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Father figure: Anton Strålman’s tutelage of Coyotes’ youths may not end this season

Craig Morgan Avatar
April 9, 2022

When Anton Strålman signed a three-year, $16.5-million free-agent contract with the Florida Panthers on July 1, 2019, the then-32-year-old defenseman had two goals in mind. He wanted to finish out his NHL career in the state that he had already called home for five years (all with Tampa). And he wanted to play long enough to be in consideration for Team Sweden when the Beijing Olympics rolled around in 2022.

He didn’t achieve either goal. 

The NHL and NHLPA elected not to send players to the Olympics due to COVID concerns, and the Panthers traded Strålman, defenseman Vladislav Kolyachonok and a 2024 second-round draft pick to Arizona (for a 2023 seventh-round pick) in July to increase cap space for a team that is in serious contention for the Stanley Cup with the league’s second-best point total (106).

“There was a lot of frustration with that trade and there was definitely some lack of communication on their part, which made it even harder,” Strålman said. “At the time of the trade, it was quite a big thing to decide, especially with a family of four kids (Liv, Leo, Lowve and Bella) and being in Florida for that long. It’s not just my life we’re talking about so I honestly told my wife (Johanna) and the kids, ‘Hey, we don’t have to do this. We have (contract) protection (a modified no-trade clause). We don’t need to accept this trade. We can just take this next year in Florida and then we move home to Sweden.’

“They were like, ‘We really want you to play.’ I think everybody at that time felt like we had seen Florida, we had done Florida now for a long time. Maybe it was time to see something new. They were very supportive and that made the decision a little bit easier.”

Strålman waived his no-trade clause to complete the trade, but the final year of this contract may not be his final go-round in the NHL. Although discussions have not yet begun, sources have indicated that the Coyotes are interested in re-signing Strålman. There is an esoteric, but critically important reason for that interest.

When GM Bill Armstrong embarked on a full-fledged rebuild of the roster, he made it clear that he wanted to acquire influential and selfless veterans who could shepherd the younger players through what Armstrong knew would be a difficult and challenging process. Andrew Ladd, Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle and Loui Eriksson have provided that for the forward group. Strålman has been the standard bearer for the defense and the Coyotes are thrilled with the impact that he has had on players such as J.J. Moser, Cam Dineen, Dysin Mayo and Kolyachonok.

“Every coach, every player talks about it, and everybody who’s not in the trenches thinks, ‘Oh, you should play only the young guys.’” Coyotes coach André Tourigny said. “That’s not the way it works. If they don’t have a teacher in the class, you can send your kid to school, but if there’s no teacher that doesn’t work.

“There’s no better coach than a player. When you have a player to help you to grow your craft and explain your situation, that’s the best coaching you can have and the best development you can have. We are very fortunate we had a lot of those this year. Look at our young guys and do your own assessment. How was the development of our young guys?”

For much of the season, Strålman was paired with 2021 second-round pick (No. 60) J.J. Moser, who had never played North American hockey before this season and spent only 18 games with the AHL’s Tucson Roadrunners before the Coyotes recalled him. Both Moser and the hockey operations staff believe that Strålman’s tutelage is one of the biggest reasons that Moser showed such promise so early in his NHL career, before he sustained an injury that has sidelined him since March 15.

“The thing that helps me most is his calmness, his composure,” Moser said. “You’re in the league for the first time but it affects you. You automatically feel way calmer because you know he’s there and he’s gonna help you.”

Strålman also has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the North American style of play and the techniques and tactics that come with it. Before he arrived in Arizona, Moser had never heard the term surfing — the technique wherein a defenseman skates forward on an angle, rather than backing up, to force an attacking player to the outside and, hopefully, to give up the puck. Strålman helped him understand and implement the tactic.

“When you know the guy has all this experience and he’s been in pretty much every situation, you can take advantage of his experiences,” Moser said.

Linesman Vaughan Rody shakes hands with Coyotes defenseman Anton Strålman after a game against the San Jose Sharks at Gila River Arena on March 30. (Getty Images)

Strålman said he isn’t “the most high intensity guy.” He’s more “even keel and calculated” in his communication and advice for teammates. At times, however, he offers glimpses of his wry sense of humor.

In a recent game in Winnipeg, he heel-picked on his first shift and gave up a breakaway to the Jets Blake Wheeler, who did not score. When he got back to the bench he cracked up his teammates by miming “the backstroke” he had just practiced on the ice.

Before the Super Bowl, the Coyotes installed a camera in the tunnel on the way out to the ice. As he walked past it, Strålman leaned in and barked: “American football sucks!” to the amusement of all those who watched.

“I caught some heat for that one,” Strålman said, laughing.

As esoteric as the notion of veteran leadership sounds to outsiders, Strålman has very clear thoughts on how it should proceed.

“It’s a balance because you can’t be there all the time for young guys,” he said. “It’s a learning process and you’re gonna have to learn on your own a little bit so it’s more about me just trying to be supportive. 

“I remember when I came into this league and you made a mistake, it felt like the whole world was just falling. It’s not. It really is not. Mistakes happen. I’m the cause of many, many goals against out there, just like the guy next to me, but it’s about the way you handle those mistakes. That’s the biggest thing.”

Strålman has played for six NHL teams (Toronto, Columbus, New York Rangers, Tampa, Florida and Arizona) in his 15-year career. That experience has also provided him a clear idea of what a franchise should look like from top to bottom. 

At the time of last summer’s trade, Strålman hopped on a Zoom call with a litany of Coyotes officials including Armstrong, Tourigny, president/CEO Xavier Gutierrez and executive Shane Doan.

“You got a really good sense and an idea of what they’re trying to do here and it kind of spoke to me, them trying to be family oriented, which is something that this league lacks, I think big time,” Strålman said. “I wanted to be a part of that.

“I think this organization is on top of a lot of things that other teams are not, even things like nutrition. Chef Mario (Maura) makes by far the best food that I’ve had in any organization. We’ve got (high performance nutrition coach) Carl Bombardier making shakes, doing all these tests, trying to optimize everything and with a high performance team of three guys that really puts in the work and does things right so we can prepare and recover and all those things, this organization really is top of the line.”

There is also the simple reality that living in Arizona means better weather than most markets throughout the hockey season. The Strålmans are an outdoor family so they have taken to hiking the Valley’s deserts and mountains. 

“I love living here,” Strålman said. “If not the best place to live in the NHL, it’s definitely up there at the top. I’ve been in the south now for the last eight years and I still miss the change of the seasons, but at the same time, being here and being able to be outdoors is awesome. The weather is beautiful; just terrific. In terms of living here, it has been fantastic.”

Strålman said there is no rush to decide his future. His kids all like their schools and his oldest has an eighth-grade graduation in June so the family plans to “hang out” in Arizona after the season ends later this month, before heading home to Sweden for the summer.

“Who knows what next year is gonna bring,” he said. “At this time, I think you just focus on the present and do the best you can for now and then you take on what’s coming.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed everything about this year. Obviously, the results could have been better in terms of where we are in the standings, but at the same time, I know what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to build a culture that’s sustainable and long term. You can’t do that overnight so yeah, I’d like to continue being a part of that. At some point, I think we’re gonna have that discussion and see what they say.”

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