Tocchet ensuring Coyotes ‘don’t waste days’ in pursuit of playoffs

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When the hockey community gathers in Las Vegas in late June for the 2019 NHL Awards, Rick Tocchet could very well be there as one of the three finalists for the Jack Adams Award. The Arizona Coyotes head coach has guided his team into a wild card spot in the Western Conference as they’ve dealt with ridiculous number of injuries this season.

HIs focus, however, is on the playoffs, not any trophy talk.

“I try not to even think of that stuff,” Tocchet told Pro Hockey Talk recently. “I’m very lucky that this organization and the staff we have with the assistant coaches, the trainers, the medical guys, we’re a very tight group here, and the players are tight as well. That really helps support me. I know when I come to the rink I’ve got great support. When you’ve got great support, you’re hopefully making good decisions, you’re not all over the map. 

“Any time you’re mentioned in anything, it’s a feather in your cap, but I’ll be honest with you, it’s more we’re a day-to-day team. I don’t even think of that stuff. I try not to, at least.”

Entering Tuesday’s game against the St. Louis, the Coyotes are one point behind the Minnesota Wild for the second wild card spot in the Western Conference with a game in-hand. A run that’s seen them win 11 of their last 15 games as some previous challengers faded has put Tocchet’s team in a good spot. It hasn’t mattered they’re second in the NHL with over 330 man-games lost to injury, it’s the old next-man up mentality.

“I’ve been involved in the NHL 30-something years, never,” Tocchet said about the rash of injuries that have hit the Coyotes this season. “Never to this devastation. You get a bunch of guys with groin injuries or something, but not out for the year knee injuries. I’ve never seen more knee injuries in my life, five or six where guys are out for the year or for four months.”

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What’s kept the Coyotes afloat as players were sidelined on a regular basis is that the morale of the team didn’t drop and their practice habits remained strong. Tocchet began to notice that the day after a game, especially a loss, his players were attentive and strong on details during the 30-45-minute skates.

Good practice habits were a key part of Tocchet’s makeup as a player and something he wanted to instill in his players when he became an NHL head coach. He credits using practice time advantageously to helping the Coyotes bounce back from a loss or maintain a winning streak.

“We don’t waste days here,” Tocchet said. “I think guys understand that we don’t have a team that can just turn it on or off, and that starts in practice.”

Before arriving behind the bench in Arizona, Tocchet’s coaching career surrounded him with superstar players. In Colorado he worked with Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Rob Blake, Paul Kariya, Teemu Selanne, and Patrick Roy. In Tampa, there was Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and a young Steven Stamkos. He won two Stanley Cups as an assistant in Pittsburgh with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Phil Kessel. Seeing the practice habits of future Hall of Famers and NHL superstars showed him that that’s where the path to success begin.

Tocchet has evolved as a coach since his two years behind the bench in Tampa a decade ago. He learned to be more decisive working alongside Mike Sullivan in Pittsburgh. Seeing Sullivan take information from his staff and process it and then make a decision right away was something he added to his skillset.

“I don’t really listen to the outside noise like I used to,” Tocchet said. “And communication, I think I’ve always been a good communicator, but I think over the last four or five years that’s been my go-to thing, communicating with players.”

Aside from making his players better, the Coyotes have helped Tocchet during this wild season. It can’t be easy hearing on a regular basis that yet another player will be missing multiple weeks or months, but if you go back to those practices, that important time on the ice, the team has helped keep the head coach level.

“They’ve really kept me positive. Sometimes I can get emotional,” Tocchet said. “I’m not really a negative guy, but if we have a bad effort, I try not to be upset the next day because the team gets energy from the coaching staff. 

“But they’ve given me energy, these guys. When they come in and they work hard after a terrible loss, it gives me energy. It gives me hope.”

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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.

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

Kris Letang Penguins
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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.

Deal for Coyotes’ proposed arena approved by Tempe council

David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports
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TEMPE, Ariz. — The Tempe City Council has unanimously approved a proposal for a new Arizona Coyotes arena and entertainment district, clearing the way for a public vote on the project next year.

The City Council approved the proposal 7-0 after a lengthy meeting that included NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

The $2.1 billion project would include a 16,000-seat arena, practice rink, 1,600 apartments, two hotels and a theater. Approval of the project was the final step before it goes to referendum on May 16.

The team is currently playing at Arizona State’s 5,000-seat Mullett Arena, by far the NHL’s smallest arena.

The Coyotes have been searching for a permanent home since the city of Glendale pulled out of a multimillion-dollar lease at Gila River Arena. Arizona had been playing on an annual lease until Glendale said it would not be renewed for the 2022-23 season.