GLENDALE, Ariz. –– Coyotes development coach Steve Sullivan is getting an up-close look at franchise prospect Maxim Letunov this week in the Valley.
Letunov’s Connecticut Huskies are in town and played Arizona State on Tuesday. The team will take part in the Desert Hockey Classic on Friday and Sunday at Gila River Arena as well. Sullivan has already seen Letunov play once and will see him at least him twice more (discounting practices) this weekend.
“I see a very good skill set and a very high IQ — a player who puts himself in position to get the puck a lot,” said Sullivan, who also watched Letunov play last season in the USHL and in two Connecticut games against Notre Dame earlier this season. “I think he’s got to develop his body a lot more. He’s a big, tall centerman but he’s really skinny and he’s still on the weaker side in battles. He needs to work on that.”
With prospects Brendan Perlini, Dylan Strome, Ryan MacInnis, Christian Dvorak, Anton Karlsson, Jens Looke and Erik Kallgren all competing in the World Junior Championship, and with other prospects such as Nick Merkley, Christian Fischer and Connor Garland lighting up their respective junior leagues, it’s easy to forget about Letunov, whom the Coyotes acquired from St. Louis last season at the trade deadline in exchange for defenseman Zbynek Michalek.
Letunov (6-4, 170) leads the Huskies and is fourth in the Hockey East conference with 22 points (14 assists) through 19 games.
“One of his greatest strengths is something I equate to the elite quarterbacks in the NFL like (Aaron) Rogers or (Tom) Brady or (Peyton) Manning,” Connecticut coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “He reads the play and takes what’s given to him. Rarely does he try to force a pass to a guy unless he’s wide open, especially on the power play where his numbers (11 assists) are so good.”
Letunov, 19, was born in Moscow, but took a chance on North American hockey on the advice of good friend, Alexey Solovyev, who is currently a freshman defenseman at Bentley University in Massachusetts. This is Letunov’s fifth year of hockey in the United States, so he has adapted to the smaller North American ice sheet.
Letunov played two years in the Dallas area with the Alliance Bulldogs and the Dallas Stars Elite before playing two seasons in the USHL with Youngstown (Ohio), where his parents now live. He originally committed to Boston University, but problems with the admissions process led him to de-commit from BU and settle on UConn.
“I think college hockey is great for your development,” Letunov said. “You can take your time and not rush it; just get stronger and better defensively.
“I liked UConn because it’s such a young program. I just wanted to be a part of a new program and do something special by helping build it.”
Most of the principle members of the Coyotes management, scouting and development staffs have seen Letunov play this season, including general manager Don Maloney, assistant GM Darcy Regier and Sullivan. The message has been consistent.
“They will tell me the good and bad stuff they saw in the game and a lot of the time, we’re just talking about good habits,” Letunov said. “College is a good place to develop the defensive side of your game and obviously I just need to get stronger and bigger.”
Sullivan said the Coyotes won’t know what they have in Letunov until next spring when he’s had the chance to add more weight and muscle.
“That’s the case with almost every young guy — that and forming good habits,” Sullivan said. “He does have an extremely high compete level that I just love and he’s a great kid; fun, outgoing and really eager to improve his game and incorporate what you tell him.
“Everything that we see that is a little bit lacking with him — most of it has to do with strength because he’s playing against 21-, 22- and 23-year-olds who have 30 pounds on him.”
Letunov had two assists in a 5-2 win over ASU on Tuesday. He only played two periods because he suffered a cut above his Achilles tendon that required stitches, but he is expected to play this weekend. Letunov said it is exciting to play a tournament in front of NHL fans he hopes will one day root for him as a Coyote.
“Probably Arizona is my favorite place that I have been,” Letunov said. “A lot of people think I should be used to cold weather because I’m from Moscow but I don’t like it. I like warm weather.
“I don’t want to rush my development, but maybe in one or two years, hopefully I will get bigger and have a chance to turn pro.”
DESERT HOCKEY CLASSIC
When: Friday and Sunday
Where: Gila River Arena, Glendale
TV: Friday, ASU vs. Yale, Pac-12 Networks
Games: Friday — UConn vs. Michigan Tech 5 p.m.; ASU vs. Yale, 8 p.m.; Sunday — Yale vs. UConn or Michigan Tech, Noon; ASU vs. UConn or Michigan Tech, 3 p.m.
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