By: A.J. Atchue, for NHL.com
The Phoenix Coyotes' surprising rise up the NHL's Western Conference standings this season continues to generate headlines.
But what many people may not know is that due in part to Phoenix's success, a pair of the club's top young prospects are enjoying the chance to blossom in the AHL this season as they develop toward joining the Coyotes.
The professional career tracks taken by San Antonio Rampage center Kyle Turris and right wing Brett MacLean have been decidedly different, but the pair is combining to form a potent offensive duo this season.
Turris and MacLean were both part of the 2007 draft class that saw Patrick Kane taken No. 1 and James van Riemsdyk at No. 2. Phoenix selected Turris with the third pick and then chose MacLean early in the second round at No. 32.
After one season at the University of Wisconsin, Turris turned pro and spent the majority of his rookie season with Phoenix in 2008-09, contributing 20 points (8 goals, 12 assists) in 63 games.
He also scored 4 goals and 7 points during an eight-game midseason stint in San Antonio, which was designed to get Turris extra ice time.
"There's always going to be pressure," Turris said of being drafted at No. 3. "I try not to worry about it. I just kind of get comfortable and play my own game. I just came in and tried to keep my eyes wide open and learn from guys like 'Doaner' (Coyotes captain Shane Doan)."
Turris, who suffered a herniated disc in his back prior to last Christmas which required offseason surgery, came out of his rookie season realizing that he needed to get stronger if he wanted to really excel at the NHL game.
But with its NHL roster in place, and looking to give Turris quality minutes to develop his game this season, Phoenix assigned him to San Antonio out of training camp. Turris, 20, has responded with 19 goals and 47 points in 61 games, ranking second on the Rampage in both categories.
"I'm so impressed with his professionalism and the way he's worked and handled this situation," San Antonio coach Ray Edwards said. "He's been a go-to guy for me in faceoff situations, in penalty-killing situations, and obviously on the power play and five-on-five. He's been a real integral part of not only the offensive side, but now I have a lot of trust in him from a defensive perspective as well."
"I've had a great time down here with the guys and learning from Ray Edwards," Turris said. "I've taken it as a positive and am making the best of it."
Edwards says Turris has been able to grow in all the little areas with the Rampage this season, everything from improving at the subtle aspects of faceoffs to taking better care of his body.
But a hallmark of Turris' game is his playmaking ability and penchant for creating scoring chances, which has allowed him to mesh smoothly with a finisher like MacLean since the pair were first put on a line together in early December.
MacLean, 21, leads the Rampage in both goals (26) and points (51) through 61 games this season while also putting up a team-best plus-12 rating.
"Playing with MacLean now, it's been great," Turris said. "We're having a good time together, and we seem to have some good chemistry. He's a great player."
Edwards recalled first putting the two on the same line during a Dec. 3 game at Houston in which the Rampage had fallen into a 3-0 hole early in the second period. The newly formed line of Turris, MacLean and captain Jeff Hoggan proceeded to score three times in a 96-second span, and San Antonio rallied for a 6-3 victory.
"I think we make each other better," MacLean said. "He's a good center, I'm a little stronger along the walls and play down low. He seems to find me with the puck, and he can also shoot, so he's a good guy to give it to. I think we complement each other well out there."
Whereas Turris's development took a nontraditional route from the NHL to the AHL, MacLean has thrived while spending his first two pro years exclusively with the Rampage. MacLean turned pro following back-to-back 100-point junior seasons for Oshawa (OHL), including a monster 61-goal and 119-point showing in 2007-08.
It would have been unrealistic to expect a repeat of those statistics as an AHL rookie, but MacLean put up very respectable numbers with 21 goals and 19 assists in 74 games and represented San Antonio at the 2009 AHL All-Star Classic.
"I think I handled it pretty well, but the first few weeks were definitely tough," MacLean said of his rookie-year transition. "Over time, I got more and more comfortable, and as the season went on I started playing with more confidence and making a bigger contribution to the team."
Both Turris and Edwards credit MacLean with providing a strong net-front presence and putting himself in positions where he can either deflect pucks past goaltenders or clean up rebounds.
"I think we make each other better. He's a good center, I'm a little stronger along the walls and play down low. He seems to find me with the puck, and he can also shoot, so he's a good guy to give it to. I think we complement each other well out there." -- Brett MacLean
And with additional ice time combined with the confidence that another season under his belt can provide, MacLean has increased his production in every offensive category this season.
"Just the experience, getting an opportunity to play a bigger role on the team … I know how the league works now," MacLean said. "I'm more comfortable out there, playing with more confidence, and that makes a big difference."
"When he wants to win a race, or he wants to win a battle, he wins it," Edwards said. "It's as simple as that. He's got that attitude now where he knows that if he really wants to do something, he can pretty much dictate the way it goes."
MacLean has yet to join his linemate Turris in gaining NHL experience for Coyotes, but it's easy to imagine both players heading for the desert before too long if their production and development continue at the current rate.
In the meantime, the duo is making the most of the opportunity to grow with the Rampage.
"They definitely drive each other, they're both very competitive," said Edwards. "They're both sort of in the same situation -- they're young, and they're trying to get better, trying to understand what it takes."
"We've taken different paths, but we're kind of in the same spot now," MacLean said. "Both our goals are to help this team make the playoffs, and to help ourselves get a chance to play in Phoenix within the near future."