Toward the end of Wednesday morning’s practice, a line of Tucson Roadrunners formed around the coaching staff for a final sprint around the rink.
Coach Mark Van Ryn, wearing a baseball cap backwards, watched his players lap around the scuffed-up Tucson Arena ice. When the workout was over, a handful of players dropped to the ice, catching their breath.
“That was actually a pretty easy practice for us,” Van Ryn said with a slight grin. “We work pretty hard around here.”
Van Ryn is pleased with Tucson’s 5-1-1-0 start, but the detail-oriented coach sees plenty of room for improvement. The Roadrunners will continue their detail-driven attack on Friday night, when they host the Cleveland Monsters for the first of two back-to-back games.
Tucson is trying to avoid a repeat of last season, when the club started 8-1-2-0 only to fall off and miss the playoffs.
It helps that Van Ryn has a young, ambitious roster headlined by a handful of elite prospects.
Dylan Strome, the third overall pick of the 2015 NHL draft, is the Roadrunners’ top facilitator offensively. He’s scored one goal and dished nine assists in his six games this season.
Lawson Crouse, selected 11th overall in ’15, is set to make his third appearance with the team Friday. Nick Merkley, picked 30th overall that year, has a team leading four goals.
All three players are 20 years old.
“They’re still figuring things out,” Van Ryn said. “You have to remember that Strome and Merkley were playing junior (hockey) last year. We have guys playing top roles and they’re great hockey players, but they’re still figuring it out.”
Van Ryn wants to see more focus on defense, where the coach said the team has been too passive lately.
Tucson’s defense has improved since a 7-6, opening-night loss to San Diego, the lone game played without Strome in the lineup.
But the club still isn’t consistent enough, Van Ryn said.
“When you’re better defensively, you’re going to be better in the neutral zone, and you’re going to have a better chance (of scoring),” Strome said. “They kind of all work into each other.”
The Roadrunners’ goalkeeping play has been solid even as Tucson deals with the Arizona Coyotes’ ever-shifting roster moves.
The parent club has called up all three of Tucson’s goalkeepers at different times in the last month.
Adin Hill and Marek Langhamer, Tucson’s two regular goalies last year, are with the Roadrunners this weekend. Hunter Miska, a one-year NCAA standout at Minnesota-Duluth, was assigned to Tucson on Wednesday after being recalled to Arizona earlier in the week.
“We’ve had a lot of guys go up so it’s been good,” Van Ryn said. “I think our guys know what’s expected because we play the same system” as Arizona.