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Coyotes’ Chychrun motivated to quicken his NHL path

Team Cherry's Jakob Chychrun, top, checks Team Orr's Matthew Tkachuk during first-period CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game hockey action in Vancouver, British Columbia, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Former Coyote Trevor Letowski doesn’t worry about Jakob Chychrun’s motivation.

“He’s as driven a kid as I’ve ever met,” said Letowski, who coached Chychrun with Sarnia of the Ontario Hockey League in the 2014-15 season. “The maturity and the approach that he has is pretty special for someone his age.”

Chychrun, 18, has plenty of fuel to motivate him. NHL Central Scouting ranked the 6-foot-2, 205-pound defenseman as the fourth-best North American skater in its final grades, and he was ranked second in their midterm grades, but he didn’t hear his name called until the Coyotes moved up four spots to grab him at No. 16 in the 2016 NHL Draft.

“Obviously, it was a little bit stressful,” said Chychrun, who is in town this week for the Coyotes prospect development camp. “Personally, I had no idea where I was going to end up so that makes it a little more nerve-wracking.”

A few factors may have precipitated Chychrun’s draft-day slide.

He was selected first overall in 2014 by Sarnia of the Ontario Hockey League and he was nominated for outstanding rookie, top defenseman and player of the year for the 2014-15 season after scoring 16 goals and 33 points, but Chychrun suffered a tear in his left shoulder that required surgery and a long offseason of rehab.

Chychrun didn’t have the second season he was hoping for with Sarnia, posting 11 goals and 49 points, and he didn’t post the kind of performances that would have kept his stock high at World Junior Championship tryouts (he didn’t make Team Canada) or in the Subway Super Series between the OHL all-star team and Russia.

Around that time, a scouting report developed that Chychrun’s hockey IQ wasn’t where it needed to be; that he struggled to read plays or make decisions as quickly as the fast-paced NHL game would require.

Letowski, who is now an assistant coach with OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, was on the Team Canada staff that opted not to add Chychrun.

“He didn’t have a great camp, to be honest, and the pace was higher, but that’s the best players in Canada and they’re almost all 19 years old while he was 17 then,” Letowski said. “In the OHL vs. Russia series, he didn’t play his best, and those were important events for scouting so I think that’s where that view was created, but if you got a bigger sample size of Jakob, I think you’d have a different impression.”

The Coyotes gathered that larger sample size. As a result, they have a more nuanced analysis.

“Before World Juniors, everyone was great on him and then all of the sudden his hockey IQ came into play. I don’t know if I agree with that,” Coyotes Director of Player Development Steve Sullivan said. “I think it was the pressure of wanting to be second overall and maybe not having a great season and it snowballed the wrong way for him.”

Letowski believes Chychrun has a tendency to put too much on himself, to try to do too much and maybe “grip the stick” a little too tight.

“It bit him a couple times this year where he over-handled the puck, but I don’t think it’s a huge issue. I think it’s one of those things that will just get ironed out with coaching,” he said. “He has all the physical attributes, which gets him real close to the NHL already, and his skating and his strength are off the charts. When he came to us as a rookie, he won our fitness tests as a 16-year-old in an 18- or 19-year old league. That’s almost unheard of at that age.”

Chychrun has other important ingredients that came through loud and clear when Letowski met him for the first time over dinner with Chychrun’s family, when Sarnia was thinking of picking him first overall.

“He really approached his day-to-day stuff like a pro and because his dad (Jeff) played the game, he’s grown up the right way, being very respectful and determined and confident,” Letowski said. “He’s not shy, that’s for sure. There’s a swagger to him which I think is a good quality to have as a pro as long as he’s respectful — and he always is.”

With seven NHL defensemen already locking down spots on the Coyotes’ roster, there is time for Chychrun to develop his game at the lower levels, but Sullivan doesn’t think it will require much time.

“We know we’re going to put him into a game plan of how to get him here as fast as we can,” Sullivan said. “I think he can loosen up and play the way we think he can play. There’s no reason why he’s not going to be in our lineup here sooner rather than later.”

When he looks around the locker room at the Coyotes’ bursting bag of talented prospects, Chychrun can’t help but imagine the possibilities.

“Arizona is one team that I really wanted to go to just because of their bright future and their young crop; all their prospects,” he said. “It’s good to be out here on the same ice with them and to start bonding with them. Hopefully, we’ll be together for a long time here and be able to help bring success to Arizona.”

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