The Arizona Coyotes have won just three of their first 21 games, which obviously wasn’t part of the plan going into the year. Still, things aren’t always as bad as they seem.
On Thursday morning, Pro Hockey Talk had an opportunity to catch up with Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet. We chatted about the rough start to the season, Clayton Keller‘s incredible rookie season, the positives he’s seen in his team’s game, and much more.
PHT: Coach, you came from an environment where you won back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Penguins. You’ve come to Arizona and you’re now coaching a team that’s trying to find themselves. What’s been the most difficult part for you mentally?
TOCCHET: “You want instant success. Obviously, the last couple of years have been unbelievable for me, so you come to this and you want the same thing to happen, but it doesn’t happen that way. It’s a process. That’s the one thing I like about the organization, we’re not going to accelerate to win short term. They’re willing to take hits now for the process of it. That’s something I’ve gotten better at in the last two or three weeks. I know it hurts to lose.
“I still don’t think we’re a two-win team. I think, with some solid goaltending early in the season, we’d have four or five wins by now. Saying that, I think it’s just a process we have to stick with.”
How far do you think this team is from being a playoff team?
“I don’t know. I could tell you it’s three years or two years, but I don’t know. All I know is that I want these young kids to improve. I feel certain guys are playing better. I think some guys are starting to get it.
“The biggest challenge for us is to keep doing the right things when you lose. Because when you lose, you change your game sometimes, you try different things that you shouldn’t try. And that’s the biggest challenge for me, is to make sure that these kids do the right things and that this team does the right things because eventually it’s going to help.”
I know two wins in your first 20 games isn’t how you drew it up, but what are some of the improvements you’ve seen in your team since the start of the season?
“Well, some of the top teams we’ve played (against), where it’s 2-2 with five minutes left. We look at the scoresheet at the end of the game and they had 15 chances, we had 15. So we’re playing even up for 45-50 minutes, but it’s that 10 minutes where we lose the game because of consistency or the other team just has great players, too. It’s something that we have to learn to play 60 minutes. It’s hard to win in this league and it’s hard to play the right way for 60 minutes, and that’s what we have to learn here. It’s about mindset.”
I think everyone knew Clayton Keller was a skilled player, but how surprised are you to you to see him play close to a point-per-game pace 20 games into the season?
“Yea, he’s been really good. What marvels me is that he’s a 19-year-old kid. He’s only going to get stronger, and he’s going against top players against other teams and how he’s coming out of the corners with pucks. He’s got the puck on his stick and he’s making plays. That’s what’s really been surprising to me.
“I didn’t know he was going to be this good this quick. The arrow is just pointing (up), he’s only going to get better. The only thing I keep teaching him is don’t get frustrated. Because when you lose and you’re not getting points-the last couple of games he hasn’t gotten points- you get frustrated, and I don’t what that frustration to affect his game.”
Everyone sees the offensive ability in his game, but is there something he does that flies under-the-radar a little bit?
“His poise in the corners. As a small guy, sometimes you think ‘ah, he’s not a good corner guy,’ but when he gets in the corners somehow he has elusiveness. Like, he gets out of the corners with the puck, he doesn’t just throw pucks away, he’s not scared. He’s been going in the corners with some really good defensemen and I think he’s done a nice job coming out of it, making a play. He doesn’t throw pucks away.
“Usually, young guys when they first come up they get the puck, they throw it away. They don’t realize how much more time they have sometimes. I think he’s exceeded that for me.”
How have you changed from when you were the head coach in Tampa Bay (2008-2010)?
“I think I’m more decisive. You have to tweak your lineup, you have to tweak certain concepts, but I’m totally different. I know the way I want to play, I’m not going to change (it), I know it’s successful. I know the certain players that I want and the team I want to become.
“In Tampa, I think I listened outside too much to other people. Obviously, you have to listen to the people in your organization, but I know this is the way I want to play and I’m very decisive about it.”
Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.