Roadrunners focused on playoff run

Photo: Kate Dibildox

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Playoff hockey is back in Tucson, and so are some of the AHL’s top prospects.

The Calder Cup Playoffs return to the Old Pueblo tonight when the Tucson Roadrunners host Calgary in Game 1 of their Pacific Division First Round best-of-three series. It will be the Roadrunners’ first playoff game at Tucson Arena in nearly six years, since a Game 2 loss to Texas in the division finals on May 4, 2018.

For these young Roadrunners, their hoped-for NHL futures now are in Utah after the Arizona Coyotes announced last week that they are relocating to Salt Lake City. But in the here-and-now, the Tucson Roadrunners are gearing up for a playoff experience that the organization considers vital toward building an eventual Stanley Cup contender.

With that in mind, management returned forwards Dylan Guenther, Josh Doan and Aku Räty to the Roadrunners after the Coyotes’ season ended. Joining that Tucson-bound trio were defensemen Michael Kesselring and Vladislav Kolyachonok.

And for good measure, Arizona assigned forward Conor Geekie – the 11th pick in the 2022 NHL Draft – to Tucson at the start of the week. Geekie, 19, just put together a 99-point (43 goals, 56 assists) season in the Western Hockey League split between Wenatchee and Swift Current.

That is quite the haul.

Guenther, who went to the Coyotes ninth overall in the 2021 NHL Draft, ended up with 18 goals and 17 assists in 45 NHL games after his promotion from Tucson in January. While with the Roadrunners, the 21-year-old churned out 28 points (10 goals, 18 assists) in just 29 games. And he knows high-stakes hockey, winning a gold medal with Canada at the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship and playing for the Memorial Cup with WHL Seattle last spring.

“Playoff experience, I think you can never have too much of that,” Guenther told, “It’s important to understand how to win games, understand how to play in those high-pressure moments. And that’s what it’s going to be like down here.”

Then there is Doan, Tucson’s leading scorer with 46 points this season. His 26 goals in 62 games led all AHL rookies, part of a season in which he was an AHL All-Star as well as a member of the AHL All-Rookie Team. The 22-year-old Arizona native and son of Coyotes institution Shane Doan became a quick sensation after his recall the Coyotes on March 25, putting up five goals – including two in his NHL debut – and nine points in 10 games.

Also 22 years old, Räty showed well in his first North American season, landing second in team scoring with Tucson and just two points off Doan’s pace. The 2019 fifth-rounder registered 44 points (15 goals, 29 assists) in 55 games and also earned his first NHL game last week.

On the back end, there is Kesselring, who became an NHL regular this season and ended up playing 65 games and contributing 21 points (five goals, 16 assists) with Arizona. Kolyachonok, 22, split time between Arizona and Tucson and has been a reliable presence with the Roadrunners for three seasons.

Now add that group of six to a Tucson team that posted 43 wins and 92 points to finish second in the Pacific Division. Workhorse goaltender Matthew Villalta tied for the AHL lead in making 51 appearances and was an AHL All-Star. The blue line also features Victor Söderström and Max Szuber along with captain Steven Kampfer. Up front is strong depth with a group that includes Cameron Hebig, Jan Jenik, Milos Kelemen, Justin Kirkland, John Leonard, Austin Poganski and Nathan Smith.

They’ll need all the resources that they can muster given that they’ll be facing down standout Wranglers goaltender Dustin Wolf, who is just back from an extended stint with the Calgary Flames. Wolf, the AHL’s most valuable player last season, has been playoff-tested with 22 postseason appearances over the last two years. Solving him, especially in a best-of-three series, will not be an easy task.

But this is what the Coyotes organization wants for these young prospects. The Roadrunners had an all-too-brief appearance in the Calder Cup Playoffs last season, dropping their first-round series with Coachella Valley in three games. This year’s roster has a chance to build on its success in both Tucson and Arizona with a strong postseason run.

“Those guys are here for a purpose,” head coach Steve Potvin said to the team website. “They’ve got to experience playoff hockey and meaningful games. It’s the organization’s plan to win a Stanley Cup at some point. We’ve got to put our prospects in position to be able to earn that one day, and they’ve got to be able to feel this type of temperature and what every sequence means in the playoffs, how you prepare and how you mentally handle it.

“I think it’s important and great that they’re here because one day they’re going to be leading.”