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Flames prospect Coronato has been at centre of Harvard’s stellar start

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Matt Coronato didn’t ask for an explanation.

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Nobody offered one.

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To hear him tell it, the Calgary Flames’ prospect simply checked the lines prior to a pre-season practice at Harvard University, noticed he was listed as the top centre — rather than his usual stead on right wing — and rolled with it.

“That’s just how it was drawn up on the board,” Coronato shrugged. “And we went from there with it.”

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It’s probably not going to change anytime soon.

Coronato and his Harvard Crimson remain undefeated at 7-0, the best start for this Ivy League program since way back in 1988. They’ll put their spotless record on the line in Friday’s Top-10 showdown with the Michigan Wolverines.

Coronato, arguably the most fascinating forward-of-the-future in the Flames’ pipeline, seems to be settling in just fine as a middle-man.

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He’s been held off the scoresheet only once in seven spins so far and leads the Crimson with 11 points — five goals and a half-dozen helpers. Across the NCAA’s Div. 1 landscape, he ranks fourth among all skaters in average points per game, at 1.57.

Coronato, who turned 20 earlier this month, owns a plus-8 rating and has successfully swiped 56.6% of his faceoffs.

“It’s really important, I think, to be a guy who can play different areas and different roles,” Coronato reasoned. “A big focus for me recently has been to grow my defensive side of the game. That is obviously an important part of the game, and I think it’s a good thing to be able to play anywhere in the lineup and be trusted defensively. As a player, you want your coaches to have confidence in you. Whether you’re up a goal, down a goal, whatever the situation is, I want to be a guy that can be counted on. So I feel like anytime you can do something to gain your coach’s trust, it’s a good feeling.

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“And it’s not too big of a deal, in terms of a difference,” he continued, dishing on the swerve from wing to centre. “We have a lot of focus on first guy back — anyone on a line can be the low guy in the defensive zone. Obviously, on a defensive-zone faceoff, you’re going to start out there. But for us, any of us can play low, so the biggest thing is just being the guy that takes the faceoff, and I take a lot of pride in that. That’s another area I definitely want to improve on.”

When the Flames selected Coronato in the first round of the 2021 NHL Draft, they were envisioning a guy who would someday fill the net from the right flank.

That hasn’t necessarily changed — he’ll likely work as a winger whenever he turns pro — but his future employers certainly don’t mind that he’s been entrusted as a centre at the collegiate level. The position switch is proof of Coronato’s commitment to keeping the puck out of his own net. If he was strictly a sharpshooter, interested in lighting lamps and not much else, Crimson coach Ted Donato might be hiding him outside the dots.

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“I think Ted really trusts him because he’s such a smart player and he can distribute the puck and he’s reliable and good in the faceoff circle and all that stuff,” said Flames development coach Ray Edwards, who has watched each of Coronato’s seven games this fall — five live and two more via video. “I don’t know that we see him as a centreman moving forward, but I think it’s really good that the coach trusts him to play there. This is only going to help him. To have that flexibility and versatility is excellent, but it changes his game a little bit. Instead of being really hard on the forecheck and being first on pucks in the offensive zone, he’s coming up from behind a lot of times and distributing it. When he’s a winger, a lot of times he’s chipping and going to get it, or the other winger is putting it in and he has to be first to the puck. So his game is a little bit different in terms of getting pucks back, and that’s been a big focus for us with Matthew is just having the puck more and finding ways to get it back and creating more at five-on-five because of that.

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“When we saw that he was going to play centre, we knew he wasn’t going to have as many opportunities to do that. But it’s still a focus. When they get the puck in the offensive zone and there’s a 50-50 race or it changes sides from east to west and he has to be first on the puck, it’s still, ‘OK, if that happens 10 times in a game, we need you to be getting the puck back eight of 10 times.’ ”

Edwards wasn’t a lick surprised that Coronato — Harvard’s leading scorer last winter as a freshman — was unfazed by the shift to centre, prompted by an injury to one of his pivot teammates.

“He is just so eager to learn, so eager to get better,” Edwards praised. “He wants to know what he has to do to not only be dominant there, but he’s always thinking about what’s next for him and he wants us to make sure we’re always communicating in terms of what those details are. He’s just a real good student of the game.”

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