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Eight games into his Coyotes tenure, waiver-wire pickup Connor Ingram was 1-6-1 with an .866 save percentage. He had just allowed eight goals on a cold December night in Edmonton and the cold was right where Ingram figured the Coyotes were going to leave him.
“I really thought that might be it,” he said. “But this organization and Schwabby and Bear (coach André Tourigny) had my back. They said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Let’s just keep moving forward and getting better.’ That was big for me. They showed that they believed in me and that they thought I could get it done with very little proof. That’s when I just said, ‘OK, let’s just settle in and try and figure this out.'”
Ingram did just that. In January, he posted a 2.62 goals against average and a .929 save percentage in six starts. In February, he had a 2.41 GAA and .935 save percentage in four starts. Despite his rough start, he ended the season with a .907 save percentage and 3.7 goals saved above expected.
It was a good start for a goalie seeing his first significant NHL action — one that earned him a three-year, $5,850,000 contract extension ($1,950 average annual value) this summer.
“When you bring a new guy into a new team, especially a goalie, you know there’s going to be an adjustment period, but he didn’t even have the luxury of going through training camp to get to know any of the players or systems or anything else,” said Coyotes goalie coach Corey Schwab, noting that Ingram began the season with Nashville Predators, who played exhibition games in Finland.
“It’s not an excuse, but there were some things that were working against him so it took a little bit of time and I think his play showed that. He was the backup and he didn’t get the most opportune starts. That’s part of the job but you have to learn how to manage it. Once he got comfortable and started figuring everything out, that’s when he gained the confidence and his game started to elevate from that point.”
Ingram’s rise had been predicted by knowledgeable analysts in the business, but the stability of a three-year deal, coupled with his maturity and a better handle on the mental side of his game and life offers Ingram a real opportunity in Arizona. It also gives the Coyotes an insurance policy if Karel Vejmelka’s contract demands rise too high in the final two seasons of his contract.
“Stability is huge,” Ingram said. “Moving around is really hard on me with new places, new things, new environments. Sarah and Loki (the couple’s dog) are amazing and they do their best to make me feel comfortable, but just to get an apartment here and say, ‘Okay, the next three years we can stay here’ is a great feeling for sure.”
Like most goalies, Ingram will tell you that when he is playing his best, his game takes on a minimalist quality.
“I think it’s boring,” he said. “You’re just kind of settled in and letting the game come to you. You’re not trying to do too much; just just staying calm and sticking to what you know.”
That’s the goalie that Scwhab watched over the second half of the 2022-23 season. That’s the guy he wants to see for the entire 2023-24 season.
“To me, the next step is just to be able to do it again,” Schwab said. “Breaking down last season, the first few games weren’t what he would want, but then I look at his last 27 games, he gave us a chance on most nights and it didn’t matter who we were playing.
“The goal is to come in this year and be consistent with that same effort and give us a chance every night that he’s in the game. To me, it’s not about trying to project how many games he has to play or certain numbers that he has to put up. We saw what he can do. It’s about doing what he did over that last stretch and let’s see where it takes you next.”
Coyotes in Australia
The Coyotes announced the players who will be going to Australia for part of training camp and two exhibition games against the Los Angeles Kings. To nobody’s surprise, the lineup looks a lot like an opening-night lineup.
Forwards: Nick Bjugstad, Travis Boyd, Michael Carcone, Logan Cooley, Lawson Crouse, Dylan Guenther, Barrett Hayton, Alex Kerfoot, Clayton Keller, Matias Maccelli, Jack McBain, Liam O’Brien, Nick Schmaltz, Jason Zucker.
Defensemen: Matt Dumba, J.J. Moser, Sean Durzi, Juuso Välimäki, Josh Brown, Troy Stecher, Travis Dermott, Victor Söderström.
Goaltenders: Karel Vejmelka, Connor Ingram, Andrew Oke
This is a league-sanctioned event. You don’t take half of your AHL squad or a slew of rookies to sell and grow the game in foreign lands. In Tourigny’s opinion, there are pluses and minuses to having his NHL roster together from the get-go.
“That’s great to start working with the guys right away, We can fast-track a lot of things,” he said. “But I have to be honest. I love training camp. I’ve been a coach but I was a GM (in the QMJHL and OHL) for 15 years-plus. I love working with young guys. I love to see the progression of the players in Tucson or our young players from last year to this year; see how their summer was and what they remember.
“But for the Yotes’ preparation for the season, to have our core roster and go over there and really have a quick start or an opportunity to do so, that’s fantastic.”
There were no real surprises on the roster of 25 players, which is two more than is allowed on the opening-night roster. Goalie Andrew Oke is slated to play his fourth season with the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit this season. He has also been a part of the United States’ past two World Junior Championship rosters. It seems unlikely that Oke will appear in either of the exhibition games in Melbourne. He is more likely an insurance policy should one of the other two goalies not be able to play.
As for the other player who must be cut from the opening-night roster, that will be sorted out in the days ahead.
Dzingel hoping for ‘something crazy‘
Ryan Dzingel enters Coyotes training camp with a full understanding of his odds. He is not accompanying the team to Australia and the Coyotes forward roster appears all but set.
“Coming in on a PTO (professional tryout) is a tough way to try to make a team but just getting your foot in the door and having the chance is something I’m grateful for,” he said. “You definitely need a lot of things to go your way, but I’m just gonna show up, shut my mouth and work hard and see what happens.”
Dzingel has two things working in his favor: familiarity and health. He, his wife, Elise, and their 4-month-old baby boy, Dawson, live a stone’s throw away from the Ice Den Scottsdale. Like many former Coyotes, Dzingel, who played 26 games for Arizona in 2021-22, fell in love with the Valley and made it his home.
The second half of the equation is something with which Dzingel, unfortunately, is not familiar after a recent run of bad luck.
“I’ve been injured a lot the last couple years,” he said. “It’s really the story of my time recently. I had two surgeries on my wrist and then had lower back issues and then had a labrum tear and some stuff with my glute. I wasn’t really moving or shooting like I normally do. The biggest parts of my game are moving and shooting.”
Those factors relegated Dzingel, 31, to 22 games in the AHL last season with the Chicago Wolves. This for a guy who has two 20-plus NHL seasons on his résumé.
“I wouldn’t sign me either if you’re playing 20 to 30 games a season,” he said. “But I’m completely healthy and not really worried about what happened before. I’m just trying to write some new chapters. [GM] Bill Armstrong and [director of hockey operations and salary cap compliance] David Ludwig gave me an opportunity to come here so we’ll see if I can do something crazy.
“It’s nothing new to me. I’ve been cut my whole life and I was a seventh-round pick and was told I wasn’t gonna make it. Like Deion Sanders says, ‘Why would I care about your opinion?’ I don’t really care about others’ opinions or what people say about me. I just need an opportunity. I know that as you get older, you start losing that opportunity because new guys are getting that opportunity. If I do get that opportunity again, I will make the best of a healthy me. If I don’t get that opportunity, then I know I am going to be successful in whatever I do next.”
Even if Dzingel does not make the Coyotes’ roster, a strong performance in camp could lead to an opportunity with another team.
Here is the list of players on PTOs in Coyotes training camp.
Forwards: Ryan Dzingel, Hunter Drew, Patrick Harper, Cameron Hebig, Micah Miller, Austin Poganski, Colin Theisen, Reece Vitelli.
Defensemen: Olli Juolevi, Peter DiLiberatore, Austin Strand.
Juolevi is the other name that jumps out. The Vancouver Canucks made him the fifth overall pick in 2016, but he never managed more than 23 games in an NHL season, he has just 41 games and three points on his résumé, and he spent last season with the AHL’s San Diego Gulls (one goal, 14 points).
Like Dzingel, Juolevi would have to outplay players expected to make the NHL roster, or take advantage of an unexpected injury to one of those players. But with the release of Liam Kirk (see below) and the expected reassignment of draft picks Conor Geekie and Maveric Lamoureux to the WHL and OHL respectively, the Coyotes have 48 players under contract (they’re allowed a maximum of 50). There could be a spot in the AHL if the Coyotes want to tie up those slots with veterans.
Kirk reflects on brief Coyotes tenure
Liam Kirk was walking the streets of Litvínov, Czechia when I caught up with him on Thursday. The Coyotes 2018 seventh-round pick arrived in the city about two weeks ago and is still trying to familiarize himself with his latest and largely unexpected hockey home.
“I know the team has a rich history, a long history, and they won a championship (2015),” Kirk said. “It’s a smaller city, but the fan base is pretty strong and I really like it here so far. The nature around here is beautiful.”
Kirk had hoped he’d be back in Tucson this season after splitting last season between the Roadrunners, the Coyotes’ ECHL affiliate in Atlanta, and Mikkelin Jukurit in the Finnish league. But he also had the sense that something else might be on his career horizon.
“I didn’t really hear from the Coyotes after I went to Atlanta, and then to Finland,” he said. “We finished our season in Finland in March and Tucson was still playing so I thought they might call me back just to go practice with them but I didn’t hear anything then and then at the end of the season, there was nothing either so I thought that was strange, not hearing anything for that long. I had planned to go back to North America and earn a spot over there in Tucson.”
Instead, Kirk and his agent, Dan Milstein, were left scrambling for opportunities in Europe. Despite a successful season in Finland with seven goals and 19 points in 25 games, he couldn’t go back to Jukurit because they had already filled out their roster and did not have the budget to add.
“There wasn’t too much available but there was enough interest that after a couple of weeks Litvínov came to us with a good offer,” said Kirk, who signed a one-year deal. “After speaking to the coaching staff and a couple players and other people who have been in Czech, it was all positive so I decided it was the best opportunity for me.”
Even so, Kirk wishes he could have had more opportunities in Arizona. After signing a fantasy-fulfilling, three-year, entry-level contract with the Coyotes in June 2021, he played just eight games with the Roadrunners before a torn ACL ended his 2021-22 season. He spent the summer rehabbing in Tucson and tightening his bonds with the team and its training staff.
When he returned, he had trouble finding a spot in the improved lineup (he played one game) before the Coyotes reassigned him to Atlanta.
“I was starting to adjust a little bit and find my feet before the injury,” he said. “And then the second year, for whatever reasons, there really wasn’t much ice time for me. It just wasn’t meant to be for me to play there, but the guys there were great and I made a lot of good friends and a lot of memories with them.”
Litvínov’s management has told Kirk to expect a big role with big minutes. The team opened its Czech Extraliga season on Friday against Pardubice. Kirk is looking forward to the opportunity, but he has not let go of his ultimate dream.
“I guess at the moment, everything is still pretty fresh, but my dream was always to play in the NHL and you never say never,” he said. “A lot of people have different journeys and my journey’s been different from the start. A lot of people come from Europe when they’re 26, 27, 28 and they get opportunities with NHL teams. My focus is just on being here now and trying to play my best hockey, keep improving, keep learning and then we’ll see what happens.
“If you had asked me during that COVID season when I was playing in Sheffield (England) if I thought I was going to sign an NHL contract, I would have laughed at you so you never know.”
Top photo of Connor Ingram via Getty Images
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