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For Arizona Coyotes, getting healthier means shaking off the rust

Christian Dvorak #18 of the Arizona Coyotes and J.T. Miller #10 of the Tampa Bay Lightning fight for the puck during a game at Amalie Arena on March 26, 2018 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Even after a player returns from injury, his team might not immediately get to enjoy the full benefits of having that player in the lineup.

The Arizona Coyotes have experienced that plenty this season. Leading the league in injuries, they’ve consequently had several players return from injury. And that sometimes means dealing with a real adjustment from not playing at all, to practicing, to playing in an NHL game.

“It’s a touchy one, because we don’t have time,” head coach Rick Tocchet said. “These aren’t experiments. I can’t wait for people. You can’t wait, ‘Oh, this guy, we’ve got to give him four or five,’ we don’t have that time. Maybe that’s just the world we live in right now.

“I can’t experiment right now. I have 16 games left and there’s 32 points up for grabs for us.”

Indeed, the Coyotes are making a push for the playoffs. They recently had Christian Dvorak make his season debut on Feb. 26, playing in an NHL game for the first time since March last season. Then there’s Jason Demers, who played Tuesday night for the first time since Nov. 15.

The next iteration of this phenomenon will likely be Michael Grabner, whom Tocchet said Wednesday is expected to play either on Thursday against Calgary or on Saturday against the Kings. Grabner hasn’t played since he suffered an eye injury on Dec. 1.

“It’s really hard,” Tocchet said. “Look at [Dvorak]. He’s been out for nine months, we’re expecting him all of a sudden to play top minutes as a centerman, it’s hard. He’s got some rust out there. You can tell.”

There have been others, too. Jakob Chychrun (knee) didn’t make his season debut until Nov. 13.

Once he did finally return, Chychrun had to play through not only the adjustment of NHL gameplay but also the pain of his injury, which takes time to fade away. But he said with the help of injections since the bye week, he’s felt better recently.

“When you miss a lot of time, a hundred percent, it takes a few games,” Chychrun said. “You just need to stick with it. You can’t get frustrated with yourself.

“The game speed is something you can’t really simulate unless you’re in a game and actually playing. Practices can help, but at the end of the day, there’s nothing like playing a game with regards to speed, your wind, a lot of factors that go into it.”

Chychrun had the benefit of coming back earlier in the season with more time to adjust. Dvorak and Demers didn’t have that same luxury, with both of their returns coming near the end of the regular season. It also doesn’t help Dvorak that other centers, like Derek Stepan and Nick Schmaltz, are currently out with injury.

“Unfortunately, with our center position, we have to put him in there in certain situations,” Tocchet said. “Maybe it’s unfair to him, but Dvo’s the type of kid that — he’s played well for me last year, and he’s just got to get better every game.

“I think it’s more reads with him. There’s some reads — it’s tough, because when you don’t have that fast-paced style through training camp all the way, and then you’re a young guy, there’s some situations where maybe it takes him a while to process.”

After Demers made his return on Tuesday, he said he felt good about his defense but his offense was what had the most rust (said Tocchet: “It’s hard to evaluate, because the whole team wasn’t good.”). Chychrun said that can be an issue of timing, where you get back into games and don’t realize exactly how much time and space you have.

“You’re almost overthinking and you always think there’s guys on you and you don’t want to make a rushed play or you don’t want to make a bad play, so you just try to make the simple one and move it quick,” Chychrun said.

“But at the end of the day, you always do have a little more time than you think. I think that’s the thing, when you’re out, too, if you watch a couple games from the press box, you kind of realize that and you see where you have that extra time and space and it can help.”

It also can make a difference whether the injury causes a player to miss training camp. Brad Richardson was with the Colorado Avalanche when he broke his wrist a day before the start of camp. He missed significant time and went down to the minors first before returning to the lineup (Demers and Dvorak went to Tucson before their recent returns).

“Your mind has to catch back up with what’s going on and getting in the right spots and feeling comfortable again,” said Richardson, who missed time this year with a hand injury. “I felt physically OK, and then it’s just my mind getting back where you’re in the spots you’re supposed to be in. But I’ve felt good ever since then.”

Ultimately, the experience is likely different for each player. And that’s exactly what Tocchet will have to balance with healthy bodies and a critical playoff push.

“We have to find out who can play and play a playoff style the quickest,” Tocchet said. “And that’s probably a day-to-day thing with this team.”

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