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Dan Bickley

Coyotes on path to relevance following early season hot streak

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Play hockey in Arizona, and it’s a long way to the playoffs. So is the difference between good team and the mainstream.

The Coyotes are suddenly scoring goals and winning games, flirting with relevance after the first month of the NHL season.

They have a future. They have a chance.

“When I played here, we had some really good teams and we competed,” Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet said. “But what I remember most was the crowd. The building was full. There was a buzz when you stepped on the ice. It was exciting coming to a hockey game. I want that back here.”

After an ominous start, the Coyotes have won five of their past six games. They’ve scored 12 goals in successive blowouts. They have more shorthanded goals than power play goals allowed. Their goal tending has been outstanding, posting the second-best save percentage in the NHL.

Some of this unsustainable, especially their absurd penalty-killing prowess. But there is an evolution happening here.

“You know the passion for hockey is here among the fans,” Tocchet said. “But you have to bring them out. You have to win and you have to play an exciting brand of hockey. If you’re not winning, they’re not going to come, no matter what sport you’re playing. We all realize that.”

Most of the current Coyotes aren’t old enough to know how bad the NHL experience has been around here, from bankruptcy filings to instability of ownership, from the Wayne Gretzky Debacle to the gambling scandal that was more smoke than fire.

The low ceiling trickled down to the ice, where the team has made only one playoff run in 21 years. The dearth of postseason appearances prevented the Coyotes from serving up the ecstasy and exhilaration of playoff hockey to casual fans in the Valley.

We’ve mostly seen the worst of the sport, and rarely the best.

Tocchet represents a turning point. He was the perfect candidate to step in following the abrupt end of Dave Tippett, which followed the crude treatment of Shane Doan. Tocchet was a public relations coup, once an immensely popular player in Arizona and one of the toughest pound-for-pound competitors in NHL history. He also came with a new approach on offense, seeking more aggression and excitement.

He seems to be a great balance for John Chayka, a new-age general manager who crunches numbers like no one else in the league. Their relationship is similar to what the Diamondbacks enjoy with Mike Hazen and Torey Lovullo. There is strong communication and mutual respect.

Almost a year ago, the Coyotes started 0-11 in Tocchet’s debut season. He remembers Chayka walking into the dressing room during the barrage of defeats. He expected the general manager to panic, to voice his displeasure and demand changes in philosophical approach.

“We were all very disappointed,” Tocchet said. “I was thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’ But John didn’t tell me he wanted me to change my style, play older guys or play more defense. He said, ‘I don’t want you to change your style of play or what you’re doing. Just trust it and keep doing it.’ And I really respect that.”

Now it’s working. Will it last?

The franchise still needs better ownership and more money dumped into payroll. If this team is truly ascending and not just riding the tailwind of a hot streak, a few more upgrades are necessary before the trade deadline.

Tocchet is keenly aware of the long-term effects of a losing culture. Some players come to Arizona, where there is no real history of success, and believe it’s acceptable to miss the playoffs. They don’t feel the civic pressure to perform like their peers in rabid hockey markets.

Most of those guys are gone. Things are changing. For the better.

“I’m not a rollercoaster guy, and we have a long way to go,” Tocchet said. “But you have to have guys with the right attitude.”

It’s a long way from Arizona to the NHL playoffs. But the lamp is lit. So is the light at the end of the tunnel.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier