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Coyotes’ Strome, Crouse look to establish themselves in NHL

After playing 56 games with the Tucson Roadrunners last season, Lawson Crouse hopes to make the Coyotes roster. (Sam Ficarro/Cronkite News)

GLENDALE – With Arizona Coyotes training camp in full swing, center Dylan Strome and left wing Lawson Crouse are the focus of much attention.

The two were each drafted in the first round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft and are hoping this is the season they can establish themselves as everyday players in the league.

“There’s a lot of competition this year,” Crouse said. “Just like every year, you put yourself (in position) to be the best player you can. With the group we have here, everyone is pushing each other to be the best player they can.”

Steve Sullivan, the assistant general manager of the Coyotes, said Crouse and Strome have impressed so far.

“They’ve looked good,” Sullivan said. “Obviously, we’re still early in the process. They’ve come into camp in great shape and have come out and performed the way we were expecting them to. Hopefully, as camp continues and as the pace continues, their play continues to rise.”

Both are hoping to find a niche in the NHL after winding careers that have taken them through the various levels of professional hockey.

Strome, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, has been compared to the two players who were taken ahead of him, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Buffalo’s Jack Eichel.

However, McDavid and Eichel already have emerged as stars for their respective teams while the Coyotes have taken a patient approach with Strome.

“For Dylan Strome, it’s been just about the details in the game,” Sullivan said. “Just making sure he understands the systems and what’s needed from him. And just playing with some pace in the neutral zone. We think we’ve seen him do that in the games he’s played.”

After spending his first season back in junior hockey, Strome made the parent club out of camp entering the 2016-17 season and spent the first seven games with the Coyotes before he was sent back to his junior team, the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League, to continue his development.

The script repeated itself last season, as Strome started the season with the Coyotes out of camp before being sent down to Tucson to get more ice time.

He said there are challenges for young players at every stage.

“Every level is different. Every league is different,” he said. “You have different coaches everywhere you go. I just kind of have to adjust and figure out how to play with whoever (I’m) playing with.

“Everyone plays with a different style of game, so when you are with certain guys, you’ve got to know how they play, and you’ve got to adapt to them … but at the end of the day, it’s still hockey.”

Strome flourished in Tucson, recording 53 points in 50 games to lead the Roadrunners to the second round of the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Playoffs. The Texas Stars defeated Tucson 4-1 in the Western Conference semifinals with three games decided in overtime.

“It was good to get some playoff hockey,” Strome said. “I thought we were in every game. We had a good run but fell a little bit short. It was fun to be a part of it.”

After Tucson’s playoff run ended, Strome was called up by the Coyotes and played the final 10 games of the season, which left him feeling more comfortable and prepared coming to camp.

He said there is familiarity and confidence that comes from finishing last season strong, and he now knows he “can play with these guys.”

“(It is) just getting comfortable and knowing that you want to be with the team all year,” he said. “This is just the first step of it.”

A player who knows Strome well is Crouse, who was selected 11th overall by the Florida Panthers in that 2015 draft. After he spent 2015-16 in junior hockey, the Panthers traded Crouse to the Coyotes in exchange for two draft picks.

He made the Coyotes’ regular-season roster in his first season with the club, playing in 72 games and recording five goals and seven assists.

After that successful rookie season, Crouse was sent to Tucson last season when Rick Tocchet was hired as Coyotes coach and arrived along with a stable of new players.

“Obviously, it’s not ideal but I like to think hockey … you really don’t know what you’re going to get,” Crouse said. “You kind of just have to battle through adversity.

“For me, I was just going down there trying to be the best I can be and help that team win. At the end of the day, I learned a lot of really good things that I want to bring here.”

That includes an improved offensive game that Crouse showed in Tucson, where he scored 32 points in 56 games with the Roadrunners.

“We had a great team and coaching staff there,” he said. “Anytime you can get the chance to play and get some more minutes, it’s a great thing. I think we went down there and worked on a lot of my offensive abilities.”

Sullivan has seen improvement in Crouse’s assertiveness, “making a lot of plays on the forecheck and protecting some pucks.” Crouse has scored three goals in four preseason games.

Strome and Crouse are linked as first round picks in the same draft and playing for Canada at the youth level, and both have leaned on each other during their journeys.

“Obviously, we’ve gone through it,” Crouse said. “We’ve known each other ever since we were little kids, whether it’s playing against each other or playing with each other. Having him down in Tucson with me last year, I think, was a really good experience. We can kind of lean on each other.

“As much as we are friends, we do push each other to be the best players we can be. We’re trying to beat each other. There are a couple of jobs open, but that’s the competitive nature as an athlete. It’s a lot of fun to have someone there by your side who pushes you to be the best player you can be.”

Strome echoed those sentiments.

“We’re pretty good friends, and we’re living together right now,” he said. “Obviously, we’re both trying to make the team and we both wanted to make it last year, but we ended up in Tucson. For us, it’s about making the team this year, and we’re going to try to help each other out as much as we can. Hopefully, we’ll both make it.”

High draft choices like Strome and Crouse arrive amid high expectations, which can weigh players down when they don’t immediately live up to them.

But Sullivan said a player’s draft status is forgotten as soon as he walks into an NHL dressing room.

“It’s either you’re good enough to make our hockey club, you help us win today, or you don’t help us win today,” Sullivan said. “And that’s the way the coaching staff goes about their business.

“It doesn’t matter where you were drafted. That’s (a) position that you have no choice in. How you come into camp and play, and where your game grown to is all up to you. So that’s what you can control. You make sure you come in and give your best every day.”

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