Q&A: Coyotes GM John Chayka on dealing with injuries, Tocchet’s influence

Winners of eight of their last 10 games, the Arizona Coyotes have crawled up the Western Conference standings and have surprisingly played their way into the wild card race. With a roster that is second in the NHL with over 300 man-games lost to injury, they currently sit three points behind the Minnesota Wild with a game in-hand.

In the thick of the wild card race, you won’t find Coyotes general manager checking his phone to see the out-of-town scoreboard or updated standings on a nightly basis, however.

“You know what, we’ve got so many things going on here, and our guys have been on a roll that I just know if we keep taking care of things and keep winning we’ll be in a good spot,” Chayka told Pro Hockey Talk on Friday. “I can honestly tell you I don’t do a ton of scoreboard watching.”

While only three of their final 11 games in March are against teams currently occupying playoff positions, every game for the last few weeks has been “playoff mode” for the Coyotes. Fortunately for them, the players have stepped as injuries ravaged the lineup, including Darcy Kuemper, who’s played a career high in games (41) this season after Antti Raanta went down.

“This is the story of our season,” Chayka said. “A guy gets an opportunity they might not of otherwise had with some of the injuries and he steps up and elevates his game. He’s been a big story for us. He’s been a rock for us back there. He gives the guys a lot of confidence and allows them to go and play their game. Credit to [head coach Rick Tocchet], too, because he’s got the guys playing a very detail-oriented system, limiting chances and when there are chances given up, obviously Darcy’s done a nice job of stopping them. Any time you get a guy like that to step up, a goalie, be a No. 1 and stop as many pucks as he has, it’s a good thing for us.”

We spoke to Chayka about the Coyotes dealing with injuries, his approach to the NHL trade deadline, Dylan Strome’s success in Chicago and more.

Enjoy.

Q. What’s impressed you most about your team this season and the way they’ve taken to the “next man up” mentality with all the injuries?

CHAYKA: “Just the leadership, and as a result, the resiliency. Rick Tocchet’s the ultimate leader of our team as a head coach. He hasn’t wavered, he hasn’t complained, he hasn’t felt sorry for us the next day after a big injury or two — it just seemed like every day we were getting a different one. He’s done a great job of keeping guys steady and obviously, [Oliver] Ekman-Larsson, first year as captain, new role. Some guys have trouble with it, some guys excel. I think he’s excelled. Him and Tocc together have been a great leadership duo through the good times and the bad here.”

Q. Was there a point this season where another guy went down and you’re like, ‘Come on, really?'”

CHAYKA: “Yeah, I lost count after a certain number. You know, injuries are part of the game. I think we did everything in our power in the off-season to add as much depth as possible in the event that you lose some guys. It’s not just the number of games lost, it’s really been the combinations of premium position players that have gone down. That’s been the frustrating part, but everyone deals with injuries. I think our guys have done a helluva job of managing it and staying steady. Now we’re in a place where we’re getting some guys back, too, and ready to make a push. It’s out of your control, for the most part, so you deal with it.”

Q. Are you surprised that with 300-plus man games lost you’re right in the mix for a wild card spot this late in the year?

CHAYKA: “If you had told me that was the case when we were perfectly healthy we probably would have taken that, too. We’ve shown great improvement year over year. Our young players continue to get better and continue to drive us and we want to play meaningful games down the stretch here and get ourselves a chance to play in the playoffs. We’ve had to weather the storm a little bit through the year. In a lot of ironic ways it’s been a really good season and hopefully our guys can have a good run down the stretch here and get us in.”

Q. You don’t want to make a panic move in response to injuries, but were you a little more aggressive around the trade deadline in seeking out some additional help to try and boost this chase for a playoff spot?

CHAYKA: “We worked hard at the deadline. We had a lot of conversations. We looked to improve our group. I think the key was that we’ve got a group here that’s done a good job and got us this far and in order to improve on our group we had to get a really good player. The status quo with some of these guys that come up, the [Conor] Garlands and the [Mario] Kempes and [Lawson] Crouses have elevated their games, and [Josh] Archibald’s been one of our better players the last number of games here. If someone was coming in to displace a player, they had to be a really good player. We wanted to do something that could make sense for now and in the future. We were willing to do some moves that we thought would part with significant futures, but it had to be the right fit, and unfortunately we weren’t able to find something that made sense. But again, we believe in this group. They’ve brought us this far and we thought we owed it to them to see it through and allow them to sink or swim, and so far they’ve been doing a heckuva job.”

Q. A number of players on the roster are young and have yet to experience playoff hockey. Playoffs or not this season, the intensity of the games of late has to be providing them with some valuable experience going forward.

CHAYKA: “Yeah, the last few months the [Jakob] Chychruns, the Kellers, the [Christian] Dvoraks, the [Christian] Fischers, Garlands, they’re all learning a lot and they’re learning by trial by fire right now. It’s great and it’s good experience for them. But I also know that these are guys that we selected for a reason and made them a part of our core future because they won at all levels, they expect to win, they expect to be the best, and they’re not taking anything for granted down the stretch. They want to get in, they want to be the best and that’s what drives these guys, and that’s why I think we’ll have success.”

Q. Do you look at what Dylan Strome has done in Chicago since the trade, and even Max Domi in Montreal, and ask yourself, ‘Did we give up on them too early?’

CHAYKA: “Our goal through trades is you draft players that you can draft and develop, but at some point you’re drafting for asset value and you’ve got to put together a team. You’re trying to find the right combination and right chemistry for your group. Obviously with Alex Galchenyuk, you get a pure goal scorer, a guy that can shoot them with the best in the league. There were many times last year where we were in a tight game, 1-1, with five minutes left and we get a chance and we can’t score and the other team gets a chance and their guys score and we lose the game. This year the tables have turned in that sense where Alex and Vinnie Hinostroza, some of these guys have come in and they’ve made a big play at the right time and that’s what we were looking for.

“You get a young scorer like Alex, [that] was something we were after and you’ve got to give to get. The same thing with Nick Schmaltz. With our system, with our style of play, we felt like speed through the middle of the ice is a rare asset and [he’s] a guy that can not only skate but make plays and make his teammates better and linemates better and think at a very high level and skate with a guy like Clayton Keller. We thought that that was something that really aligned with our vision of how we wanted to build out our team. 

“We traded some good players and we got some good players in return. The end result will be what our group does here and so far we’ve been able to string together a really good stretch of games with a really good team. That was our goal in making those trades.”

Q. What characteristics did you see in Rick Tocchet that made him your No. 1 choice when seeking a head coach?

CHAYKA: “I don’t think people know who good of a coach this guy is. Just to see him day in, day out with what he’s capable of doing. His ability to wear many different hats and do it in a way that is very genuine, I think that’s been the key. He’s a hard-driving guy. He wants to win, he’s passionate, he’s won at all levels and won at the highest level in his career as a player and a coach. He knows what it takes and wants to impress upon our group what it does take. When I was hiring a head coach I was looking for a partnership, someone that can come in and I can work with that had a shared vision that I could trust. I’ve allowed Tocc to run his team and develop the systems and culture he thought would be best and so far he’s done a phenomenal job of that. 

“He doesn’t get enough credit for turning around a culture and a franchise and getting us on the right track and getting the most out of his players every single night. That’s what he’s done.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Bolts need Vasilevskiy; Isles should be buyers

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Flyers are rallying behind Oskar Lindblom after his Ewing’s sarcoma diagnosis. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• The Bolts need Andrei Vasilevskiy to play like he’s one of the best in the world again. (Tampa Times)

• Coaches have been getting fired for reasons both known and unknown. (Los Angeles Times)

• The Blackhawks keep finding ways to hit new lows this season. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• Jim Benning was looking to trade Sven Baertschi, but he was forced to put him on waivers. (Vancouver Sun)

• A London Knights physiotherapist helped save Tucker Tynan’s life. (CTV News)

Tom Wilson has become a new-age power forward. (Sportsnet)

• Four players from the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association will play in the ECHL All-Star classic. (The Ice Garden)

• If good teams don’t go on long losing streaks, what does that mean for the Edmonton Oilers? (Edmonton Journal)

• Referee Tim Peel is likely done for the season after suffering a broken leg. (RMNB)

• Islanders GM Lou Lamorielllo should dip into the rental market this season. (GothamSN)

• Alexis Lafreniere is hoping to become the next future first overall pick to turn in an incredible performance at the World Juniors. (Featurd)

• It’s still too early to say that Jack Eichel is among the greatest players. (Rotoworld)

• It’s time for the Anaheim Ducks to rebuild. (Spector’s Hockey)

• Former Lightning head coach Steve Ludzik needs a liver transplant. (Tampa Times)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Kane’s hat trick; Staal’s milestone night

Patrick Kane #88 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrates with Jonathan Toews
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Three Stars

1) Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

Kane surpassed Sidney Crosby for the scoring lead this decade with 16 days left in the 2010s. Since Jan. 1, 2010, Kane has 791 points (311G, 480A), while Crosby has 788 points (296G, 492A). No. 88 recorded his sixth NHL hat trick in Chicago’s 5-3 victory over Minnesota. The Blackhawks have a long way to go if they want to have a realistic shot at the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but a victory against a surging division rival is a good place to start.

2) Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

On a football Sunday, the Jets scored a touchdown in their 7-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. Scheifele played a huge part with his three-point performance featuring a goal and two assists as he extended his individual point streak to six games. Neal Pionk added three assists, including two power-play helpers. The top four teams in the Western Conference (Blues, Avalanche, Jets, Stars) currently reside in the Central Division and playoff positioning will be crucial as each team eyes a lengthy postseason run.

3) Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

Staal became the 89th player in NHL history to have 1,000 career points when he tallied a power-play goal against Chicago Sunday. After a dreadful 4-9 start to the season, the Wild have climbed up the standings with a 12-4-5 record in their past 21 games. The alternate captain leads Minnesota with 26 points, including four goals in the previous three games.

Other notable performances from Sunday:

  • Anze Kopitar’s two-goal performance in the Kings’ 4-2 victory against the Red Wings helped him surpass the iconic Wayne Gretzky for fourth place on the franchise’s all-time scoring list. Kopitar picked up his 918th and 919th point in his 1038th game.
  • Blake Wheeler finished with three points, including a goal and an assist during a four-goal barrage spanning 4:17.

Highlights of the Night

Staal etched his name in the NHL record books with this one-time blast

William Karlsson won an important foot race before Reilly Smith slid a cross-ice pass over to Jonathan Marchessault

Factoids

  • A total of 33 goals were scored across four contests Sunday for an average of 8.25 per game [NHL PR].
  • The Jets scored four goals in a span of five minutes or less for the fourth time in franchise history [NHL PR].
  • The Jets’ four goals in a span of 4:17 are their second-fastest scored in a game in franchise history, behind the mark of 3:50 set on Nov. 18, 2017 [NHL PR].
  • Canucks’ Bo Horvat has won an NHL-high 414 faceoffs this season [Sportsnet Stats].

NHL Scores

Winnipeg Jets 7, Philadelphia Flyers 3

Chicago Blackhawks 5, Minnesota Wild 3

Los Angeles Kings 4, Detroit Red Wings 2

Vegas Golden Knights 6, Vancouver Canucks 3

Sabres demote under-performing center Mittelstadt to minors

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres have assigned under-performing second-year center Casey Mittelstadt to the minors.

The demotion to Rochester of the AHL was made Sunday, coming a day following a 3-2 overtime loss at the New York Islanders in which Mittelstadt was a healthy scratch for the third time in four games.

The 21-year-old has four goals and five assists in 31 games this season, and limited to just a goal and an assist in his past 21. Buffalo selected the play-making center with the eighth pick in the 2017 draft following his senior year in high school.

He then signed with Buffalo and jumped directly to the NHL in making his Sabres debut immediately following his freshman college season at Minnesota.

Mittelstadt has failed to play up to early projections of developing into Buffalo’s second-line center. He has 17 goals and 22 assists for 39 points in 114 career NHL games.

Players hope U.S.-Canada rivalry game helps spawn pro league

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HARTFORD, Conn. — The United States women’s hockey team beat Canada 4-1 on Saturday night, with players hoping the first in a series of five games between the international rivals will help kindle the public’s interest in both their sport and their fight off the ice for better professional opportunities.

Canada’s Victoria Bach and the Megan Keller of the U.S. traded power-play goals in the first period, before Amanda Kessel put the U.S. on top for good with a player advantage in the second. Abbe Roque’s backhand in the period gave the US a 3-1 lead and Alex Carpenter beat Genevieve Lacasse for the final goal 1:15 seconds later.

More than 7,000 fans showed up for the international competition, which comes after more than 200 members of what has since become the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association announced in May they would not play professionally in North America during the 2019-2020 season.

“I think it’s important for people to watch us play and see the level of talent and entertainment that’s out there,” Kessel said. “It’s getting that understanding that we need to help get us a place to play year-round so that people can see us more than five times a year.”

The women are seeking a professional league that provides a living wage, health insurance, infrastructure and support for training. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League shut down in the spring after 12 years of operation, leaving only the five-team National Women’s Hockey League, where most players make less than $10,000 a season.

“The product is there,” Kessel said. “The people to watch it are there. We just need a structure set in place.”

Sarah Nurse, a forward for Team Canada, whose cousin Kia Nurse plays for New York in the WNBA, said players are hoping to get support from the NHL, which has, so far, expressed little interest in investing in a women’s league.

“We can look at (the WNBA) and see that women’s sports have value and they have a place in this world,” said Nurse, who made $2,000 last season playing in the CWHL. “That is definitely a model that we look to.”

The rivalry series was created after the Four Nations Cup in Sweden was canceled when top Swedish players pulled out of national team events due to concerns over their salary and working conditions.

Without a viable pro league, players who are out of college have been training on their own at random rinks across North America in between gatherings of the national teams or training sessions and exhibitions sponsored by the players association.

Canada won two of those over the US in Pittsburgh last month.

But the lack of consistent competition can stunt the players’ development, especially when it comes to be being prepared for world and Olympic competitions, the players said.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Nurse said. “Games are when we truly get better and test out our skills, so it’s unfortunate that we don’t have more games to play.”

Cayla Barnes, who plays defense for the U.S. team and Boston College, said she and the other college players on the national teams understand what is going on and appreciate what the older players are doing.

“They are putting so much on the line for the younger generations,” she said. “Not just for us college kids who are coming up, but for U-8, U-10 girls who are coming up so they have opportunities later on. So I think all of us who are younger are trying to support them in whatever way we can.”

Hundreds of girls wearing their youth hockey jerseys attended the game, chanting “U-S-A” as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

“I want to be like them, like in the Olympics when I get older,” said 14-year-old Leila Espirito Santo, of Glastonbury “I started playing when I was in fourth grade and I wasn’t the best, but watching them play made me want to be better. It showed me I could do it.”

The teams will meet again on Tuesday in Moncton, New Brunswick. Other games part of the 2019-20 Rivalry Series are slated for Feb. 3 and Feb. 5 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Feb. 8 in Anaheim, California.