After missing the playoffs during their inaugural 2016-17 campaign, the Tucson Roadrunners are off to one of the best starts of any AHL team this year – they’re 10-3-2-1 (W-L-OTL-SOL) through 16 games and, as of this writing, own the best record (by points percentage) in the league’s Western Conference.
Strome Hitting His Stride
As if often the case with teams near the top of their leagues, multiple players have made significant impacts with the Roadrunners this season. However, no one in the AHL has been better in 2017-18 than Dylan Strome. After being reassigned to the Roadrunners following two underwhelming games with the Coyotes, the 20-year-old center has rebounded big-time in the Old Pueblo. Through 15 games with Arizona’s AHL affiliate, Strome has eight goals, 18 assists, and a plus-13 plus/minus rating. He leads the league in scoring despite missing the first handful of games and is averaging an AHL-best 1.73 points-per-game.
He has put forth multi-point performances in eight of his 15 AHL games. Currently riding a seven-game point streak where he has accumulated 16 points (7G, 9A). Borderline crazy.
— Alex Kinkopf (@AEKinkopf) November 26, 2017
Some might have thought that Strome would be disappointed to be playing in the AHL after failing to hold onto a spot in Arizona’s lineup for the second consecutive season, but a quick look at the statsheet shows that just hasn’t been the case. Strome has fully embraced being in Tucson and is working hard to improve and return to the NHL.
“I’m getting the opportunity here to produce, to be on a power play unit, a penalty kill unit and get a lot of minutes,” Strome told Alex Kinkopf of the official Roadrunners’ website on Nov. 21. “I’m enjoying my time here, I’m enjoying the team winning, and I’m really working hard. We’re building a culture around here that’s based around the expectancy to win, so it’s been a lot of fun.”
While there is no doubting Strome’s talents with the puck, there have been questions about his skating since the day he was drafted. However, it’s clear that the youngster is spending a considerable amount of time working on this aspect of his game in the AHL.
“I feel like when I have the puck I’ve had speed, and I’m creating plays quicker. My linemates play fast, and I’m used to slowing the game down,” Strome said. “But now I’m focusing on keeping my game going, keeping the puck moving, keep the game moving fast and in front of me, and with my linemates and the way that they skate, I think I have to do that, and I think I’m adjusting to it.”
If Strome is able to continue having success with the Roadrunners, it’s going to be awfully hard for the Coyotes to keep him in the AHL much longer.
Don’t Sleep on Merkley or Crouse
Strome isn’t the only former first-round pick having success in Tucson, though. Not by a long shot. Lawson Crouse and Nick Merkley, who were selected 11th and 30th overall in 2015, respectively, are both making big strides with the Roadrunners. Crouse has eight points in 11 games since being reassigned to the AHL on Oct. 25, while Merkley is second only to Strome among all Roadrunners skaters in scoring with 21 points (11 goals and 10 assists).
The Crouse-Strome-Merkley trio has combined for 39 points since being united as a line on October 27, a span of 10 games:https://t.co/nCHNhkRxEW
— Alex Kinkopf (@AEKinkopf) November 25, 2017
Seeing Merkley have success in Tucson has to be a relief for Coyotes’ general manager John Chayka. Merkley has had some bad luck with injuries since being drafted – he injured his collarbone during training camp in 2015, then tore his ACL during a WHL contest in Feb. 2016. Now fully healthy, Merkley has finally been able to showcase his talents and has emerged as one of the better young forwards in the organization.
Crouse is also taking advantage of his increased role in the AHL. Buried in the Coyotes’ bottom-six for most of his NHL career so far, Crouse has struggled on the offensive end of the ice, as he’s recorded just 12 points in 79 career games with the Coyotes. In Tucson, though, Crouse is playing with Strome and Merkley on the Roadrunners’ top line and is putting on display the offensive abilities he flashed in the OHL, where he averaged better than a point per game for the Kingston Frontenacs over the course of his final two junior seasons.
If Crouse can develop the offensive side of his game this season in Tucson, he could very well become the productive NHL power forward that the Florida Panthers expected him to become when they selected him 11th overall in 2015.
Winning ‘Golden Knights Style’
While offensive contributions from Strome, Merkley, and others have been a big reason for Tucson’s success this season, their solid goaltending has also been a major factor. Due to the Coyotes’ well-documented goaltending struggles as well as Antti Raanta’s inability to stay healthy, Hunter Miska, Marek Langhamer, and Adin Hill have all, at one point or another, spent time in the NHL this season.
This instability at the goaltending position hasn’t slowed the Roadrunners down any, though. All three goaltenders have winning records and Hill is the only one of the trio to have suffered a regulation loss this season. Combined, the netminders have a stellar 10-3-2-1 record with a 2.58 GAA and a .908 SV%. Langhamer is the statistical leader of the pack with a 1.59 GAA and a .947 SV%, while Miska boasts a perfect 6-0-0 record in eight appearances.
For now, with Raanta injured and Langhamer filling in for him up in Glendale, it’ll be up to Hill and Miska to hold down the fort in Tucson. So far, they’ve been up to the task – Hill shut out the San Diego Gulls on Nov. 22, and Miska picked up a win over the Stockton Heat on Nov. 24.
With the Coyotes struggling out of the gate this season, the success of the Roadrunners has been one of the few positives to take out of this season in Arizona. Sure, there’s a good chance that the Roadrunners could regress if they lose Strome, Crouse, or Merkley to the NHL at some point this season, but, since the Coyotes’ last game is scheduled for Apr. 7, it’s likely that Tucson’s big guns will be back in the AHL in time for the start of the Calder Cup Playoffs during the week of Apr. 16. Keep an eye on Tucson – if the Coyotes decide to keep their youngsters in the AHL for the entire season, the Roadrunners will keep the league’s scoreboard operators busy all season long.
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.