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As the year 2022 takes its final lap, it feels like a good time to celebrate Arizona hockey. The Coyotes just completed a season series sweep of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Valley product Auston Matthews, giving them four straight wins over the Leafs.
The Arizona State men’s team was getting ready to open a stretch of 10 straight games at Mullett Arena as it began its push toward an NCAA Tournament berth.
Two weeks ago, oodles of college and junior scouts descended on the Valley for the Tier 1 Elite League National Midget Showcase, a tournament featuring 60 teams and 120 games spread across four Valley ice arenas in Scottsdale, Chandler, Gilbert and Tempe.
The poster boy for Arizona hockey was shockingly ineffective in the Leafs’ loss on Friday at Mullett. Auston Matthews had no points and was a minus-four in the game, but his presence was a reminder of just how much has changed on the Valley hockey scene since former Coyotes owner Richard Burke chartered a plane during the 1996 NHL All-Star break to fly the Winnipeg Jets players, their wives, their girlfriends and some kids down to Phoenix for a scouting trip of sorts.
USA Hockey’s annual participation numbers consistently highlight Arizona as one of the nation’s fastest growing states. The Valley is now home to the only lower-48 Division I college hockey program west of the Rocky Mountains, and the list of NHL prospects from the Valley no longer starts and stops with Matthews.
Had he not chosen to return to the University of Minnesota to pursue a national championship on what is arguably college hockey’s top forward line (alongside Coyotes prospect Logan Cooley), Matthew Knies would have been skating at Mullett Arena on Thursday with the Leafs.
Had USA Hockey not chosen him to participate in the World Junior Championship, Cutter Gauthier would have been skating for Boston College this weekend when the Eagles take on the Sun Devils and Valley product/Coyotes prospect Josh Doan in a two-game series at Mullett Arena.
Arizona hockey has grown by leaps and bounds, and it has everything to do with the team that is hoping to finally cement its foothold in the Valley when, on May 16, Tempe residents will decide the fate of the proposed arena and entertainment district two miles west of Mullett Arena along the Salt River.
Here’s a look at the key Arizona products who have made their way to the NHL or will soon, as well as a list of players with looser ties to the state.
Auston Matthews: By now, everybody knows Matthews’ Arizona backstory. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman often cites it as proof that hockey is thriving in Arizona despite the Coyotes’ financial and arena struggles.
The reigning Hart Trophy winner is having an off season by his own standards with 17 goals and 40 points in 36 games, but the 2016 first overall draft pick is still the Leafs’ best player and one of the top five players in the league.
He’ll also be a free agent after the 2023-24 season, which allows Valley fans to dream big dreams.
Mark Kastelic: Kastelic played the final three of his Valley hockey seasons for the Jr. Coyotes — two years of Bantams and one as a Midget — before joining the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen.
Kastelic was the Ottawa Senators’ fifth-round pick (No. 125) in 2019 and is currently centering the team’s fourth line. After a slow start that likely doomed their playoff hopes, the Senators are 8-3-2 in December, with one more game in Detroit on Saturday.
Kastelic is the grandson of former NHL defenseman Pat Stapleton, who played for the Blackhawks and Bruins. Stapleton died in 2020, the year before Kastelic made his NHL debut.
Josh Doan: Josh Doan never wavered in his decision to stay in Arizona, even when he knew that his last name carried the weight and spotlight of immense expectations.
When you spend any amount of time with Josh, you realize how perfect a blend he is of two of the best parents you’ll ever meet. The Coyotes also saw plenty of potential in the player, however, when they selected him in the second round (No. 37) of the 2021 draft.
Doan led all NCAA freshmen in regular-season points last season with 37 in 35 games. He is a bit off that pace this season (15 in 19 games), but there is important context to those numbers, there has been ample growth in his game this season, and Sun Devils coach Greg Powers is confident that Doan will be a point-per-game player when the season has concluded.
Matthew Knies: Arizona hockey fans were served a rare Thanksgiving treat when the University of Minnesota men’s team visited ASU for a two-game series in late November. Knies was quiet in the first game, which the Gophers won, but he was the best player on the ice in the second game, which ASU won in OT.
Knies and Doan were teammates with the Jr. Coyotes and they remain good friends. They actually appeared on the PHNX Coyotes show together this past summer. Minnesota is currently ranked No. 1 in the PairWise rankings that determine the NCAA Tournament field of 16.
Whether they win or not, Knies will likely join the Leafs next season. The Leafs wanted their 2021 second-round pick (No. 57) last spring for their playoff push, but he couldn’t resist the lure of a potential national championship. Right now, he is helping the United States in its quest for the World Junior Championship.
Red Savage: The son of former Coyote Brian Savage, Red is a gritty, defensive-minded forward who is good in the faceoff circle and good on the penalty-killing unit; both roles that he is filling for the US at the World Junior Championship.
The Detroit Red Wings selected Savage in the fourth round of the 2021 NHL Draft (No. 114). He has played the past two seasons at Miami (Ohio) University, where he has four goals and 10 points in 16 games this season.
Red started skating at the Ice Den Scottsdale. He played with Josh Doan and Matthew Knies for the Jr. Coyotes when they won the Silver Sticks as Squirts. Roadrunners coach Steve Potvin was his coach in Pee Wees.
Cutter Gauthier: Gauthier’s Boston College teammate, Aidan Hreschuk, did not make Team USA’s World Junior Championship roster out of camp, but Gauthier was a lock. He leads BC with 10 goals and 16 points in 13 games.
Gauthier also learned to skate at the Ice Den Scottsdale and played for the Jr. Coyotes until he was old enough to head off to Michigan to play for Honeybaked Hockey. The Philadelphia Flyers made him the fifth overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, making him one of seven first-round draft picks with Arizona ties.
A product of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, the prototypical power forward had four assists through USA’s first three games at the World Junior Championship.
Others with Arizona hockey ties
Sean Couturier: The Flyers’ 2011 first-round pick (No. 8) is the son of former Phoenix Roadrunner Sylvain Couturier.
Matthew Tkachuk: The Calgary Flames ‘ 2016 first-round pick (No. 6) was born in Scottsdale while Keith was still the captain of the Coyotes. He now plays for the Florida Panthers after a blockbuster offseason trade.
Brady Tkachuk: The Ottawa Senators’ 2018 first-round pick (No. 4) was also born in Scottsdale two years after Matthew.
Tage Thompson: The St. Louis Blues’ 2016 first-round pick (No. 26) is tied for fifth in the NHL in points with 50, and tied for second in goals (26). Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong was the Blues’ director of amateur scouting when St. Louis selected Thompson. Arizona was one of several life stops for Thompson, whose family was constantly on the move.
Tyler Boucher: The Ottawa Senators made the son of former Coyotes goaltender Brian Boucher the 10th overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft. He never played any meaningful hockey in Arizona.
Ethan Gauthier: Gauthier’s father, Denis Gauthier, played in the NHL for 11 seasons with the Calgary Flames, the Coyotes, the Philadelphia Flyers and Los Angeles Kings. The 5-feet-11 forward is consistently protected as a first-round pick in the 2023 NHL Draft.
Top photo of Auston Matthews via Getty Images