The Tucson Roadrunners return to the ice Saturday night with a new head coach, an overhauled roster and a revamped style of play.
Local fans will get their first look at the Arizona Coyotes affiliate when the Roadrunners host the San Diego Gulls at Tucson Arena.
Mike Van Ryn, previously a development coach with the Coyotes, takes over as coach. He will be tasked with cultivating young talent to be sent up to the Coyotes while establishing a winning culture in Tucson.
And he’ll do it using the Coyotes organization’s hockey playbook: An aggressive, offense-oriented style of hockey designed to keep the puck in the hands of the initiators.
“You want it to get the puck back and keep it. I know that sounds simple, but that’s what you want to do in hockey,” Van Ryn said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, and that’s what we’re preaching our guys.”
The system imitates the one used by the Coyotes and differs from the style the organization used last year, which put more emphasis on defense.
Tucson had plenty of scoring threats last year, namely Chris Mueller and Christian Fischer. However, the Roadrunners’ wings weren’t given as many opportunities as they may have liked.
“Our old system was where we played real good defense and tried to wait come and not to mess up,” Van Ryn said. “Now, we’re trying to push, we’re trying to get on teams.
“If I was a player, I want to steal the other player’s confidence. It sounds bad, but that’s what you want to do.”
Van Ryn inherits a roster primarily composed of young talent eager to push their way through the American Hockey League into the NHL.
The AHL has become the NHL’s top farm system: 88 percent of the top-level players have played in the AHL at some point.
Tucson will face its biggest AHL rival, San Diego, to begin the year. The teams announced Friday that the winner of the season series will receive the newly created “I-8 Border Trophy.” The winner of each of the team’s 12 games will receive two points; in the case of overtime or a shootout, the losing team will be awarded one point.
The Gulls are the AHL affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks, who opened their regular season with a 5-4 win over the Coyotes on Thursday night.
The Roadrunners’ Kyle Wood was one of the players competing for a spot on the Coyotes roster before being cut to Tucson.
Wood, a 21-year old defenseman, played in 68 Roadrunners games last year and is expected to be one of the fan favorites in his second season.
“I think the (new style) definitely suits my game,” Wood said. “We were working on it in Coyotes, and it was pretty easy coming down here with the same type of things. It’s definitely going to fast-paced, up-and-down hockey, and a lot of offense on our side.”
Wood scored 14 goals for Tucson last year and could be a top performer again.
The Roadrunners will rely on goalies Marek Langhamer and Adin Hill for the second straight season; a third net-minder, Hunter Miska, will push them.
Other familiar faces dotting the roster include Conor Garland, Jalen Smereck, and Tyler Gaudet.
In total, a little more than half of the Roadrunners’ 26-man roster will be playing their first games with Tucson.
“I think this year we have a tighter group,” Wood said. “We have a lot of young guys that can skate and have a lot of offense, and I think we’re going to need that playing in the system that we are.”