ANAHEIM — Sam Steel played in 23 playoff games last spring as his Regina Pats made a serious push for a Western Hockey League championship. Max Jones got in 14 of his own with the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights before seeing nine of Calder Cup duty with the AHL’s San Diego Gulls.
All of them packed with pressure carrying something important on the line. None as meaningful to their push toward the NHL as Wednesday night’s otherwise meaningless exhibition game against Arizona.
Steel and Jones joined fellow top prospect Jacob Larsson as those the Ducks are keeping a keen eye on in this training camp. Injuries to three top players (Ryan Kesler, Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen) have opened jobs in the forward mix and defense corps that ordinarily wouldn’t be there.
This first formal audition for the three carried some added weight when it came to making their case for sticking with the Ducks throughout the preseason and into the start of the regular schedule.
“It’s a very short window here to show us what you got to earn the right to continue to play and stay in that evaluation process,” Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said. “It is probably more important than anything for those young players as you described. We’re going to continue to drive that home.
“Right now, there is a need. And we’re going to have to fill the need with some of the people that are competing for this position now.”
Jones and Steel were the Ducks’ top two picks in the 2016 draft, both first-round selections. Steel, who was the leading scorer in all of Canadian major junior hockey last season, said the pressure ahead of Wednesday’s game was “different” than a WHL playoff game and resisted comparison.
“They’re both big moments in my career, I’d say,” Steel said. “I’m just looking to go out there and play the best hockey I can.”
Jones, a 6-foot-3, 209-pound left wing, started his preseason off nicely by setting up in front of the goal and banging in a rebound that Coyotes goalie Louis Domingue left from Cam Fowler’s slap shot on the power play. His plan was to stay calm, use his speed and size and “play like I’ve done a million times.”
“I’d say it’s pretty important,” Jones said. “Personally, I want to obviously be here. And I think it starts right now, if it hasn’t already. … “I got to go out and just play my game. They drafted me for a reason. Just stick to my game.”
Steel, a 5-foot-11 playmaking center, sees…