Liam Kirk has a knack for finding spaces to score. Turns out his timing is pretty good, too.
The left winger was running out of opportunities to impress the Arizona Coyotes. They selected Kirk in the 2018 NHL draft, making him the first player born and trained in England to be drafted, but seventh-round picks usually don't pan out.
The 6-foot-1, 175-pound Kirk had developed for two years in juniors in the Ontario Hockey League. But the league canceled last season because of the coronavirus.
The 21-year-old Kirk then decided he needed a big tournament with Britain at the ice hockey world championship to show the Coyotes he deserved a rookie contract.
“I knew that the worlds was a good chance — if it went ahead — to try to prove myself,” Kirk told The Associated Press in an interview.
Against elite competition at the recent 16-team tournament in Latvia, Kirk proved himself as the tournament’s joint top goalscorer with Calgary Flames forward Andrew Mangiapane of Canada — both with seven in seven games — and was named to the all-star team.
The Coyotes rewarded him with a three-year entry-level contract. He leaves for Arizona later this summer.
“Getting drafted is one thing, but getting an entry-level contract is another,” Kirk said, referring to the NHL’s standard rookie contract. “Players know that. It’s a lot of work."
The next challenge is earning a roster spot. The Coyotes have the option of assigning him to a lower-tier affiliate team like the Tucson Roadrunners of the AHL.
“For me, being a kid from Maltby, England, growing up watching these NHL players on highlights, it’s something you always dream about,” he said of making an NHL roster. "In England, it’s not an easy pathway to get to the NHL.
“My experience at the worlds has definitely given me a lot more confidence. It’s going to be tough, these are top, top players. I’m not underestimating that, but ... my mindset is to go in there and do everything I can to earn a spot."
It won't be his first rodeo in Arizona. Kirk attended Coyotes camps after being drafted and again in 2019 but acknowledges he didn't wow the decision makers. Instead, he spent two years with the Peterborough Petes of the OHL. He had 21 goals and 29 assists in 47 regular-season games in 2019-20.
“For me, I was disappointed in my last camp in 2019,” he said. “The first camp ... you get there and you’re kind of in awe of the players and the caliber. The second camp ... I wanted to go and prove myself. I just let myself down a little bit. I’m not saying that I did bad, but I think that I definitely could have done more.”
There's been management turnover since Kirk's last trip to the desert. General manager Bill Armstrong was hired last September, and the Coyotes parted ways with Rick Tocchet as coach after a disappointing season.
Kirk is intent on showing he can do more than score.
“I definitely want to be on the forecheck more, hunt for pucks more, be more physical, create more battles,” he said. “The offensive side of things I have a little bit of a knack for that, but I want them to see me battle for pucks and have a resilience about me.”
Before the contract terms were agreed — the team can't announce the signing until late July — Coyotes director of player development Mark Bell in an interview with the British Ice Hockey podcast praised Kirk but noted occasional inconsistency at Peterborough, cautioning "you can’t do that at the pro level.”
Kirk's success is also a victory for British ice hockey. The Coyotes selected English-born Brendan Perlini in the 2014 draft, but he had grown up in Canada. Kirk is a product of the Sheffield Steelers in the Elite Ice Hockey League.
“There is a lot of talent that comes out of Britain, and there are a lot of kids who have the potential to do great things,” he said.
Britain, better known for its soccer and rugby, earned its first regulation-time victory at the elite level since 1962 by beating Belarus 4-3, backed by Kirk’s two goals. It was Britain's only win of the tournament but it took another point from a 3-2 overtime loss to Denmark. Canada won the title.
“Playing for the national team, we’re kind of used to people not taking us seriously. We like proving people wrong.”
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