GLENDALE— It happens several times a game. Coyotes right wing Conor Garland appears to be hemmed in by two opponents, jolts to a stop and changes direction in one motion.
The opposing skaters drift by, unable to match the startlingly sudden shift, and Garland motors ahead to find a teammate or the back of the net. Not the biggest or fastest player in the NHL, Garland may be the shiftiest.
His secret: figure skating.
Leaning on skills figure skaters use to cut and jump, Garland has become the Coyotes’ leading scorer while pulling off escapes in the tightest of spaces on a nightly basis.
“It’s probably one of the major reasons I’m here. That and being able to handle the puck and all that stuff,” Garland said. “Growing up, you could hook and hold, slow guys down, but the NHL is all speed now. My skating coach really wanted me to be able to trust my edges and believe I can go any direction at any time.”
Garland’s slipperiness on the ice has allowed him to make the most of an opportunity he wasn’t sure would come.
He grew up in Scituate, Massachusetts, between Boston and Plymouth. Though undersized, he was a gifted player who worked tirelessly on his game, strength and skating.
Garland’s dad, Garry, was a minor league hockey player and Conor played with future NHL players Ryan Donato, Colin White and Jack Eichel, fueling an already hyper-competitive nature.
Garland’s skills translated perfectly to junior hockey, where he could easily beat players one on one while racking up prodigious numbers of goals and points.
The transition to professional hockey was not so easy. A fifth-round pick in the 2015 NHL draft, Garland struggled his first season with the Tucson Roadrunners, the Coyotes’ AHL affiliate.
Professional players are bigger and faster, so the moves he had used to beat defenders one on one were not as effective. The turnovers he had in juniors often turned into goals at the professional level.
“I always heard people say my style would never work in pro and you get there, struggle your first year and think, maybe they were right,” Garland said. “I lost my confidence for a while there. It was definitely humbling and a wake-up call. It took a while to get back there, to make plays and trust in myself with my stick.”
He worked on changing his game, learning to still be creative, yet patient at the same time. Garland had the puck on his stick most of the time in juniors and had to adjust to moving the puck quicker, creating scoring opportunities, giving it to someone else and moving into a better position.
He also started going to the net more, which takes an extra dose of fortitude for someone who’s generously listed at 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds in a world of behemoths on skates.
“I was really focused on getting up there, just prove that I’m an everyday NHLer” Garland said. “Obviously, it takes a while to do that, but it starts with one game.”
Garland improved enough to put himself in position to make the Coyotes opening-day roster in 2018-19, but broke his hand in a preseason game. He got an opportunity later that season when the Coyotes were hit with injuries and, after a feeling-out process, began to make his mark.
Knowing one bad game or even shift could send him back down to Tucson, Garland played every minute with unbridled ferocity. He agitated opposing players with his feistiness, left them in his spray with sharp-edged cuts and mixed it up in front of the net, scoring one goal on a deflection with his face.
The 23-year-old had 13 goals and five assists in 47 games as a rookie and made the opening roster this season. Armed with the confidence that he does belong in the NHL, Garland has taken his game to new heights this season, leading the Coyotes with 20 goals and 15 assists through Monday's game.
“He’s just a guy who came from nowhere and he’s just willed his way,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. “He’s leading our team in scoring and there’s a reason why.”
Skill, grit, determination -- and a dash of ice skating.