After nearly five months of summer in Southern Arizona, AHL Hockey returns to the Old Pueblo this Saturday as the Tucson Roadrunners begin their third season against their “Interstate-8 Rivals” San Diego Gulls.
The last time the Roadrunners and Gulls met, Tucson swept their opponents in the final weekend of the regular season, eliminating San Diego from Calder Cup Playoff contention in the process.
The Roadrunners are also coming off a historic season, claiming both the Pacific Division and Western Conference regular season title, as well as defeating the San Jose Barracuda in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
This year, however, Tucson will look a little bit different. The team will feature their third head coach in team history, after Mike Van Ryn left to take an assistant coaching job with the St. Louis Blues this off-season. Former Kingston Frontenacs (OHL) coach, Jay Varady will command the bench this season for Tucson.
As a coach for the Frontenacs, Varady led his team to a 36-23-6-3 record and trip to the OHL’s Eastern Conference Finals. For the Roadrunners, Varady is the second of head coaches employed from the Ontario Hockey League, after Van Ryn was brought over from the Kitchener Rangers as a development coach for the Coyotes in 2016.
In regards to player personnel, expect to see a lot of returning veterans. Likely returners for the Roadrunners include: Kyle Capobianco, Adin Hill, Jens Looke, Nick Merkley and Dakota Mermis. Meanwhile, other guys like Dylan Strome, Lawson Crouse, Mario Kempe, and Laurent Dauphin are expected to spend at least some time with the Coyotes, but could also potentially see some time back in Tucson, if needed.
After being voted to the 2018 AHL All-Star Classic, Capobianco and Merkley will return as Tucson’s key components headed into this season. In only 38 games played with the Roadrunners last season, Merkley was one of the team’s top scorers with 18 goals and 21 assists. Capobianco will likely return as a top-4 defenseman alongside Mermis, Dysin Mayo, and Trevor Murphy.
Fans should be very excited to have Adin Hill between the pipes once again. Hill took about half of the games last season alongside backup Hunter Miska, but his stats has shown he’s ready for a stronger roll this season. Last year, Hill posted a 2.28 goals-against average and a save percentage of 0.914.
One notable subtraction from last year’s team is forward Carter Camper, who was acquired at the trade deadline from the Cleveland Monsters. Camper played 15 games with the Roadrunners and registered a little over a point per game in his brief time in Tucson.
Overall, fans can expect quite a similar team to last year’s Roadrunners, minus a couple core players who are just up the road in Glendale. As a development league the AHL can be a revolving door of talent and it is hard to gauge how well a team stacks up until they hit the ice. Expectations are that the Roadrunners will fight for a playoff spot for the second year in a row.
The puck drop for the Roadrunners home opener against San Diego on Saturday is set for 7:05 p.m. at Tucson Arena.