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Coyotes’ Conor Garland is starting to make fools out of those who passed on him

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Conor Garland’s success in Arizona is further proof that small players can excel in the NHL – especially when you have the goal-scoring background that he has.

Conor Garland|Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

All 30 teams at the 2014 draft passed over Conor Garland. That’s fair. He scored 54 points in his draft year, not all that impressive for a diminutive forward. Fast forward one year, though, and Garland’s lengthy stay on the draft board becomes a bit more befuddling. It was his second go-round, sure, but it more than four full rounds before a team took a flier on Garland, who had been name QMJHL MVP following a 129-point season.

Why’d he get passed over? To be sure, the “he’s too small to play in the NHL” trope had something to do with it. And, honestly, maybe that, too, was fair. At the time he was drafted, he rang in at 5-foot-8, and there were questions beyond his size. While scouts didn’t discount his offensive acumen, his defensive play and commitment was called into question. But four-plus years after the Arizona Coyotes called Garland’s name and made him the 123rd pick of the 2015 draft, he’s starting to burn all of those on the draft floor who overlooked his ability.

With seven goals through 15 games, Garland has been Arizona’s secret weapon. And despite averaging 12:51 per outing, Garland has done enough to earn ice time with some of the Coyotes’ best. He has largely skated alongside Nick Schmaltz, Arizona’s top scorer, and Clayton Keller has recently skated on the opposite wing. Pairing Garland with two of the Coyotes’ top players has been a vote of confidence for the 23-year-old, and he’s making the most of his minutes. He ranks second among all Coyotes with a points-per-60 minutes rate of 3.11 and second among all players who’ve averaged upwards of 13 minutes per game with a shots-per-60 of 11.83.

His scoring is no fluke, either. In the 47 games Garland played last season, he scored at what amounts to a 24-goal pace across an 82-game seasons, and that would have made him the only Coyote surpass the 20-goal barrier in what was an otherwise challenging season for the team offensively. And that he scored at that rate and continues to do so this season should be no surprise given his level of production in major junior.

Garland’s aforementioned 129-point, MVP-winning campaign is the best single-season effort among under-19 forwards in the QMJHL since 2006, and his career performance in the circuit is among the best in recent memory. Since Garland’s QMJHL rookie season in 2012-13, only Alex Barre-Boulet (337 points in 263 games) has more points than Garland (328 points in 206 games). Not even top prospects Joe Veleno (266 points in 230 games) or Maxime Comtois (244 points in 205 games) come close. But Garland was often labeled as a one-dimensional player, and teams approached with caution, particularly those who believed he wouldn’t be able to play more than a depth role.

But Garland is beginning to prove even those doubters wrong. Playing in coach Rick Tocchet’s system, Garland has a respectable 52.7 Corsi percentage at 5-on-5, putting him 98th among the 259 forwards with at least 150 minutes played and fourth among Coyotes forwards. Better yet, though, Garland’s impressive 84.6 goals for percentage is second among the group of 150-minute forwards. He also ranks 70th with 55.5 expected goals percentage at five-a-side, which is further proof he’s been a reliable play-driver and offensive force for Arizona.

At this rate, it’s beginning to appear as though we have another Yanni Gourde on our hands – a small, feisty forward capable of putting up solid numbers once given the chance. Garland fits the bill. His PNHLe rating, a value that projects potential NHL scoring rates based on scoring statistics in other leagues, has always been among the best in the Coyotes’ system and, using  Mason Black’s model, Garland’s current rate of scoring projects him to be a nearly 60-point player.

Even if Garland doesn’t reach that mark, though, he’s given the Coyotes the exact type of firepower and quick-strike offensive player that they’ve lacked in the past. And though maintaining his current scoring pace and firing home 38 goals seems unlikely, Garland has an opportunity to become a go-to scoring winger in Arizona. That’s huge for a small guy who many wrote off and passed on not once, but twice.

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