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After watching Lawson Crouse turn his first career hat trick in rare style — with an even-strength goal, a power-play goal and a shorthanded goal — Arizona Coyotes coach André Tourigny was asked what his budding power forward has done to take advantage of greater opportunity this season.
Pausing to pore over a mental checklist, Tourigny realized that the answer was simple.
“Everything right,” he said after the Coyotes’ 5-3 win in Ottawa on Monday. “Crouser is the perfect (coach’s player). He works hard, he’s focused, he takes care of his body, he does extra time, he pays attention (to) every detail.
“He’s always ready, always gives you his best, he’s coachable. He’s near perfection.”
It is difficult to evaluate coaching on a rebuilding team with a transient feel to it. Not only did Tourigny and assistant coach Mario Duhamel step into an unfamiliar setting, but the cast of players whom they inherited was unfamiliar with one another. It was a group that GM Bill Armstrong called an “awkward” assembly of “older guys that are trying to reclaim their game or trying to extend their careers, thrown in with players who are trying to take the next step and players who are just trying to establish themselves as NHL players.”
In his first year in Arizona, Tourigny still has lessons to learn about managing rest and practice time, managing personnel and an assortment of other things that fall under an NHL coach’s purview, but two of Tourigny’s primary selling points — his ability to connect with players and his ability to develop younger players — have been on full display this season.
Nowhere is that more apparent than with the team’s so-called middle core of players; named because of the group’s ages relative to others on the team.
Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz and Crouse have all either achieved or are on pace for career seasons. And after a slow start in which he had to adjust to a new and more difficult defensive role that clearly created some discontent, Jakob Chychrun looked like he had taken a step forward before a recent injury.
Here’s a look at the middle core.
When the 2021-22 season began, the talk was of Keller’s bloated and immovable contract. By midseason, he was a legitimate All-Star selection and Armstrong had declared Keller a key piece of the Coyotes’ future.
It’s hard to find more superlatives to describe Keller’s season. By now, everybody knows that he put on seven pounds of lean muscle this summer to help him win more battles, but it’s the 200-foot game that Keller has displayed this season that has made analysts sit up and take notice.
Keller is engaging in those battles, he has had a handful of eye-popping defensive plays in which he tracked back to break up scoring chances, and he is producing at a higher rate than ever before. With two assists on Monday, Keller has 58 points in 59 games. He has already set a career-high in goals (25). With eight more points, he will set a new career high in points.
With 23 games left in the season, Keller already owns one of the 25 most productive seasons in Coyotes franchise history. At his current pace, however, Keller is on track to become just the second player in franchise history to reach the 80-point mark. Given the fact that Keller has never missed an NHL game and now owns the fourth-longest active streak for consecutive games played, he has a good chance of getting there.
Keller is averaging a career-high of 20:01 in average ice time per game, and that comes in part because he is playing in more situations, including late in games when the Coyotes are protecting a lead, and on the penalty-killing unit, where he has logged a career-high 65.1 minutes this season.
“I think I bought in right away and I was kind of all ears,” Keller said of playing for Tourigny. “He’s a very smart guy, a great hockey coach, and we’ve developed a really good relationship. He’s just been super fun to play for. He wants us to win and he really does care about us and has our backs. It’s been awesome to play for him and hopefully we continue that for many more years down the road.”
Nick Schmaltz admitted that it took some time to grasp Tourigny’s concepts. Schmaltz went without a point in his first five games and then was out of the lineup with a hand injury from Oct. 25 to Dec. 10. Since then, Schmaltz has been producing at a scary pace.
In 40 games this season, he has 41 points, making it possible that Schmaltz could be one of four Coyotes players (Keith Tkachuk did it three times) to average more than a point per game in more than 40 games played (Keller could join him).
Over his past 20 games, Schmaltz has 15 goals and 31 points.
Back pressure has always been an underrated part of Schmaltz’s game. Through the neutral zone, both ways, Schmaltz is elite with his speed, stick and puck skills. Like Keller, however, he credits Tourigny with allowing him the freedom to be who he is, so long as he takes care of the non-negotiable aspects of the game.
“If you can gain your coach’s trust by playing the right way away from the puck and they know what type of player you are and they understand that mistakes are gonna happen throughout the game, when you do turn it over, as long as you’re working hard and play for the team and play hard on the other side of the puck, he’s gonna give you some leeway,” Schmaltz said of Tourigny.
When the Coyotes held their media day in September, Crouse could barely contain his excitement for a fresh start under Tourigny. That’s saying something for the soft-spoken, cerebral forward. He spent long hours working in the offseason to prepare for a greater opportunity, and he spent long hours preparing his mind for the possibilities that greater opportunities might create.
In 58 games this season, Crouse has already set career-highs for goals (18), points (30) and average time on ice (17:33). He is on pace to eclipse the 40-point mark.
“I play a fairly simple game and I try to do it to the best of my abilities,” Crouse said. “Take a look at a lot of my goals this year. They have come in that 10-foot area around the net. I’m using my size and my strength and my skating to get into those areas, and then just bearing down and putting pucks in the back of the net.
“When you’re getting to the right areas and you’re getting those scoring chances and they’re going in the back of the net, it goes back to that confidence thing, and then you feel like you belong; that you deserve it.”
That said, Crouse has never taken the opportunity from Tourigny for granted.
“He’s given me the chance and the opportunity to play the game that I know I can play and I’m very grateful for that opportunity,” he said. “It was all up to me after that. He gave me that opportunity, but I had to make the most out of it and I’m still trying to continue to do that.”
Jakob Chychrun will be out of the lineup 2-4 weeks after suffering a lower-body injury on a hit from the Bruins’ Derek Forbort in Boston on Saturday. That’s a shame. After a difficult start to the season in which his minus rating topped the league, trade rumors swirled and he was clearly unhappy with his role, Chychrun was playing like his old self.
He was joining the rush, he was creating offense, he was playing aggressively, he was producing (five goals, 10 points in his past seven games), and he looked happy again.
Chychrun has generally been open with media, but as his struggles mounted and his discontent with his situation also mounted, he became more reticent to speak to media. At times, he even seemed annoyed at fair lines of questioning.
Chychrun was not on the Coyotes’ top power play when the season began and he has been on and off of it throughout the season. Tourigny opted to play Shayne Gostisbehere up top and Phil Kessel on the flank. Chychrun has also taken a career-high 54.7 percent of his zone starts in the defensive zone (it was 39 percent last season). Those were significant adjustments, but also what Tourigny called growth potential for Chychrun to round out his game with better defensive-zone play.
It’s still uncertain what will become of Chychrun at the Monday deadline. It’s doubtful that his short-term injury will impact his trade potential, but the asking price remains astronomical (in general, likely a first-round pick, an established young player and a top prospect). Perhaps one team will step up to the asking price, perhaps a deal will have to wait until the draft, perhaps it won’t happen at all.
It is tough to imagine Chychrun in anything other than an Arizona Coyotes jersey. At worst, he is a No. 3, 23-year-old defenseman on a terrific contract ($4.6 million AAV) for the next three years; one who can skate, score goals and really boost a team’s overall offense. At best, if he develops that defensive side of his game (a distinct possibility given his youth), he could be a top-pairing player and a Norris Trophy candidate.
If a change of scenery is what Chychrun wants, that is his right to request it and Armstrong will try to grant it. But the price has to be high for a player with such promise because the loss would leave a big void on a blue line that has some good prospects in the system and on the club (J.J. Moser, Dysin Mayo, Vladislav Kolyachonok, Victor Söderström), but none that can be called elite.
Of the five players on this list, Fischer has had the least amount of opportunity to take his game to another level. He is averaging 13:06 of ice time, he has been relegated to a fourth-line role on most occasions and often, he has been asked to play center, which is clearly not his position of comfort.
When asked recently what Fischer needs to do to gain more opportunity, here’s what Tourigny said.
“He has to be more consistent,” Tourigny said. “If you look back to training camp and the start of the season, often our first guys on the ice were our energy guys. That’s what we want. We want our hard NHL players to have a big role on our team, but if you don’t do it then you cannot gain territory. Your performance will dictate what you have. The role is there to grab but it’s not a gimme.
“Probably since the All-Star break, he’s flying. Fisch is the kind of guy when he asks himself too many questions, when he thinks too much, it kind of brutalizes his game. His game is energy, drive and I think the huge difference right now is his physicality. He gets in the battles, he’s physical; doesn’t just get there and dip his toes in. He throws the body around. To keep bringing that element to our team is really important.”
Fischer had goals in each of his last two games before sustaining an upper-body injury against Toronto that had him listed as day to day. He was expected to return to the lineup in Montréal on Tuesday. Overall, he has five goals and 10 points in 49 games.
Top photo: Arizona Coyotes Nick Schmaltz and Clayton Keller (USA TODAY Sports)
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