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Last week, we checked in on all of the Coyotes prospects who were already engaged in, or were preparing for their respective leagues’ imminent postseasons.
In the March edition of the Coyotes prospect report, we checked in on three guys who are making a push for the postseason: recently recalled Tucson Roadrunners forward Nathan Smith, Roadrunners defenseman Vladislav Kolyachonok, and Muskegon Lumberjacks (USHL) defenseman Matthew Morden, a player who is flying under the radar in the Coyotes pipeline, but will soon join a more high-profile program.
Coyotes prospect Nathan Smith
When the Coyotes acquired Nathan Smith from the Winnipeg Jets in March 2022 for a fourth-round draft pick, there was one motivation in mind for the Minnesota State junior. Smith wanted an NHL opportunity and he wanted it right away; a luxury that the Jets could not give him.
“Having done this for as long as I’ve done this, the only situation where a player is really unhappy is if they’re not playing,” Smith’s agent, Rich Evans, said at the time. “You want to win more, but for the most part, they just want to play, especially young players. They want to get the opportunity to learn and improve their game and Arizona, right now, is providing an opportunity for young players like (Jack) McBain and Smith to play. That’s really appealing.”
Smith got that opportunity late last spring. He played in 10 games, a threshold at which he burned the first year of his age-mandated, two-year, entry-level contract.
When the 2022-23 season began, many outsiders thought that Smith would earn himself another roster spot while McBain developed in the AHL with Tucson. But if they had been analyzing the roster, they would have realized that McBain was the likely choice to fill the fourth-line center role due to his skill set and size.
That’s how things played out in training camp, and the reassignment to Tucson didn’t always sit well with Smith.
“It’s definitely hard,” said Smith, whom the Coyotes recalled on Friday. “Nobody wants to be down there. Everybody wants to be up here and it’s obviously been a grind. It’s a hard league down there.
“I just tried to do the best job I could at getting better every day, just making small improvements and really focusing on the defensive side, being physical and being good at draws. I tried to make it an everyday point to get back up here by getting better every day.”
Smith’s stats in the AHL are not eye-popping. He had 11 goals and 25 points in 58 games before the recall. The details behind those numbers are important. At times, Smith was playing on the third line and the second-unit power play, before earning a different role.
“We put him on the first power play because we know he can make the plays and we want him to be an offensive contributor, but we’ve been really stressing a 200-foot role,” Roadrunners coach Steve Potvin said. “He’s gonna be playing with some offensive guys, but we want him to make sure that he’s detailed defensively and give that line an opportunity to play late in the game when it’s a tight, one-goal lead.
“He’s been on the bumps and also on the flank on the power play, but he’s also been reliable on faceoffs so we’ve been putting him on defensive-zone faceoffs because he can win them on both his strong and weak side so that’s been very valuable.”
Smith said that another point of emphasis has been positioning, whether that’s staying on the defensive side of his opponents or having his stick in passing, shooting and poke-checking lanes.
“He’s been really good defensively away from the puck,” Coyotes director of player development Lee Stempniak said. “His analytics are very strong defensively and just the eye test in talking with Potsy and what I watch, they really trust him in the D-zone and he’s the team leader in faceoffs.
“That’s sort of been there for most of the year, but the progression we’ve seen is him learning to play the percentages offensively. Coming from Mankato and being the go-to guy, he felt the need to put up points and have the leeway to force plays. Now he’s learning better decision making with the puck, awareness with the puck, when you can make those plays and when those windows are closed. To me, that’s been evolving over the course of the season, which is a very good sign.”
The Coyotes have just eight games remaining in their season while the Roadrunners, thanks to a two-game sweep at Colorado this past weekend, have strengthened their playoff chances. Smith knows that could mean a reassignment at any point over the next two weeks to bolster Tucson’s playoff position and help the Roadrunners in the postseason.
“If I can, I’d like to be here as much as possible because that’s the ultimate goal, but if I do have to go back down there to play in the playoffs, those are meaningful games so I wouldn’t mind that opportunity at all,” he said. “Everybody likes playing in the playoffs.”
When examining players’ skill sets, coaches and executives often use comparables from players past or present. When Roadrunners assistant coach John Slaney compared Vladislav Kolyachonok to former Coyote and Blackhawk Niklas Hjalmarsson, that was noteworthy.
“I kind of see a little bit of that because of how he plays with his defensive style of game, killing penalties, killing plays quick, good stick, and his feet are phenomenal,” Slaney said. “He gets in and closes the play so fast.
“The next step to his game is making quick plays to exit the D-zone as fast as we can to get to the offensive zone. He definitely processes the game well enough. It’s just a matter of him understanding that he has to play at a fast pace all the time. When he played [with the Coyotes] at the end of last year, when he came back, he understood how fast the game is up there when you move the puck and that’s what he’s got to be consistent at.”
There is full faith that Kolyachonok will add that skill set to his arsenal. Potvin calls him a robot.
“You give him information, he processes it and he puts it into play immediately,” Potvin said.
Kolyachonok’s robot moniker is also a product of another important variable, however; one that also recalls Hjalmarsson. He has a tireless work ethic.
“With the amount of time he puts in after practice with extra work, I think the guys really, really respect him,” Coyotes development coach Kurtis Foster said. “Whether it’s before or after practices where he’s working on his game, or after games when he’s taking care of his body, you’ll always see him. For such a young kid, he’s such a true pro.”
Kolyachonok does not trace that approach to any one person, whether family or coaching. Instead, he said it comes “from everyone. I’ve seen lots of examples during my career and in life in general, and as you take it all in, I see things that I can adapt for myself and I also have a motivation that drives me.
“Being at the rink and being on the ice is my element, I love to get better, I enjoy the process and going through the processes, it helps me get better.”
Kolyachonok is also comfortable in his North American surroundings. This is his fifth season on the continent between the OHL (Flint), the AHL (Syracuse, Tucson) and the NHL. It’s easy to point out his favorite part of his current home.
“Probably weather,” he said. “It’s nice. I like nature. I like this state with all of the mountains, canyons and wild animals.”
When the Coyotes acquired veteran defenseman Anton Strålman from Florida Panthers in July 2021, they also got a 2024 second-round pick and Kolyachonok in exchange for a 2023 seventh-round pick. Time will tell what the pick brings, but Kolyachonok, the Panthers’ 2019 second-round pick (No. 52), may prove to be the biggest piece of that trade.
“You see a massive improvement in his game,” said Foster, who just watched Kolyachonok in a pair of games against Ontario last week. “Both games, he was the number one defenseman, he played the most minutes, and in the second game he played over 10 minutes on the penalty kill. He’s playing a much simpler game where he’s not making puck decisions that are getting himself into trouble. He’s moving pucks and he’s so good with gaps and killing plays and closing. I see huge improvement in his game. He’s got to be close to knocking on the door and getting an NHL opportunity.”
Coyotes prospect Matthew Morden
Of all the draft picks the Coyotes have made over the past two seasons with a full complement of picks and scouts, Matthew Morden’s name may elicit the most blank stares when you ask people about him. That will happen when you play at tiny St. Andrew’s College, a rigorous academic preparatory school outside of Toronto.
Prep schools in Canada don’t get the same attention as prep schools in the United States. Even Morden’s current team, the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks, probably doesn’t draw the same kind of attention as other teams and programs might for draft-eligible prospects, despite the fact that Andrei Svechnikov played there in the 2016-17 season and the Lumberjacks advanced to the Clark Cup semifinals last season.
“I never really knew what the USHL was until I was in prep school,” Morden said. “But honestly, it’s been really, really good for my development. All the players are really good. It’s just really high quality and there’s lots of depth in this league. I’d say about 90 percent of the league is committed to NCAA DI schools.”
Morden, the Coyotes’ 2022 fifth-round pick (No. 131), is one of those players. He will enroll at Harvard this fall and play for coach Ted Donato, uncle to Coyotes prospect and soon-to-be Harvard graduate, John Farinacci. Harvard is losing three senior defenseman (including Ryan Siedem and San José Sharks’ recent signing Henry Thrun) so Morden should have the opportunity to play immediately.
“I’m really hoping I can step in and be an impact player,” Morden said. “And that was kind of decided by Arizona and Harvard by taking this gap year in Muskegon so I’d be ready for that going in. The academics at Harvard obviously speak for themselves, but they have a boatload of draft picks on their team so it’s not just the academics. The hockey program is great.”
Morden didn’t even play defense for much of his minor hockey career, but he switched over a few years back. He also had the opportunity to play for Canada’s U18 team at the World Junior Championship last spring.
“He kind of opened some eyes with how big he is, how fast he is and his raw tools so we took a chance on him,” Foster said. “When you go watch him play, you can see right away what got them excited to draft him. He’s 6 foot 4, he’s a very powerful skater, very strong. He’s just got a lot to learn about playing defense because he hasn’t been doing it for long, but you see the raw tools.
“Now he’s going to an NCAA school in Harvard where they’ve kind of been spitting out NHL defensemen the last few years. Having the ability to play a year, two years, maybe even three where there’s only two games on the weekend, there’s a lot of time for work in the gym. Most college guys I have ever been around, they’re always in great shape and strong so it makes me excited to see how much more powerful he will be in a couple years.”
Like all prospects, Morden will need work on his skating, but that is a product of his past experience as a forward, not an issue with his stride or speed.
“He’s a very, very, very fast forward skater,” Foster said. “His ability to join the rush and be a part of it is pretty amazing to watch. It’s just finding that risk vs. reward and when the right time to jump is, vs. the time where there’s nothing happening so just worry about who’s behind you and what could happen.
“Going into this year, there was a learning curve on what was expected from defense at the junior level but he’s improved throughout the year. You really can see where he’s working on his game and how he’s trying to become a more all-around defenseman that’s not just worried about offense.”
Like all draft picks, Morden can’t help but look down the road, but he is doing his best to focus on the here and now. It’s easy, he said, given all of the challenges that a school such as Harvard presents.
“I’m excited to go in and kind of see what it’s about,” he said. “I’m the type who’s never really backed down from a challenge so I’ll be excited to see what they have in store for me.”
Coyotes prospect notes
Minnesota’s Logan Cooley, Cal Thomas and Quinnipiac’s Sam Lipkin are all headed to the NCAA Frozen Four. Minnesota advanced by winning the Fargo Regional with victories against Canisius (9-2) and St. Cloud State (4-1). Quinnipiac advanced by winning the Bridgeport Regional with victories against Merrimack (5-0) and Ohio State (4-1). In two NCAA Tournament games, Cooley has a goal and five points. Lipkin has a goal and four points. Minnesota will face Boston University in the Frozen Four in Tampa on April 6. Quinnipiac will face Michigan.
Jan Jeník returned to the Tucson Roadrunners lineup on Saturday after a three-month absence due to an ankle injury. He had a goal and three points in his return, a 7-1 win at Colorado. He did not play in Sunday’s 2-1 overtime win in Colorado because the Roadrunners did not want him playing in a back-to-back situation after such a long layoff.
Per sources, Harvard senior center John Farinacci and the Coyotes are engaged in contract discussions. The Coyotes selected Farinacci in the third round (No. 79) of the 2019 NHL Draft. He has no more eligibility at Harvard due to Ivy League rules and he has no interest in using his final season of NCAA eligibility (due to COVID-19) at another school.
- In the story that I wrote on Coyotes prospects competing in postseasons, I should have noted that IF Björklöven forward Elliot Ekefjärd is injured and cannot play. That notation has been added to the story.
Top photo of defenseman Matthew Morden courtesy of Muskegon Lumberjacks
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