Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet is looking forward to another abbreviated season, but this time he has even higher hopes for his team.
First, he has a task for them to accomplish during this sprint-like training camp.
“The team works hard, and they have to cross the line into competing,” Tocchet said during the team’s Zoom media day. “They are not the same thing.”
The offseason saw a few moves, most notably the Coyotes traded veteran center Derek Stepan to the Ottawa Senators for a second-round draft pick. The team also signed center Derick Brassard and forward Drake Caggiula to one-year contracts.
Along with Tocchet, new general manager Bill Armstrong has tried to develop a roster that has the ability to earn a respected spot in the playoffs this year. Armstrong is working every day to become more familiar with the organization and is still evaluating players who could have a major impact for the Coyotes.
The 56-game schedule emits a shadow over training camp; and with the 2021 season starting, players are trying to stay as competitive and as healthy as possible. Not unlike other professional organizations, the Coyotes have to plan around COVID-19 and the protocols that go with it.
The coaching staff and the players realize how fortunate they are to return to work and do what they love.
“When I walked into the building today, I could feel the coldness of the ice and the buzz in the air,” Armstrong said. “It’s really exciting to get back to work.”
The season starts for the Coyotes on Thursday, Jan. 14, against the San Jose Sharks at home. The NHL has adjusted the season to 56 games, and teams will only play opponents within their division. This is the first-time players will work around a series-like schedule playing the same teams back to back.
Tocchet said he is focused on keeping this team flexible. The new schedule coupled with COVID-19 restrictions only allows teams to prepare daily. Players who are available one day may not be the very next day.
The end of the Coyotes’ season was bittersweet, according to defenseman Jason Demers, but the team has worked hard in the offseason to improve their performance.
Demers said the team added players who perform well, and he’s looking forward to them adjusting to the Coyotes’ style. When asked what the veterans do to prepare the less-experienced players for the season, in jest, Demers said, “fight the youngest guy.”
Seriously, though, he added that the new additions are great additions to the “improved team.” They’re tenacious on the puck, and he’s making them feel welcome.
In the offseason, the foodie worked on putting on weight.
“Cooking is a passion of mine,” he said. “It’s going to be important now moving forward with the season. I’m going to be cooking for myself a lot and knowing what I put in my body.”
Oliver Ekman-Larsson said the Coyotes are used to being the underdogs, but don’t count them out just yet.
“Not a lot of people believe in us,” he said. “We have a really good group of guys and hockey players in the room. We’re a really tight group of guys and having fun together. We’re going to keep working hard and continue to get better throughout training camp.”
To build on his strength, Ekman-Larsson worked with a new trainer and is excited about the shape he is in.
“I switched it up a little bit this offseason,” he said. “I started working with a new trainer back home. I really feel comfortable about the shape I am in right now, and I’m feeling really good. I’m excited to step on the ice and see if it can help me look better.”
“He looks really good by the way,” Demers added with a laugh.
Ekman-Larsson, whom Demers called “O,” is looking forward to a season with a new fellow Swede, Johan Larsson. They two are unrelated.
“I know him pretty well,” he said. “We played on the national team a couple times. He’s a hard-working guy, but he got some skill, too. He’s tough to play against. I’m really happy we have him on the team. He’s going to help us a lot. He does it all. I’m happy to have another Swede on the team. It’s always nice.”
Darcy Kuemper suffered a lower-body injury on Dec. 19, 2019, and didn’t return until February. However, he said he’s feeling better and taking practicing seriously.
“I’m feeling good,” he said with a smile. “I think it’s important that we take practices seriously and treat them with a game-type mentality.”
He’s looking forward to the season as well.
“I think, as an individual, you have an expectation for yourself,” said Kuemper, who spent the offseason with the team. “You want to go out there and play hard. As a group, we’re ready to take the next step. It was huge for us to get into the playoffs. We want to get out there and make a little more noise.”
Clayton Keller covered a lot of ground in the offseason. He trained for a week with fellow Coyote Phil Kessel and saw results that translated to becoming stronger and more explosive on the ice.
“Chemistry is a big thing, and having it with certain linemates is great for offense,” he said. “You get better every time, though, whether you win or lose.”