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‘Elusive’ Conor Garland leads Arizona Coyotes in goals through 2 months

CALGARY, AB - FEBRUARY 18: Conor Garland #83 of the Arizona Coyotes in action against the Calgary Flames during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on February 18, 2019 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The month of November has come to a close for the Arizona Coyotes, whose leading goal-scorer isn’t Phil Kessel or Clayton Keller.

It surely would’ve surprised most observers had they been told before the season began that Conor Garland would lead the Coyotes in goals with 10 after 28 games. The 23-year-old Scituate, Mass. native was a fifth-round pick in 2015. He earned a call-up from AHL Tucson last season and made the most of it, scoring 13 goals in 47 games in 2018-19.

The Coyotes rewarded Garland with a two-year contract worth a reported $775,000 per season. So far, that contract is looking pretty good.

“Nobody really knew who he was and what he did to get there,” head coach Rick Tocchet said. “So obviously he went down to Tucson and worked on his game. And then he came up, and he goes, ‘OK, to make the NHL, I’ve got to be this type of player. I can’t do the stuff I’m doing in junior.’ And he changed his game in the sense: more give and go, going around the net, darting in and out, being a pest out there. Just going to those tough areas.”

It’s common for players to put up gaudy numbers in junior hockey and then change their game when they get to the NHL. With the Moncton Wildcats in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Garland scored 311 points in 180 games.

“I’m sure in junior he could do whatever he wants, he could play on the outside, shoot pucks. Now he’s playing on the inside because that’s where he’s got to play to make the NHL,” Tocchet said. “So I give him a lot of credit because his tenacity to go in those areas. It’s hard. If you watch, he’s got a lot of stitches on his face over the last year because he’s willing to go to those areas.”

In a game last year at Edmonton, Garland took a puck off the face and into the net for a goal. His face was bloodied afterward.

Part of Garland’s production can be credited to his ability to stop and start quickly, his hockey IQ and his high motor.

“He’s elusive, right? And he’s got good skills with the puck, so he can escape,” Tocchet said. “And just when you think everybody’s got him, he escapes out of there. So he’s a very elusive kid. But being elusive, he knows if he’s got a big guy in the corner, he can beat the big guy back to the net. And he’s done that.

“He’s got about four goals where he’s beaten a guy off his check and gone to the net and scored a goal. That’s basically what I like about him, is that he’s willing to do that.”

But it’s not just about going to the net.

“I know where I score from,” Garland said. “I’ve never really had a great shot, so I’m not going to score from outside. I think if you look at the history of hockey and the history of the NHL, if you’re going score consistently, unless you’re a guy like [Alex] Ovechkin, it’s going to be in front of the net. So I’m going to go there.

“But I also work on scoring quite a bit in the offseason. Growing up, I always wanted to score goals, I have a hunger for it. So I think that helps. If it was, ‘It’s easy, it’s just going to the net,’ everybody would do it. So there’s other things, for sure.”

Garland has often played with Christian Dvorak and Nick Schmaltz on his line this season. The trio produced another goal on a tic-tac-toe play on Saturday night against the Sharks, as Garland was credited with his eighth assist of the year.

But even though his goal total is what will show up in the box score, Garland noted he’s just as proud of the things he’s doing when he’s not scoring, like getting in on the forecheck and contributing at both ends.

The Coyotes will take his goal production, though.

“I think you want guys that are going to work hard, play fast and want to win games,” Garland said. “So I don’t go to the net because I’m thinking I’m going to score — I go there because I want to win. And I think that’s where I’m going to be a successful player is getting to that area and burying pucks.”

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