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Neutral Zone: Tocchet talks TNT; Richardson, Demers play the waiting game; Fischer adopts a positive outlook

Craig Morgan Avatar
September 12, 2021

As I reported last week, Rick Tocchet is headed to the broadcast booth for the 2021-2022 NHL season.

It was a tumultuous offseason for Tocchet after he and the Coyotes parted ways in May. He was a finalist for the New York Rangers head coaching job, and almost everyone thought he was getting the Seattle Kraken job before that expansion franchise sprung a surprise by hiring Dave Hakstol. He also interviewed for the open positions in Columbus and Buffalo, although those jobs weren’t as attractive.

Tocchet had at least two offers to join an existing staff as an assistant coach, but the situations were not right so he turned them down. That was part of a greater thought process that Tocchet was weighing with his agent and close confidants. Tocchet understands that he can’t stray too far from the game if he wants to remain relevant and get back into the head coaching seat, but he has also looked at the example of other coaches who took some time off. He saw the worth in a sabbatical, while keeping abreast of the game through his studio analysis.

“It’s an opportunity to stay in the game, learn more about the game and reinvent yourself,” Tocchet said. “I think that every year, coaches have to hit the refresh button on something. You can’t bring the same thing to the table every year. You’ve got to learn new things because the game is always changing; players are always changing.”

When I spoke to Tocchet shortly after his Coyotes tenure had ended, he talked of the desire to attend coaching clinics, read new materials and alter the way he approaches the game, whether it was in the way the team practices, his daily interactions with players or his tactics. That said, Tocchet is also looking forward to the 10,000-foot perspective afforded broadcasters, who are not as deeply engrossed in the game as coaches.

So what can we expect from studio Tocchet?

“I played all these different roles as a player so I can talk a lot of that to the audience, but I also have a coach’s perspective,” he said. “Let’s face it, everybody likes to criticize coaches, but sometimes it’s not the right place for criticism, so I can give that perspective and say, ‘Hey, here’s what the person is dealing with. This is the reality of the situation.’ 

“Beyond that, I’m going to be honest. I’ll never disrespect somebody, and it’ll never be personal, but I will tell you my opinion. I think that’s important, especially for a good show. I think that’s the sort of stuff that they want, you know, the opinionated stuff. I’m not gonna be like Charles (Barkley). Charles can do anything, but I’m going to give my opinion.”

I asked Tocchet if there were plans to have Barkley in the studio with him. Tocchet is also friends with Barkley from their time playing in Philadelphia. Barkley has attended several Coyotes games.

“Oh, yeah,” Tocchet said. “I assume that he will be on with us sometimes. It’s gonna be hilarious. It’ll be great.”

I also asked Tocchet what we can expect from the Tocchet-Gretzky partnership. The two have been friends for two-plus decades, so the chemistry and relationship are already there.

“He’s pretty excited and I think he wants to be really good at it,” Tocchet said. “The executives told us it’s all about chemistry. Chemistry is huge. You can tell when there’s chemistry between guys, or there’s not chemistry with the guys. It’s important that me and Wayne find that chemistry. Wayne’s gonna rely on me for the system part of it because he watches the game but he doesn’t watch that stuff, so I think I can help him with that.

“When Wayne found out I was coming he was pumped. He told them, ‘I need a guy that’s not gonna be afraid to disagree with me and Toc is my buddy, so he’ll disagree with me. You get a guy that I don’t know, he’ll be like, that’s Wayne Gretzky? I’m scared to say something. He’s gonna kiss the ring.’ I think Wayne knows I’m not afraid to disagree with him.”

Veteran defenseman Jason Demers is still without a contract for the 2021-22 NHL season (USA Today photos)

The waiting is the hardest part

Brad Richardson played his last game with the Nashville Predators on May 27. He became a free agent on July 1, and he waited more than two months before the Calgary Flames signed him to a one-year, $800,000 deal. 

Jason Demers played his last game with the Coyotes on May 7, he became a free agent on July 1, and he’s still waiting to find a home. 

This is what life often looks like for NHL veterans who have passed a certain age threshold, but the situation has been magnified by two factors. Cap constraints have made teams field younger and younger rosters each year because those players are generally on cost-controlled contracts. Couple that with the havoc that COVID-19 has wreaked on the marketplace and life can be tough for NHL veterans. The age threshold for such struggles used to be 35, but now it’s 33 or 32; maybe as low as 30.

“There’s hard days and there’s good days,” said Demers, 33, who is still in Arizona where he has been training. “You’ve just got to focus on keeping yourself ready and making sure you don’t look too far ahead or you can just make yourself go crazy, sitting in the house.

“I know I’m still an NHL defenseman so the worst thing you can do is sit here and get bitter and say, ‘Look at all these guys getting signed. I’m better than them.’ You don’t help yourself when you do that.”

At 36, Richardson has been through this process a few times recently. That experience helped ease his mind this time around, even if he wondered if the point was drawing near where he would have no offers.

“I literally had no panic,” he said. “I just kind of waited to see how it played out and tried to make the best decision for my family.

“Other years, I stressed a bit more. When you get to 36 and you’re getting up there in years you think about it. Last year, I had only 18 games played so I was thinking, ‘Yeah, it might be tough,’ but I still knew I had some game left.”

Richardson said he spoke to Flames coach Darryl Sutter early in the process and that helped. Sutter coached Richardson with the L.A. Kings when they won the Stanley Cup in 2012, and Flames GM Brad Treliving said “Sutter loves him.” That helped lead Richardson to Calgary where he is perfectly content playing on a one-year deal and then weighing his options next summer.

“You’ve got to make sure your body’s feeling decent, make sure your family feels like they can do another year because it’s tough on a lot of people, especially when you’re moving around,” he said. “We’ll see how this year goes, but it’s nice to see different places in the world. I know lots of guys in Calgary and the coaches, I’ve been with them before, so I’m looking forward to it.”

While Richardson had an inkling early in the summer that he might be headed to Calgary, Demers said it has been pretty quiet when it comes to discussions with other teams.

“I chalk it up to last year,” said Demers, who played just 41 games last season. “I didn’t produce when I was playing and their mind was made up about me in training camp. It was kind of an uphill battle all season, especially with the way our team played. I’ve had some injuries struggles in the past so people probably thought that the games that I was sitting out, I was injured, but I was fully healthy.

“I could say that I’m pissed and that I hold ill will towards them, but you know, I don’t live my life that way. It was what it was. I’ll probably be on a bargain anywhere I go, but that doesn’t bother me. I just want to play hockey. I’ve just got to remind people that I can still play and if I’m in the right situation, I’ll be good and back to my normal form. I’m still a two-way defenseman. I didn’t produce the way I wanted to last year, or the last two years, but the assignments that we had were all to do a lot of D-zone stuff, on faceoffs and against the top line, so I just settled more into a defensive role. I have a chip on my shoulder now after what happened last year, and with what’s going on in free agency. I’m just kind of champing at the bit.”

Demers still wants to play in the NHL, but when his NHL days are over, he doesn’t plan to call it a career. He plans to play in Europe. He played part of the 2012-13 season with Karpat in the Finnish league and he loved the experience. The Swiss league really intrigues him.

“I don’t want to go there now,” he said. “I still want to play in the NHL but I always envisioned finishing my career in the Swiss league. I have a couple of really good buddies that have been playing there for years and I like the idea of having fun playing hockey, but playing less games in a year and enjoying traveling in the summer.

“In Switzerland, you’re right on the border of all these places. Culturally, it’s very cool, and the hockey is very competitive. I played in the Spengler Cup and played in Davos and I fell in love with the city and the whole culture there. My good buddy, Joe Thornton, his wife is from out there, and they go back all the time and he raves about it. It would be a good way to go out.”

Christian Fischer is entering his sixth season with the Coyotes. (USA Today photos)

Fischer’s positive outlook

I caught up with Coyotes forward Christian Fischer after an informal skate at the Ice Den Scottsdale to discuss the challenging road ahead for the Coyotes. The moves that GM Bill Armstrong made this offseason have signaled a clear rebuild. Wins will be hard to muster, but Fischer won’t accept that narrative.

“It’s definitely going to be interesting to have pretty much half of a new team,” he said. “I think that just puts a little more pressure on the core of Chych (Jakob Chychrun), Schmaltzy (Nick Schmaltz), Kells (Clayton Keller), Crouser (Lawson Crouse) and me to lead the way and I think that’s great for our growth and leadership. We’ve got to kind of take the reins here.

“At the same time, we brought in a lot of really good veteran players who are going to be hungry because of their situations. They’re all veterans who have played in the league for 10 or 15 years. They know how to win games, and a lot of guys have played playoff series for a long time so I honestly think it’s going to be a good mix.”

Few analysts expect much from the Coyotes. Fischer said the team can use that narrative.

“Everyone reads what’s said about us,” he said. “It’s everywhere that you look with the Coyotes, but if that doesn’t motivate you as a player, I don’t know what to tell you, because that should motivate anybody.”

Inclusion and diversity efforts

I missed the news conference that the Coyotes held on Thursday to introduce coaches Nathaniel Brooks and Duante’ Abercrombie. That was PHNX launch day and we had a lot on our plate. 

Brooks and Abercrombie are the inaugural recipients of the club’s coaching internship program for diverse hockey coaches, a program that was announced on Wednesday and will run annually.

You can find arizonacoyotes.com writer Alex Kinkopf’s terrific write-up here

In the bigger picture, the internship got me thinking about the Coyotes’ greater efforts to welcome everyone into the fold. That thrust is not new. Previous president/CEO Ahron Cohen made great strides in that arena, but current president/CEO Xavier Gutierrez has taken the baton and run with it. 

I wrote a piece last summer on the team’s efforts in the long-overlooked Latino community, and there have been significant efforts in LGBTQ+ community as well. Not all of these stories are going to rise to the level of full-length features, but it’s important that we keep shining a light on the NHL’s efforts in these areas in order to celebrate the successes, to make sure that those efforts continue, and to make sure that they remain authentic, genuine and comprehensive; not just window dressing to check a PR box. 

Loose puck

The Coyotes will wrap up development camp on Monday with a scrimmage at Gila River Arena at 6 p.m. The Black vs. White scrimmage is free and open to the public.

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