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Coyotes approaching decision time for junior-eligible players

Arizona Coyotes' Dylan Strome, right, tries to get past Calgary Flames' Matt Stajan during the second period of an NHL preseason hockey game in Calgary, Alberta, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP)

PHILADELPHIA — The only time Dylan Strome thinks about returning to Erie of the Ontario Hockey League is when reporters ask him about it. Unfortunately for the Coyotes’ rookie center, national and local reporters were asking him at every stop of the team’s six-game, eastern road trip.

“I’m more worried about my fourth game now than my ninth,” Strome said before watching Arizona’s 5-4 win over the Philadelphia Flyers as a spectator on Thursday at Wells Fargo Center. “I’m just trying to get my fourth game, fifth game, sixth game — whatever I can to work back in the lineup.”

What the Coyotes decide to do with junior-eligible players Strome, Lawson Crouse and Jakob Chychrun is one of the biggest storylines of the early season. Chychrun played his sixth game of the season in Philadelphia. Crouse has played five and Strome has played three, so decision time is looming at various points for all three.

The NHL-CHL agreement only permits junior eligible players (under 20) to play nine games in the NHL before teams must burn the first year of those players’ NHL contracts without the ability to send them to the American Hockey League until junior season is over. While the Coyotes have compiled a significant amount of data on those three players, general manager John Chayka insisted Thursday that no decisions have been made.

“Optionality is a good thing so I’m not going to close any options; that’s for sure,” Chayka said. “You’re trying to balance what’s best for the players and their long-term needs with the needs of the team and where that player is in all of that.

“You’ve got to define exactly what it is that player’s needs to play at the NHL level and excel and be the player you drafted or acquired him to be. Then you ask what’s the best place for that development to occur. Some things are better served to be worked on in the NHL; some things are better served to be worked on in juniors.”

When the Coyotes opted to keep all three players on the 23-man, opening-night roster — along with AHL-eligible rookies Christian Dvorak and Laurent Dauphin — they knew they had a window of time with which to work. While fans and media have wondered on a near-daily basis what the management and coaching staffs would decide, the Coyotes are doing exactly what they should do with this window: use it.

All of the data they are collecting, all of the the judgments they are forming and all of the minute details they are observing in each player’s game and habits help to paint a picture, but that picture is not complete. There is no point in determining what that picture shows when there is still painting to be done.

“I don’t think you can underestimate all the other elements other than playing,” coach Dave Tippett said. “Playing is where everyone critiques them but there’s a lot of other elements that young players have to go through to get up to NHL speed and we want to make sure all those elements are in place.

“It is a balance. You’ve got to make sure you’re not putting them in bad situations; situations that they really can’t handle.”

Chychrun has played the most games because left defenseman Kevin Connauton was injured early in the season and Chychrun can play on the third defensive pairing where Tippett and assistant Jim Playfair can protect him by limiting his minutes and controlling his matchups and situations.

Crouse has played more games than Strome because of where he fits in the lineup.

“Dvorak and Dauphin and Crouse can all play farther down the lineup,” Tippett said. “A guy like Strome, for him to play, he’s got to play up to give him what he needs. He’s probably the one guy, for him to do what he can do, he has to play higher in the lineup.”

That may be of little consolation to Strome after four healthy scratches, but he understands the process. By all accounts, he has worked hard in practice to shore up his game without the puck, while also learning to read and react at an NHL pace.

“To be honest, I don’t feel like the speed is that big of an issue,” he said. “I just feel like everyone’s in the right position. No one is out of position and being a young guy, when you get caught out of position, and I know I have a couple times, they’re going to make you pay. They’re going to capitalize on your mistakes.

“Minus three in three games isn’t what you want to be. It doesn’t matter what team you’re on, you’ve got to find a way not to make those mistakes and when you make a mistake it’s in the back of your net. You find that out very quickly. You’ve got to work on your defensive game.”

Crouse is experiencing similar growing pains as he adapts to the NHL game, but his situation is compounded by the return of left wing Jamie McGinn to the lineup. With McGinn’s return, the Coyotes have four experienced NHL left wings including Max Domi, Tobias Rieder and Jordan Martinook. It’s hard to envision any of those players coming out of the lineup without an injury, so the Coyotes must decide if they are content to let such a young player sit so often.

“It’s going to be a battle to get into the lineup each and every night no matter what position (you play),” Crouse said. “It does make it difficult but you can’t really look at that. You’ve just got to play your game.”

Of the three, Chychrun may be showing the greatest ability to play at the NHL level. He has made defensive mistakes but he also has a goal and two assists, a plus-one rating, noticeable offensive instincts and he earned a great measure of respect from his teammates in Philadelphia when he came to the defense of teammate Michael Stone and fought Flyers forward Brayden Schenn after Schenn drilled Stone near the boards in the third period.

“I want the guys to know I’m always here to protect them,” said Chychrun of his first NHL fight. “I’m not the guy that’s going to go looking for fights, but I’ll be the first one in there if I don’t like something that guys are doing to my teammates.”

While the Coyotes like the idea of these three players working with their beefed up development and coaching staffs in Arizona, Chayka said he can’t envision a scenario where they keep a junior-eligible player the entire season if he’s going to be in and out of the lineup.

“We’ve got the resources here to improve a lot of players’ games, but a player has got to play, first and foremost,” Chayka said.

While Strome has played the least of the three players for the aforementioned reasons, Chayka dispelled a common misconception about the 2015 first-round pick (No. 3 overall).

“The belief out there that we’re not happy with Dylan’s game, that’s just not true,” he said. “We’re very excited and happy about the progress he’s made in the last three weeks to a month. He went from a player who has gotten by on talent for a while to becoming one of our hardest workers in practice and that’s a prerequisite to being a top player in the NHL: your work ethic and your level of commitment every day in practice.”

While Tippett voiced concerns recently about the potential to pick up bad habits in juniors, he, Chayka and even Strome have acknowledged there are things to be gained from a return to juniors, like winning an OHL championship, a Memorial Cup or playing in the World Junior Championship. At the same time, Tippett insists his focus is not on sending anyone back to juniors while the evaluation process continues.

“It’s always there I guess, but we don’t think about that much,” Tippett said. “We’re more in tune with making sure we’re doing everything we can to make it so they can play here so the nine games doesn’t matter.

“We have to give them every opportunity, whether through extra coaching, extra workouts, critiquing their play — everything you do to try to make sure it gives them the best chance to be successful. If it’s the best thing for their development and our team then they’ll play.”

Avalanche at Coyotes

When: 6 p.m., Saturday

Where: Gila River Arena, Glendale

TV: FOX Sports Arizona

Radio: ESN 620 AM

Records: Coyotes 2-5. Avalanche 3-2.

Injury report: Coyotes — G Mike Smith (left leg) is week to week. D, Michael Stone (upper body) is day to day. Avalanche — Fs Rene Bourque (groin) Mikko Rantanen (ankle) and John Mitchell (hip), are expected to play.

Scouting the Avalanche: Colorado has lost two of its last three since opening 2-0. The win was an impressive 4-0 victory at Tampa Bay. … F Matt Duchene leads the team with three goals and is in a three-way tie for the team lead at five points. … Semyon Varlamov started the Avs’ game against Winnipeg on Friday so the Coyotes will see Calvin Pickard (3.00 GAA, .900 SP. … Colorado coach Patrick Roy resigned unexpectedly in August, saying he didn’t have enough say in decisions that impact the team’s performance. Jared Bednar took his place.



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