Matt Coronato has faced pro hockey’s learning curve during his rookie season

Photo credit:© Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Pike
1 month ago
It probably goes without saying, but it’s worth repeating plainly: playing in professional hockey can be really tough, especially early on. When players graduate from major junior or the college ranks to the pros, there’s often a challenging growth period as they learn the nuances of the pro game and adjust to the pace.
Now, imagine getting your first taste of pro hockey in the National Hockey League before your 21st birthday.
Suffice it to say, Calgary Flames forward Matt Coronato had his work cut out for him to start this season, trying to learn the pro game while playing in the toughest league in the world.
After a stellar pre-season performance Coronato started the regular season on the NHL roster. While he was bumped down to the AHL’s Wranglers in early November as part of a roster shake-up, he’s managed to show a lot of growth in his game over the course of the entire season at both the NHL and AHL levels.
“I think being here last year helped a lot,” said Coronato. “I think maybe to start this year there was a lot that I probably still had to learn. I feel like this has been a big year for me, maturing and learning a lot about how the game is played.”
If we’re being honest, Coronato has always been able to generate offence when he has the puck on his stick in the right areas of the ice. Whether he was playing in the United States Hockey League with the Chicago Steel or the NCAA with the Harvard Crimson, he was renowned for his goal-scoring. Heck, he scored his first NHL goal on the power play in just his third NHL appearance.
Coronato’s focus this season has been on rounding out the remainder of his game.
“I think the defensive side has been the biggest area that I’ve tried to focus on learning,” said Coronato. “And I think over the course of the year, whether it be Husk [Flames head coach Ryan Huska] or Cail [assistant coach Cail MacLean] or Trent Cull with the Wranglers, they’ve really focused on with me and I feel like I have made strides there defensively. And I think it’s something I need to continue to get better at, but I think with time I will. It’s winning puck battles and all that, but it’s also being in the right spots. I think video is a huge part of that. So I think that I have been able to improve a little bit in that area.”
A prime example of Coronato’s progression was on display on Sunday against the Arizona Coyotes. Coronato was able to intercept a pass in the Flames’ zone, creating a two-on-one rush that ended with his third goal of the season. It was a confident offensive play, one made possible by effective positioning in his own zone.
Coronato admitted to some growing pains adjusting to the Flames’ defensive system initially. He credited Dryden Hunt, who’s spent time as his teammate at both the NHL and AHL levels this season, as being someone who’s helped him adjust to the pro game in general.
It takes game reps to get used to professional hockey. Sunday’s game was Coronato’s 32nd NHL game of the season and 72nd regular season game overall. When you factor in his three games at the Penticton rookie tournament and six pre-season NHL games, he’s played 81 games since September. (Last season, he played 45 games between college, the NHL and the World Championships.)
While Coronato’s game hasn’t fully developed yet at the pro level, he’s starting to show flashes here and there of the player he, and the Flames, believe he can become. Since his latest NHL recall in early March, he’s played 17 games in a variety of different roles, and he looks far more comfortable (and confident) than earlier in the season.
“I think every level’s going to get a little harder,” said Coronato. “My first year in the USHL, I wasn’t great, I didn’t play a ton. I came back the next year, had a lot more confidence, and kind of took it from there. I think, especially at the NHL level, I think it takes time to get comfortable and get used to the pace of play. I definitely feel like this spring, I felt better and a little more comfortable and I think it’s just really important for me to have a huge summer and come back with a lot of confidence, which I know I’ll do, and kind of see where it goes from there.”
When the Flames season ends on Thursday, Coronato’s will continue. Along with teammates Dustin Wolf, Ilya Solovyov and Adam Klapka, he’s expected to return to the Wranglers for the balance of their regular season – and playoffs.
“I think it’s exciting to get back there,” said Coronato. “It’s a great group of guys, a great team. I was there most of the year. Definitely excited to go in and help them out, and hopefully we can maybe go on a little run here.”
As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Coronato’s gone through some growing pains during his first campaign of pro hockey, but the progression in his game has been there. It’ll be fascinating to see how he applies the lessons of the past 80-plus games as he heads into the off-season and beyond.
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