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When Lawson Crouse took the podium at Coyotes media day on Sept. 22, he addressed the sweeping changes that the franchise witnessed this summer, and the low expectations that accompanied that roster overhaul.
“My job is to go out there and be the best hockey player that I can,” Crouse said. “I control the things that I can control and just try to put the rest behind me. I am going to go out there and just try to play the best hockey I can and put the noise aside.”
The noise that Crouse addressed was the preseason predictions that the Coyotes would finish among the worst teams in the standings, but the noise could just as easily have described the battle that Crouse waged with his inner demons last season.
Statistically, Crouse had a disappointing year with four goals and 13 points in 51 games. He didn’t score his first goal until March 6 against Minnesota, and he must have been among the league leaders in posts hit.
It was a maddening run because Crouse felt that he was playing well. He became an integral part of a penalty-killing unit that finished among the leagues’ top third, and he had the team’s second highest expected goals rate at 5-on-5 despite 14:18 of ice time (ninth among forwards).
“That’s what kind of made it even more frustrating,” he said. “When you’re all around it and they just won’t go in, it can get to you.”
Fate had one more near-miss in store for Crouse before the season ended. Coyotes executive and Hockey Canada assistant GM Shane Doan invited him to play for Canada at the IIHF World Championship last summer, which Canada won in dramatic fashion.
“I remember when Doaner asked me, I went home, I thought about it, and I gave him a call that night, and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m in,’” Crouse said. “Then I came in the next day and I think it was the second period of the next game, I hurt my knee and I couldn’t go. That was a bummer. It sucked. I’ve loved every time that I’ve played for Hockey Canada. I’ve done it multiple times but Worlds is one thing that I haven’t done yet so maybe I’ll get the chance in the upcoming years.”
Instead of flying to eastern Europe, Crouse went back to his family home outside of London, Ontario and he unplugged.
“I spent a lot of time reflecting and just hanging with friends and family,” he said. “It was really important to put hockey aside for a bit and refresh and hit that reset button.
“I thought a lot about what I needed to do to come in here with the right mindset and be positive. I talked to a few people about it. I’m not going name names but I’ve had some help outside of the rink. I’m the type of person who is very hard on myself. I expect a lot from myself, so when you can kind of get outside input, it helps.
“I don’t think there’s any question with my work ethic or commitment, so it was just about believing in myself. It’s all between the ears so it was just kind of about putting that stuff in the past and moving on.”
Crouse didn’t change much in his offseason training regimen. The Coyotes had already mapped that out with him, and nobody saw any reason for significant alterations. But the shift in mental training was noticeable to those closest to him.
“I was around him lots the last month of the summer before he headed to Arizona,” said Mike Crouse, Lawson’s dad. “I could see it in his eyes and his overall approach to his training. It’s like an instinct parents have.
“We chatted a lot about how he got to the different stages of his hockey levels and where he sits currently. The old Law is coming back; not to say that it was ever gone but different priorities were happening with his new house and new challenges. I just helped him along with the overall picture. I sense a great year coming out of Law.”
Crouse understands what lies before him this season. Coach Rick Tocchet is gone — replaced by André Tourigny, who has made it clear that everyone is starting with a blank canvas.
“With a new coach it’s kind of that fresh-start feeling,” Crouse said. “There’s opportunity to play more, to go up in the lineup, to grow your game. I spent my whole summer looking forward to this opportunity so I am excited to go out and show them what I have improved on and what I can do.”
Tourigny said Crouse has been taking advantage of his opportunity. In 15:05 of ice time against the Ducks on Wednesday, he logged 3:28 of power-play time, and he had a team-high five shots on goal. More importantly, two found the back of the net; a trend that he continued this week in practice.
“He got a reward in that game, but since the start of camp he has been a force out there,” Tourigny said. “He is skating hard, he’s focused and he has a huge presence. I’m really happy about his behavior, his attitude, his drive and his passion to be better every day. It’s fantastic.”
Tourigny has watched a little film of every player on his roster, but not an inordinate amount. He didn’t want precedent coloring his impression of the present.
“I cannot talk about the past,” he said. “I just can talk about what I see from Crouser since I have been here. He’s so powerful and he has a good shot. He’s willing to block a shot, take a shot, give a hit, take a hit. He’s a breed of player that is tough to find.
“He’s the ultimate pro. He takes care of his body, works hard, one of the first guys in the gym, works hard on the ice. Everything he does is with a purpose. He’s not going on the ice just to go through the motions. He really tries to get better in different things we’re working on so he’s a really good example right now.”
Crouse is not an effusive person, but it is clear in conversation that he can’t wait to start this season. He’ll also have the added advantage of working with Mitch Stewart, whom the Coyotes recently hired as their new strength and conditioning coach. Crouse has trained with Stewart for about 10 years, through minor hockey, private school and every summer of his pro career.
“I think the possibilities are endless,” Crouse said. “More ice time is a big thing that I was looking forward to, and getting a chance on the power play to show that I can be a net-front guy and do what they want me to do and just pay attention to details.
“I’m very excited for this opportunity. I just want to take advantage of everything I get, including putting the puck in the back of the net and avoiding the posts as much as I can.”
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