Pro footing found in Tucson; The roles, rise, and reviews of four rookies
By: Alexander Kinkopf
May 01, 2019 12:23 PM
Photo: Iowa Wild
More often than not, the transition into the pro game is showcased at the American Hockey League level, where prospects, whether drafted or undrafted, rise from the junior or collegiate ranks to build the foundation of their careers.
The primary focus for AHL personnel on the hockey operations side, and not to demean teams’ will to win, is to develop, to drive players to a permanent NHL destination.
Or, to simply translate as to how Jay Varady has coined the course on numerous occasions, “to get players ready for the next level.”
The Roadrunners played a total of nine rookies during the 2018-19 season, five forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender. Five of those first-year players appeared in 50-plus games, and overall, Tucson’s group of budding youth accounted for 108 points (37G, 71A), nearly 20% of the team’s offensive output.
“They provided us a lot of energy throughout the course of the year and were called upon in some pretty key situations, where I thought they did a pretty good job,” said Varady of the team's first-year names. “I think that’s a great starting point with them, but they’ve got to continue to learn lessons from the older guys and the situations that we went through as a group this year and build on those.”
Behold: visuals, insight, and a few additional words on four rookies who had a nightly impact as part of the 2018-19 roster.
Photo: San Diego Gulls
We’ll start off hot with a rookie that made tremendous strides and thoroughly impressed while skating under the first year of his entry-level contract, proving to be a dynamic piece to the Roadrunners' offensive approach.
The 22-year-old undrafted Brayden Burke played in all but one of the Roadrunners’ 68 games this season, registering 33 points (13G, 20A), tied for the roster’s fifth-highest total.
Burke became the sixth rookie in Roadrunners history to eclipse the 30-point mark, joining the likes of Kyle Wood (43, 2016-17), Christian Fischer (47, 2016-17), Kyle Capobianco (20, 2017-18), Nick Merkley (39, 2017-18), and Dylan Strome (53, 2017-18).
“I think I developed as a player from the start to the end, I definitely think I’ve grown and improved, so there’s something there,” he said after cleaning out his locker stall on April 15.
If you kept an eye out, the growth in Burke’s game was very apparent – whether it was more freedom in his shot selection or a boost in confidence to trust his wondrous vision to pick apart passing lanes to jolt the Roadrunners’ offensive attack.
That growth, too, came off the ice.
“You’ve got to be a pro every day, you’ve got to the right things every day, it can’t be 50% of the time or 75% of the time,” he said of playing at the AHL level. “If you do it 100% of the time you’re going to be the best player that you can be. If you’re going to go out there and produce, you’re going to have to earn every inch of it, so it’s about learning that everything’s hard and nothing comes easy.”
“I have to make sure that I want it more than the guy across from me,” he added.
Photo: Kate Dibildox
Moving to the blue-line, we’ll touch on Jordan Gross’ puck-moving prowess.
Could he ever operate on the back-end with firm and forward direction to feed the Roadrunners’ northbound attack.
A maestro when it came to developing plays up-ice and quarterbacking the top of the offensive zone with opposition penalized, Gross finished the year ranked 14th among AHL rookie defensemen with 25 points (5G, 20A).
“It was about improving every day and embracing being a pro,” Gross said of his season. “Some of the days were a bit tough, but ultimately you absolutely love what you’re doing, so I think it was about enjoying it and getting better every day, that was the biggest thing, and I think I made some good strides this year.”
The 23-year-old defenseman, signed to an entry-level contract last April, played a huge role in filling the void of the injured Kyle Capobianco, who was ruled out for the season in early February.
That brought on a bigger role, and an upsurge in games from his NCAA days at the University of Notre Dame, a shift many first-year players must make on the fly. Gross appeared in 61 contests.
“A lot more games, for sure,” Gross said of one of the year’s challenges. “In college, I’d play around 40, so jumping up to more than 60 was definitely a big change, the season is definitely longer and it kind of wears down on your body, but once you get past that, it’s not too much of a change.”
Photo: San Diego Gulls
“Steady Eddie” as tabbed by head coach Jay Varady, Tyler Steenbergen served as a consistent, and often overlooked, aspect to the Roadrunners’ 200-foot game.
Whether it was time on the team’s first-line or serving as a solid piece to the bottom-six, the Coyotes’ fifth-round selection from the 2017 NHL Entry Draft demonstrated his ability to be a front-net factor and an established body low in the corners.
“I think coming in this year, I didn’t quite really know what to expect and how it was going to be, but I think for myself, I had a pretty successful first season,” he said. “I learned a lot from the older guys and that’s the biggest thing, to keep learning and to keep building off of it.”
Following a his final junior season, a phenomenal one with the Swift Current Broncos (WHL) which saw him put up over 100 points, Steenbergen spent a balanced amount of time on the Roadrunners’ power play and penalty kill units, and served as an ever durable five-on-five asset.
The 21-year-old finished the season with 22 points (9G, 13A) to his name.
“It’s definitely a lot different than it was in junior,” he said. “But for me, I grew a lot as a person and as a pro, and at the end of the day it was a really fun year. Getting stronger and having more speed was my biggest thing to adjust to, the guys are a lot bigger and the play is a lot faster. So I think in that regard, those two things are the key things I need to work on this offseason.”
Photo: Iowa Wild
As far as development from a raw perspective goes, Cam Dineen may have been the most genuine example among the rookies who suited up for the Roadrunners this season.
From his timing to his speed to his certainty to make decisions with the puck when the opportunities were presented, the 20-year-old flourished when making small, yet instrumental adjustments to his game after a start to the season that saw him struggle to consistently etch himself into the lineup.
“Coming in and starting out, I wasn’t in the lineup a lot, but I considered that a teaching moment for me, it kind of motivated me, and I think that was good,” he said. “That had never happened to me in my career before, so I think getting that experience early on and learning a bit was very helpful to me. As the season went on, I played a lot and got more time and got confident in my abilities.”
The Coyotes’ third round selection from the 2016 NHL Entry Draft registered an assist in each of his first two pro games and eventually netted his first pro goal on December 5 in San Diego.
“Obviously scoring my first goal was pretty cool, a special moment for me, it was great to get that done and out of the way,” he said.
Though that offensive accomplishment was a memorable one, Dineen honed in on refining his defensive abilities with a partner that played to his right side throughout the majority of the season.
“Going into this year I had a focus on a lot of my defensive play, defensive awareness, things like that, defending off of the rush, and I think I learned a lot working with John Slaney, who helped me a ton and taught me a lot.,” he said. “And playing with [Robbie Russo] was big, having someone like him as my defense partner was special, he was my roommate on the road so we were together a lot, he taught me a lot just by his actions, he’s a good leader by example.”
And as for further establishing his defensive game, Dineen’s size comes to the forefront.
“First things first, my strength,” the New Jersey native said of what he needs to build on this summer. “I think that’s probably one of my weaknesses and everyone knows that. If I add some weight this summer, I think it’ll be great coming into next year, it’ll give me a needed advantage.”
Photo: Chris Hook