Looking back at the 2015 draft is already loads of fun. Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel were the headline-grabbers at the time, but they were soon joined by Mitch Marner, Matt Barzal, Sebastian Aho, Timo Meier, Brock Boeser, Kyle Connor, Thomas Chabot, Zach Werenski and Ivan Provorov as young stars in the NHL (the list is even longer, I just had to cut it off somewhere – nine players from that class have already totalled at least 100 points in the NHL).
One of the early picks that might have been teetering into ‘bust’ territory was third overall selection Dylan Strome, but after a trade from Arizona to Chicago, the big center found his groove and ripped off 51 points in 58 games with the Blackhawks.
Which brings us to Lawson Crouse, the power forward taken 11th overall in 2015 by the Florida Panthers, then later traded to Arizona before even playing a game for the Panthers.
Crouse, now 22, just signed a new three-year contract with the Coyotes, with an average annual value of $1.5 million. As a power forward, he was expected to progress a little more slowly than some of his other draft mates, but the same was said about the lanky Strome and even he has broken out already. This feels like a make-or-break contract for Crouse and it sounds like he’s up for the challenge.
“Last year was a key stepping stone,” he said. “It opened my eyes as to what I can do. For me, it’s all the little things: holding onto pucks and having that confidence that you deserve to be there.”
Crouse put up a modest 25 points in 81 games this past season. Both were career highs for a young left winger with an eyebrow-raising pro path. Crouse first made the Coyotes roster in 2016-17, but was largely overwhelmed, averaging less than 12 minutes of ice time and notching just 12 points in 72 games. He spent most of the next campaign in the minors with the Tucson Roadrunners, playing on a dynamite line with Strome and Nick Merkley. He was practically a point-per-gamer in the playoffs as Tucson went to the second round of the Calder Cup.
This past season he was back in the NHL full-time and if the Coyotes are going to make the playoffs, they’ll need even more improvement from Crouse. At the least, he and the team got a nice trial run in 2018-19, as the Coyotes hung around the periphery of the playoff picture before ultimately falling out at the end.
“We got so close and we realized what it would take for next year,” Crouse said. “You have these little segments of games during the season that build towards that.”
To be sure, Arizona is moving in the right direction under coach Rick Tocchet and GM John Chayka brought in some serious reinforcements recently with the Phil Kessel-for-Alex Galchenyuk trade. Kessel, the two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Pittsburgh Penguins, seems like a perfect fit in Arizona, where he won’t have to deal with the fishbowl existence he had in Pittsburgh, Toronto and Boston before that. Chayka also took advantage of Colorado’s shifting trade priorities by nabbing utility center Carl Soderberg in a salary dump.
“It’s exciting,” Crouse said. “We just added two veterans who have been around for a long time and who know what it takes to win. It’s tough to see some of your friends go, but it’s a business and we’re trying to get better.”
Now Crouse needs to play his part. Chayka sees a young player who can play up and down the lineup and the left winger himself is on a mission to make an impact whether he’s on the first or fourth line.
“My game doesn’t change,” he said. “I try to play heavy, I try to play physical and smart. And I try to do my best to overachieve.”
If Crouse can do that, the Coyotes will be in a great position. And his next contract will be a lot fatter, just like his draft mates.