Earlier this afternoon, the Atlanta Gladiators, the ECHL affiliate of the Arizona Coyotes and AHL’s Tucson Roadrunners, caused a bit of a stir when they announced forward Liam Kirk had been recalled by the Coyotes. Though Kirk had been off to a strong start with the Gladiators, registering 11 points in 15 games thus far, a recall by Arizona appeared surprising, given he’s played just one game at the AHL level this season and just eight a season ago.
PHNX Sports’ Craig Morgan clarified that transaction, reporting that Kirk had actually been loaned to Jukurit in the Finnish League, which is coached by former Coyotes forward Olli Jokinen. Morgan adds that with the transaction, Arizona will retain Kirk’s rights and chances are he’ll return to North America next season, most likely as a member of the Roadrunners.
The 22-year-old Kirk is an interesting case as a prospect. Born and raised in England, Kirk played the majority of his youth hockey in Sheffield, turning pro at the age of 16. Kirk’s success as a teenager at England’s highest level of hockey got him noticed and he was ultimately drafted in the seventh-round by the Coyotes in 2018.
After being drafted, Kirk came to North America and spent two strong seasons with the Peterborough Petes of the OHL, registering 47 points in 63 games his first season and 50 points in 47 games his second. Following his two-year OHL stint, Kirk returned to England for one season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, playing in just 14 games, but dominating with 20 points. The forward returned to North America last season, but played in just nine AHL contests between last season and this one combined. However, after joining the Gladiators earlier this season, Kirk appeared to find a groove.
The loan to Jukurit isn’t necessarily bad news or a demotion. In fact, this opportunity might be a step forward for Kirk. As talented as the players in the ECHL are, it’s the third league in North America and doesn’t see too many players that are representative of NHL competition. Jukurit, on the other hand, plays in Finland’s top league, where Kirk will face players who fit into one or more categories: stars and veterans of Europe’s top leagues, former NHL and AHLers, and top NHL prospects.
While the European game is different from what he’d see in the NHL, Kirk has had ample exposure to North American hockey in Peterborough and Atlanta, but now he’ll gain more exposure to top competition. Perhaps not as impactful to Arizona’s decision, but helpful to Kirk, the loan will get him closer to home, at least on the same continent.