Conor Garland knew he had to make the most of his first opportunity in the NHL.
Players that fit his profile (not only a fifth-round draft pick, but also one that has always had to carry around the “undersized” label) do not typically get many opportunities to stick.
If they do not make a strong first impression, there may not be a second one.
Garland not only seized his chance last season, he has run with it and over the past calendar year become one of the Arizona Coyotes’ best offensive players and a significant part of their up-and-coming core.
“Something me, and my dad, and my trainer always discussed a lot is that you have to be ready for your first chance in the NHL whenever it comes,” Garland told NBC Sports Wednesday.
“As a smaller guy, and as someone that was drafted in the fifth round, you might only get one or maybe two chances at most. So when I got that call I was obviously ecstatic about getting to play in the NHL, but also realizing that if you have three or four average games you might get sent back to the AHL and never get a call again. I just wanted to play my game, play my style, and do what got me called up to try and stay every day.”
That initial call to the NHL was the result of an unending run of injuries to the Coyotes’ roster, as well as Garland himself showing steady development in the AHL, building confidence, and starting to regain the scoring touch he displayed in his final two years in the QMJHL when he was one of the league’s top scorers and the 2014-15 MVP.
“The Coyotes put so much work into me, especially in that first year and a half where things weren’t going well and I was struggling and not scoring,” said Garland. “But after Christmas my second year as a pro, I really took off offensively and got my confidence back and started to become the player I was in Juniors. The more games you get, the more confidence you get and I feel that way up here in the NHL now. You just have to focus on getting better every day, and I think I did. It took a while, but I finally got there.”
Now that he is there, he hasn’t stopped scoring.
Entering Thursday, Garland leads the team with 19 goals, while his 32 since his debut are 13 more than any other player on the team during that stretch.
He has also been one of the most efficient scorers in the entire league.
Since making his NHL debut, he has averaged 1.20 goals per 60 minutes of even-strength hockey, while averaging more than 10 shots on goal per 60 minutes. Both of those numbers place him in the top-15 of the entire NHL (out of nearly 600 players with at least 500 minutes of ice-time).
And there is not really much to suggest it is a fluke or not sustainable. The shot volume is there, he has strong underlying numbers across the board, and a knack for getting to the net.
“One thing you notice about all the smaller players in the league that have success, they are all tenacious,” said Garland. “There are not many small perimeter players in the NHL. Obviously I don’t have a great shot so I have to get to the net.”
Even though the Coyotes have slumped over the past month (3-7-4 since January 9) they occupy a playoff spot in the Western Conference and have a promising core to build around. It’s a core that Garland has rapidly become part of.
He has spent the past 20 games playing on the Coyotes’ top line next to their big in-season addition, Taylor Hall, a duo that has developed an instant chemistry and been — by far — Arizona’s most dangerous line combination offensively. When they are together the Coyotes shot attempt and scoring chance share climb to over over 56 percent, while they average nearly three-and-a-half goals per 60 minutes, a massive increase over what the team produces when one (or neither) is on the ice.
“I don’t think he’s going to have a hard time building chemistry with anyone,” said Garland. “He can carry a line on his own. Sometimes he definitely does stuff that wows me. You can be thinking it’s time for a change and there’s nothing there, and then all of a sudden he breaks free and it’s a 3-on-2 for us. His raw speed, his power, his ability to handle the puck is just crazy.
“I just want to keep getting him the puck more and more and keep finding him. I think there’s more opportunities for me to find him, and that’s something I’m working on. I’m definitely fortunate to be able to play next to him.”
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.