL cities, and one of his personal goals is to eventually make it to all 31 NHL arenas. For any questions or concerns, contact the writer via Twitter @LouisPannone.