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This is the first in a monthly, in-season prospect series that will update the development of key Coyotes draft picks.
As we begin season two of the PHNX Coyotes prospect report, a reminder that there’s a new man at the head of the Coyotes revamped development staff. Lee Stempniak has replaced Alex Henry, who stepped down as director of player development to spend more time at home, helping raise his two young boys.
“This is really what I wanted to do so I was really happy I got the opportunity to do it,” Stempniak told PHNX in late August. “[GM] Bill [Armstrong] and the ownership group have really put an emphasis on development now with all of the resources they are devoting to it. We have these high-end prospects coming in so the next step is to help these players get to the NHL, be impact NHL players and stay in the NHL.”
Stempniak isn’t the only new face who will play a key role in prospect development. The Coyotes named Nathaniel Brooks their skill development coach in July, they added Zack Stortini as a Roadrunners assistant coach, and they hired Kurtis Foster and Jeff Shantz as development coaches earlier this month.
While Armstrong placed an early emphasis on revamping and augmenting the scouting staff when he came on board two years ago, he knew that the development staff would need attention soon. With the Coyotes in the midst of a rebuild, a glut of draft prospects have entered or will enter the system in the coming years. The Coyotes development staff is now complete and ready to tackle the critical task of shepherding those players to the NHL.
In the first edition of the 2022-23 PHNX Coyotes prospect report, we’ll take a look at three of them: Minnesota Golden Gophers center Logan Cooley, CSKA Moskva defenseman Artem (or Artyom) Duda and Tucson Roadrunners defenseman Victor Söderström.
University of Minnesota hockey coach Bob Motzko has only been around Logan Cooley for a couple of months, but he already has a pair of definitive takeaways.
“He doesn’t even shave yet,” Motzko said, chuckling. “He’s just a young boy that has not yet turned into a man. When he does, look out.”
Why the warning? That’s the second takeaway.
“He’s got a ton of fire in his belly,” Motzko said. “The talent is exceptional and I think everybody already knew that, but he’s got a high compete level. Those are the main ingredients you want in a player. When you get high-level players that have a motor, you’ve got a lot to work with.
“We’re just waiting for his body to mature and for him just to mature into the type of the player that he’s going to be. It’s all in front of him. He’s got all the tools, he plays so hard, he’s so talented and he’s such an explosive skater. He’s got everything you want. It’s gonna be fun to be along for the ride as he grows.”
The Coyotes’ top prospect is off to a good start with the No. 1 Golden Gophers. He is tied for second on the team in points (six) with Maple Leafs prospect Matthew Knies and Blues prospect Jimmy Snuggerud; one point behind Ducks prospect Jackson LaCombe.
His linemates have been shifting, but last week in a series split against North Dakota in which both games went to overtime, he was playing between Snuggerud and Knies. That is, until he got a five-minute face-mask penalty and a game misconduct in the second period of North Dakota’s 5-4 win on Saturday.
“He wants to take on all comers,” Motzko said. “What he’s going to have to learn is he doesn’t have to fight all the fights. He’s just a competitor but I’d rather have to put out a fire than start one.”
Coyotes development coach Jeff Shantz was in town to watch that series and the Coyotes are also watching a lot of video on Cooley. Stempniak sees the same compete level.
“He defends hard, he closes time and space quickly and then he’s able to use his skating and his smarts to get the puck and transition up ice very quickly,” Stempniak said. “From there, when the puck’s in his hands, he makes good decisions. He makes good plays. He’s creative.
“The biggest thing for me with his development is going to be off ice. That’s where I think he’s gonna get the most gains in his game. He’s still a young kid and not physically mature by any means. He’s already a great skater but getting stronger, getting more powerful in the gym will help him protect pucks and make him more explosive skating and I think it really touches a lot of parts of his game.”
“Some of the big things are using his speed a little more strategically, moving pucks and jumping to space; really using his skating to his advantage,” he said. “His strength, among other things, is just how quickly he processes the game and makes plays at high speeds with his hockey sense. So his ability to get into more advantageous situations by using his skating more strategically and more often will really set him up for success.”
Cooley didn’t get much of a chance this summer to work on his physique. He was busy.
“He’s had a long summer with the draft and development camp and World Junior camp and World Juniors and there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to be in the gym,” Stempniak said. “So we’ve got a plan for him to be in the gym after their Saturday games during the season so he can get some extra training sessions and really check that box and hopefully make some strides which will help him prepare for the NHL.”
While the Coyotes are in regular communication with Motzko and his staff about fundamentals that Cooley can work on to prepare for the next level, they take a hands-off approach when it comes to any kind of system coaching or strategy. That is Motzko’s purview alone. So is his fatherly approach.
“He’s going to be an igniter, he’s going to be a catalyst wherever he plays and I’ve had him on a few different lines,” Motzko said. “He and Snuggerud have great chemistry from the U.S. program. We’ve noticed that from day one but it’s still a work in progress with us. We’ll juggle things because I don’t want to put too much pressure on him. He wants it all, but I don’t want to put the whole weight of the world on him right out of the blocks. I want him to grow into it.
“You have to remember that these kids are adapting to life, adapting to school and going to class and the challenges of becoming a young man in college. We all know that he’s got a tremendously bright future in front of him, but these kids have to breathe and enjoy themselves, too.”
Kurtis Foster and Stempniak held a Zoom call with 2022 second-round pick (No. 36) Artem Duda recently. The Coyotes’ Russia scout, Rasty Saglo, served as the translator.
Technology is the best the Coyotes can do right now with Duda, given the travel challenges that the Russian invasion of Ukraine presents. The development staff must rely on a lot of video to keep tabs on him.
“He’s a smart player, an offensive defenseman, and he’s a really smooth skater, which is critical in the NHL now,” Stempniak said. “The word that stands out to me is dynamic. When he’s got the puck on his stick he’s dynamic at the offensive blue line. He’s able to break pucks out. He makes really good decisions with the puck and he can make plays.
“He also has a really good understanding of the defensive side of the game in terms of where to position himself, so he’s got the ability to be a really strong two-way defender.”
Duda (6-1, 187 pounds), has played the majority of his season for Red Army Moscow (Krasnaya Armiya Moskva) in the MHL, Russia’s equivalent of a junior league, where he has four goals and nine points in 12 games, but he was recently called up to the KHL for CSKA Moscow.
“He’s a really strong player in the MHL so for him to get called up to the KHL is a good challenge,” Stempniak said. “He’s forced to play against bigger guys, stronger guys, more talented players.
“Where he’s going to need to work is just more on the defensive things with having tighter gaps and angling and just being more assertive. In the MHL right now, he doesn’t get challenged to defend really hard. He can rely on his smarts and his skill so I’m curious to see him play more in the KHL because he’s gonna have to defend harder and be more assertive and rely on stick positioning and better gaps to kill plays.”
It’s too early to project when Duda might make his way to North America to learn the pro game here, but the Coyotes seem content with his current situation. While the KHL has had some financial and infrastructure issues with teams in smaller markets, the teams that are based in Moscow are generally well funded and well run. CSKA Moscow is in second place in the Western Conference with 31 points in 21 games.
“Obviously, you’d hope you could get him in the organization sooner than later, but I think for his situation he’s in a pretty good spot, given what’s going on in the world,” Stempniak said. “He’s with a good team, playing a lot and he’s relied upon. For him, the challenge is sort of just continuing to grow his game. There’s not glaring things where you think there’s a deficiency in the coaching he’s getting or something that really needs to be addressed. He just needs to continue to play.”
Victor Söderström’s Arizona tenure is deceptive. On the one hand, he is entering his third season with the Tucson Roadrunners, leading many fans to wonder if the 2019 11th overall pick is ever going to make his way to the NHL.
On the other hand, Söderström is only 21; an age that should not ring alarm bells for a defenseman because their development paths often take longer.
“I wonder what people would think if he would have come over [from Sweden] last year, and then we’d only be talking about one season in the AHL,” said Roadrunners assistant coach John Slaney, who coaches the defensemen. “I know he’s been over here going into his third year now, but at the same time, it all depends on how his body develops and how strong he is.
“I can tell you one thing. He is committed. He’s focused every day on doing the right things. He’s 21 years old, he’s a right-handed shot and he has some offensive skills so you have to be patient when you have a prospect like that who understands the game and plays his style of game.”
Stempniak sees a pattern in Söderström’s game.
“First off, he had a really good offseason,” Stempniak said. “When he came in you could tell he put in the work. His numbers are up, but I think by his own admission, his first preseason game in Tucson, he wasn’t very good. He had a really strong first game in Tucson to start the AHL season, and then the next night he was just okay so I think the big thing for him is consistency.
“He’s been in North America for a couple of years now, but you’d like to see him play faster, play quicker with the puck on his stick. You want him to see a play, move the puck and have consistency on the ice. So for me, those are the big things, and he has the ability to do it.”
That pace of play has shown on the power play where Söderström is still adjusting to less time to make plays than he had on the larger ice surface in Sweden. As a result, a player who was billed as one who could run an NHL power play is currently on the Roadrunners’ second power-play unit.
Slaney believes that Söderström may be a victim of his own expectations.
“I think sometimes with first-round picks, they can get a little frustrated at times with how much time it can take,” Slaney said. “He’s closing quick and he’s accepting what he needs to do defensively. He really has worked on that, using his stick and his positioning, but when he gets in the offensive zone, I think he overcommits a little bit because he really wants to jump in on the offensive side and score goals or make that play to set up other players for scoring a goal.
“When he’s the fourth guy on attacks, joining the rush, he’s not really in a position to get the puck and he thinks that he’s in the right position. When the defenseman joins a rush you kind of want to be in the middle of the ice and sometimes he’s on either side or he’ll just be down too low in the offensive zone so we do a lot of video together to get an understanding of your distance between them and where you should be so you don’t put yourself in a situation where if we do miss the net, the puck turns over and there’s a two-on-one going back the other way.”
Aside from the adjustment he had to make to North American culture and play, Söderström is still filling out physically. He’s never going to be an imposing player on the back end so he’ll have to defend using his stick, his quickness, his intelligence and his positioning. At the same time, this training camp was the first time where Söderström’s body looked filled out and mature.
When you think about the Coyotes’ rebuild timeline, there is no reason to turn the page on Söderström. The Coyotes can bide their time and hope that what a previous scouting and management group saw in him materializes.
“I think there’s something coming with him so we’re going to be patient with him,” Stempniak said. “To me, he’s made strides. He has improved, year to year. He can make a pass and break pucks out. Seeing the plays and making those passes is a valuable commodity in the NHL.”
Top photo of Logan Cooley via Getty Images
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