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Top 25 under 25: Hinostroza, Crouse, Merkley, Fischer, and Dvorak speed things up

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The Five for Howling crew have ranked the Top 25 players in the organization that are under age 25.

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at Arizona Coyotes Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Coyotes have a wealth of young talent spread throughout every level of the organization. In fact, 55 players were young enough to qualify for this year’s rankings, all of whom were still under 25 years old as of August 1.

These rankings are subjective, with each participant deciding for themselves what criteria was most important to inform their choices. Each of our staff members ranked the players they felt should be in the Top 25 and every player that didn’t make their individual list was considered tied at rank 26. The rankings were then averaged and sorted to determine the final ranking.

Here are the players that ranked 10-6:

10. Vinnie Hinostroza

Highest Rank: 4
Lowest Rank: Not ranked (26)
Last Year’s Ranking: N/A

The main compensation piece for taking on the remaining three years of Marian Hossa’s contract, Vinnie Hinostroza squeaks into our top 10. (Full disclosure, I was the one who ranked him at number 4.) The smooth-skating youngster finished his season with the Chicago Blackhawks skating alongside Jonathan Toews, putting up 7 goals and 18 assists in 50 games. More impressively, he was second on the team, behind Patrick Kane of course, in 5-on-5 points per 60 minutes (1.98). That’s some pretty darned good company (at least on the ice). And he’s got some pretty sick mitts:

On a relatively abysmal Blackhawks team, he also managed to escape with a 53.26 Corsi percentage, which was better than a good chunk of his teammates. But one of his biggest strengths is his speed. General Manager John Chayka emphasized this immediately following the trade, saying “I think he plays at a super high pace, one of the highest paces in the league... He’s skilled, he’s smart and he reads the play extremely well. He gets out in open ice and he makes a lot of things happen; he’s constantly on the puck, constantly pressuring the puck.” Further, Christian Dvorak, (who I ranked at 5,) spoke about working on his own skating ability so that he could keep up with Vinnie, among some of the other speedy Coyote youngsters. Regardless of where he slots in the lineup, this kid is going to be fun to watch—as long as the cameras can keep up with him.

9. Lawson Crouse

Highest Rank: 8
Lowest Rank: 12
Last Year’s Ranking: 9

Next up on the list is the Sheriff, Lawson Crouse. A staple at number 9 and on Dave Tippett’s fourth line in 2016-17, Crouse only cracked the lineup for 11 games this year under new coach Rick Tocchet. Instead, he spent the majority of his season playing top-line minutes with Dylan Strome and Nick Merkley in the AHL, racking up 15 goals and 17 assists in 56 games. During the Roadrunners’ 9-game playoff run he amped up his production, registering 8 points. While big, physical players are somewhat prone to racking up penalty minutes, he played more responsibly during the playoffs, recording only 2 penalty minutes (for comparison, he had 70 penalty minutes in 56 regular season games). And speaking of responsible, check out his first NHL goal of the 2017-18 season:

The big question is, what’s next for the 2015 first rounder? Was his AHL stint this year really a demotion, or did Tocchet feel he’d be better served playing in a leadership role (he wore an ‘A’ this season) getting top-line minutes against opposing AHL teams’ best players than the 11ish minutes he was getting in the NHL? How will he fare in Tocchet’s more upbeat system? With the return of Brad Richardson and the emergence of Nick Cousins as solid fourth-line guys, will Crouse be able to eke out an existence as the third musketeer? By the end of the 2016-17 season, that question would’ve seemed like a no-brainer, but with a bevy of young talent competing for precious few roster spots, there simply are no givens.

8. Nick Merkley

Highest Rank: 5
Lowest Rank: 12
Last Year’s Ranking: 13

Moving up (or down?) the list, we find Nick Merkley, the only Roadrunners regular who averaged more than a point per game (39 points in 38 games) not named Dylan Strome. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see any Merkley Magic™ during the playoffs, as he went down with a lower-body injury at the end of March. So there was none of this:

Heralded as a smart, hard-working hockey player with good hands, Merkley lacks the speed associated with his smaller frame (5’10”), which Tocchet stresses. This hasn’t been helped by his numerous injuries, including a torn ACL in 2016. While he’s not the second-coming of Martin Hanzal (yet), the annual injuries are certainly cause for concern and may influence his ability to stay in the NHL lineup. Hopefully, he’ll be able to put it all behind him this season and showcase some of the flair that had many scouts surprised when he was still available for the Coyotes to pick 30th overall in the 2015 NHL entry draft.

7. Christian Fischer

Highest Rank: 2
Lowest Rank: 9
Last Year’s Ranking: 10

Our first Coyotes regular on the list is Christian Fischer, who was one of the only consistent contributors during the horrendous October and November months (remember our 0-10-1 start? No? Good.) thanks to his hard-nosed style and willingness to go to the net. Unfortunately, as the season wore on, he found himself Fisch-ing for goals, scoring only one in a 25-game span between January and March. Nonetheless, he finished his rookie campaign with 15 goals and 18 assists. For advanced stats folks, that put him 5th among Coyote skaters who played at least 500 minutes with the team (sorry, Dylan Strome) He’s also one of the few Coyotes goal-scoring forwards with a positive Corsi rating relative to the team, although with the 9th worst Corsi rating in the league, the Coyotes numbers set the bar pretty low in that regard. But reigning Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals had a worse Corsi rating (by .01), so we can just ignore all that, right?

It’ll be interesting to see how Fischer fares this season. He’s one of the few young Coyotes with some grit to his game (especially after the departure of Max Domi), which Tocchet may like to infuse the top-6 with—he could start the season on the second line with Alex Galchenyuk and Hinostroza. With free agent pickup and goal-scorer extraordinaire Michael Grabner expected to play on the third line, it’s safe to say that Tocchet plans to roll all of his lines, so if Fischer isn’t a fixture in the top-6, you needn’t worry, there will still be plenty of these:

6. Christian Dvorak

Highest Rank: 4
Lowest Rank: 9
Last Year’s Ranking: 4

While fresh off back-to-back 15-goal seasons, Dvorak made considerable noise this summer signing a 6-year, $26.7M contract extension, which will kick in after the 2018-19 season. For those not mathematically inclined, that’s a $4.45M cap hit that will make him the third-highest paid Coyote forward when it kicks in. While the deal raised some eyebrows, Stephen Burtch did yeoman’s work in lowering them (check out his thread). For instance, of Dvorak’s 30 goals, 26 came at even strength - more than Bo Horvat, Ondrej Kase, Matthew Tkachuk (24 each), David Pastrnak (23), and Vladimir Tarasenko (21) were able to put home in their rookie and sophomore seasons. His 5v5 goals per 60 minutes (0.76) over his first two seasons also puts him in some good company too, scoring at a nearly identical clip to Tyler Seguin, Artemi Panarin, Joe Pavelski, Patric Hornqvist, and Bryan Little. Unlike the other Christian, this kid has silky smooth mitts, which are on full display below:

While the above commentary sounds pretty impressive, it fails to take into account the responsible two-way game Dvorak plays. While it’s difficult to gauge the amount of time he’s played in a shutdown role at 5-on-5, Tocchet’s trust in his defensive game is apparent. Of Coyotes forwards, only Brad Richardson and Jordan Martinook played more time shorthanded. With the latter being shipped to Carolina, it’s possible Dvorak could be gearing up for even more time on the penalty kill. This past season, his Corsi against ranked him in the top 5 among forwards who regularly kill penalties (at least 90 minutes played shorthanded). In other words, his shot suppression is pretty darn good. Keep in mind, he was often on the second penalty kill unit, so this season could see some tougher assignments, but no one should be losing any sleep over his ability to live up to those responsibilities.