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Arizona's young big three grab spotlight at Coyotes development camp

While nearly 40 players were invited to camp, Coyotes coaches and staff honed in on three in particular.

Bruce Bennett

Development camp feels like an annual hockey oasis in the middle of the dog days of summer.

For three afternoons every July, Arizona Coyotes fans escape from the doldrums of the NHL offseason and the scorching triple-digit heat to descend on the Ice Den to hear the sweet sound of pucks hitting sticks once again.

About 40 players, including all nine 2014 draft picks, participated in this year's camp. However, the focus of the hundreds of fans in attendance and Coyotes brass perched high above the rest, centered around three players: Max Domi, Henrik Samuelsson and Tyler Gaudet.

Domi was the most popular player in camp for the second year in a row. Fans fell in love with the offensively-gifted center turned left wing last year, as the then 18-year-old pushed to make the main roster in his first season after being drafted 12th overall.

One year later, Domi faces lofty expectations of cracking Arizona's top-9 to start the 2014-15 season.

"It's cool," Domi said of the high expectations. "At the end of the day, I still got to come to the rink to make the team, so it's going to be a lot of hard work and I'm prepared to do that."

No roster spot is locked up in July, but the 19-year-old's development camp play has already caught the eye of his general manager.

"Every time he touched the puck, most times, something good happened. He made a lot of plays," Don Maloney said.

Domi impressed at rookie camp yet again, but his road to the NHL is still a long one.

"I'd like to make the team this year, but I have a lot to work on here and it's going to be a long summer," Domi said.

Another NHL hopeful, Samuelsson, skated in his second development camp. The topic on the minds of many, was just that, his skating. The main criticism of the former Edmonton Oil King has been his below average skating ability.

"I've worked on it a lot," Samuelsson said. "I feel like my skating has improved quite a bit."

After winning the biggest prize in the CHL, the Memorial Cup, Samuelsson is on to bigger and better things. The 20-year-old will turn pro this season, playing for either the Coyotes' AHL affiliate Portland Pirates or for the main club.

"I'll always miss my time in Edmonton," Samuelsson said. "I had a lot of success there so it's sad leaving, but I'm excited for this new challenge."

The 20-year-old is expected to contend for a bottom-six role in training camp.

While the first two of the 'big three" are former first round picks, the third player was not even drafted at all.

On Nov. 4, 2013, the Coyotes signed center Tyler Gaudet to a three-year entry level deal. Gaudet was a late bloomer who split his age-18 and 19 seasons between major junior and junior A.

The Coyotes were impressed enough to sign him 16 games into his age-20 season. He finished the season with the Soo Ste. Marie Greyhounds before playing a pair of games with the Pirates.

Gaudet will challenge for a bottom-six role as early as this season.

"He's a competitive guy in the hole where he's going to come in. As a third or fourth line center, you need a competitive guy who can play against other team's top players, willing to sacrifice on the penalty kill, blocking shots, things like that," coach Dave Tippett said.

"Normally he's a guy who you'd say would need some time in the minors, but I wouldn't bet against him."

The 21-year-old is fully aware of the chance he has been given.

"It's a huge opportunity and I'm taking it very seriously," Gaudet said. "I really want to step into the roster and I've been training really hard this summer and when it comes to rookie and mini camp, I really want to make a difference and try to make the roster."

It is no secret that there will be a youthful component to the 2014-15 Coyotes, but don't think that young players will just be awarded a spot on opening night.

"I play to win," Tippett said. "When you get to the NHL, you should play to win, not play to hope you can develop kids. Developing kids is for the American League and junior. When we put a kid in, he's in there because he can win."