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When Logan Cooley announced in late May that he would be returning to the University of Minnesota for his sophomore season, Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong made a prediction that was, at the time, off the record.
“Mark my words,” Armstrong said. “When the season begins, Logan Cooley will be wearing a Coyotes jersey.”
The Coyotes had to wait two months as Cooley publicly wavered on his decision while weighing the pros and cons. He was intrigued by the idea of returning to Minnesota and spearheading a chase for the national championship that eluded the Gophers in overtime of the NCAA title game against Quinnipiac. But the defections of forward Matthew Knies and defensemen Brock Faber, Jackson LaCombe and Ryan Johnson to the NHL were going to make that a much greater challenge.
Cooley was concerned about the direction of his future NHL franchise after Tempe voters struck down a plan for a new arena, but that concern was tempered by the offseason acquisitions of Sean Durzi, Jason Zucker, Alex Kerfoot, Nick Bjugstad and Troy Stecher, and by the assurances of Arizona’s best player, Clayton Keller, who is also represented by Bartlett Hockey.
In the end, Armstrong’s confidence was grounded in two fundamental beliefs about Cooley.
“I felt in my heart that he was too good for college,” Armstrong said. “I felt in my heart, too, that he wanted to be a Coyote. He wanted to turn pro.”
That desire was evident to anybody who spoke to Cooley over the past two months. He scoffed at the notion that he’d rather not play in the desert; that he might even stay in school for four years to become a free agent.
“There’s not a chance,” he said, laughing. “I’m just focused on becoming a better player and playing for the Coyotes.”
Cooley ended the speculation when he officially signed his three-year, entry-level contract on Thursday.
In so doing, Cooley energized a fan base that hasn’t had a lot to get excited about in recent years. The 2022 third overall pick is tied with Dylan Strome (2015) and Kyle Turris (2007) as the highest selections the Coyotes have ever made. If you couple that fact with his skill level, improved scouting, and the pervasiveness of information and media coverage available in 2023, Cooley becomes the most hyped prospect in franchise history.
That title carries with it a host of challenges; a point that he acknowledged when he addressed reporters via Zoom on Thursday.
“It’s definitely going to be an adjustment but during the summer I’ve been training with guys like JT Miller and Vince Trocheck, just learning little things from them to help me adapt in the NHL,” he said. “It’s gonna take some time, but I’m really looking forward to it.”
There are a fair number of analysts who believe that Cooley could have benefitted from another year of college. If nothing else, he could have added strength and lean muscle mass to his body with the help of Big Ten-level trainers and facilities.
“From a pure development standpoint, I think that he was close to being NHL ready,” Flo Hockey senior content creator Chris Peters said. “While he was great, it’s not like he had the best season ever by a freshman player in college hockey. It’s not like he had this earth shattering performance. It was great. It was unique. It was not common, for sure, but it wasn’t Paul Kariya or even Adam Fantilli.
“The reason to potentially go back is more concerted weight training. He needs time to physically develop. While I think he’s an exceptional skater and he’s highly skilled, just getting physically stronger and harder to play against, you can do that with more time in the weight room.”
He won’t get there with what is left of the summer, but Coyotes director of player development Lee Stempniak said that Cooley has made a lot of progress in that area.
“He’s one of the most driven players I’ve worked with and that drive has helped him just look more physically mature,” Stempniak said. “I don’t think he’s done by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s bigger than he was last year.”
Stempniak is not among those who think Cooley should have returned to school. Cooley worked with Coyotes development coach Jeff Shantz on his faceoff technique and the staff has zeroed in on key areas that still need improvement such as the defensive responsibilities of a center down low in the defensive zone, or puck management at the offensive blue line.
But drills and discussions are one thing. Implementation is quite another.
“He was exceptional last year in college hockey, especially the second half of the season after world juniors,” Stempniak said. “All the things that you love about his game — the creativity, the speed, driving play, generating offense — all that stuff was on display almost every shift so I don’t think there was a lot of room to add more to that in college hockey.
“One of the things that you have to be mindful about with him going back to college was him focusing on the right things that are going to be important to success in the NHL, whether that’s play away from the puck, defensively, or learning what he can get away with at the offensive blue line. He’s not forced to do that a lot in college hockey because he has the puck so much and a lot of times, he can do what he wants with it. It’s great to have the puck and dominate but a lot of what he needs to improve on and what he needs to work on to be the player he believes he can be is going to come from learning at the pro level.
“You don’t really know how good Connor McDavid is until you’re up against him. You don’t know how strong NHL defensemen are, or how well they skate and defend and hold gaps until you’re in the NHL and you get exposed to that. Then you learn from it and you make adjustments.”
As Cooley learns those things, Armstrong and Stempniak both believe it will be imperative for the Coyotes to shelter him.
“I think you have to,” Armstrong said. “We had a situation where we couldn’t protect Barrett Hayton in his first year and he was swimming on some nights — when you’re on the road especially and you can’t get the matchups you like.”
For that reason, it’s unwise to expect Cooley to step right between Keller and Nick Schmaltz on the top line. Neither possesses the size, strength or two-way game to protect him. Veterans such as Jason Zucker, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Kerfoot, Lawson Crouse or Travis Boyd may be better suited to that role. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see Cooley play some on the wing as he acclimates to the NHL.
“We brought in those types of players that will not only support him, but make him a better player,” Armstrong said. “You don’t want to leave him out to dry. Sometimes, if you’re too young as a team and you’re bringing a player like that in, it can be a long season when you’re getting shelled every night. It’s a hard league. There’s always something coming at you and the grind is real. Now we have good veterans around him to help him along the way.”
At the same time, Stempniak hopes that fans and analysts won’t run wild with their expectations for a 19-year-old in the NHL.
“When he’s at his best, he takes what the opposition gives him and he still makes plays because he reads it so well,” Stempniak said. “Success in his first year is not forcing plays. It’s not feeling the need to make something happen at the end of the shift. It’s biding your time, playing well away from the puck, doing the right things and then when the opportunities are there, he has a skill set, he has the vision, he has the speed to make the plays.
“This season will be about earning the coaching staff’s trust and then learning how to play the game at the NHL level where it’s not trading chances, but instead being responsible away from the puck so that he’s not gonna have to go searching for offense. My big thing would be to temper expectations for the fans. It’s a big jump from the American League to the NHL, let alone from college hockey to the NHL, so it will just be about growth in his game over the course of the season. Very rarely is it a straight upward trajectory. If it is, that’s awesome, but when you look at development with its ups and downs, you just want the trend to be going upward.”
Nobody is ready to discuss what happens if Cooley struggles on his NHL maiden voyage. Armstrong and Stempniak don’t think that’s going to happen, but it raises an interesting question: If it becomes apparent that Cooley needs to spend some time in the AHL, will the Coyotes be willing to pull the trigger?
“When you look at the way this is being built up and the way this is being teased, this is all to suggest that Logan Cooley isn’t just going to be part of the NHL roster, he’s going to be a big part of the NHL roster. That’s the expectation now,” said Peters, who still ranks Cooley as the best player in the 2022 draft class. “If he needs to go to the AHL for his development, the only reasons not to do it are that it’s a marketing reason and it’s a relationship reason as well. It’s not a hockey reason, but the player still needs to do what you drafted him to do.
“The AHL is probably not the option they feel best about. It’s a hit to the player’s ego and the fans might see it as a demotion, but so many of the best players in the league spent time in the AHL. It is an important developmental step where it does bridge the gap between college and the NHL, or junior and the NHL. If Logan Cooley is not producing at the NHL level, if he is not putting points on the board, if he’s not able to maintain a top-six role, you have to send him to a place where he is going to play the role that you expect him to play in the NHL. I hate when people get all bent out of shape about players going to the AHL because it is an incredible developmental opportunity for those players.”
The Coyotes hope that day never comes, but if it does, it will require a kid-glove level of communication where the player understands completely that it’s not a demotion; it’s not because the team doesn’t believe in him. It’s a way of making him a better player; one who is better equipped to achieve what he believes he can achieve.
“I don’t even want to attempt to answer that question right now because we’ll deal with the player every step of the way and always try to put the player in the right situation on the ice,” Armstrong said. “At this point where he’s at, he’s an NHL player for us and he has an opportunity to come in and make our club. He’s just gotta make sure he comes to camp in shape and that he spends the summer getting bigger, stronger and faster.
“He’s an exciting kid, not only on the ice, but off the ice. He’s a competitor. He’s everything that we embody and what we’re looking for with the new Coyotes culture and its players. We were really excited to get an opportunity to sign him and bring him in right away.”