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Coyotes’ health, mental reset in focus as training camp begins

Goalie Antti Raanta #32 of the Arizona Coyotes is congratulated by teammate Darcy Kuemper #35 after a 6-0 shutout victory against the St Louis Blues at Gila River Arena on March 31, 2018 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

The coronavirus-caused hiatus for the National Hockey League has allowed teams to get healthier than they would’ve otherwise been for the playoffs. That could end up being especially relevant to the Coyotes.

A number of players could benefit from that time off ahead of the Coyotes playing a five-game play-in round against the Nashville Predators. Leading scorer Conor Garland suffered an injury before the pause and was listed as week-to-week on March 8. Goaltenders Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta both dealt with injuries of varying severity during the 2019-20 season. Forward Phil Kessel dealt with various injuries during the season but played through them.

“Everyone goes through injuries,” general manager John Chayka said. “I think your depth gets tested. If we want to get where we want to get to, we’re going to need guys to step up. I think it’s an interesting time. No one’s quite sure what to expect in terms of ramping it up, like [head coach Rick Tocchet] said, from zero to 100, in a short time to get going and we get right into postseason play. So my expectation and my belief is that we’re going to need a lot of guys.

“I think the key for us is goaltending is a big part of our team, and Darcy and Antti in my opinion are the top tandem. So those guys, you hope they stay healthy and they make the impact you expect them to make, and we’ll deal with injuries as they come.”

In response to a question about the absence of forwards Michael Grabner and Derek Stepan from the first Phase 3 training camp practice on Monday, Chayka said the players were “deemed unfit to play.” That could be a common refrain as the NHL has tightened rules about injury updates so as not to reveal if a player tests positive for coronavirus or is simply injured.

“To date, we’ve had no one that’s expressed that [they plan to opt out of the season],” Chayka said. “I think the key is guys want to feel safe. I can tell you our staff’s done a tremendous job, amazing job really in the building, making sure that they’re doing everything possible to keep these guys safe.”

Kessel could be one of the biggest X factors for the Coyotes. He had only 14 goals in 70 games of his first season with the Coyotes, and he said recently that this was the most injuries in a single year that he’s had in his career. If he can be healthy and return to his old form, he could be a major weapon for Arizona’s offense.

“Phil’s actually been good on the ice,” Tocchet said Monday. “Phil, he’s an honest guy, he’s got a lot of character. He goes, ‘Hey, listen –‘ he was injured [this] year, he’s got some bumps and bruises that affected his game but he doesn’t like to use that as an excuse. He knows, ‘Hey, I need to be better.’ He’s looking forward to the series. He’s excited, he’s smiling.

“John said this a while ago, I’m glad Phil Kessel’s on our team right now going to the playoffs instead of playing against him. So that’s really what it comes down to.”

But even beyond a physical reset, the Coyotes got a mental reset, too. Arizona can focus on playing like the first-place team it was at one point this season instead of trying to climb back into a playoff position, as they would’ve had to do if the regular season had continued as normal.

“To me, it’s not even the injuries. It’s the mental aspect,” Tocchet said. “Some guys, maybe they didn’t feel they had that good of a year, it’s a reset. Everybody can reset it. And it’s amazing when you get guys that maybe they weren’t as good as you thought they would be or they didn’t feel they were as good, they reset and it’s amazing how these guys come out of it and how they’ll do.

“I have a feeling a couple guys that maybe weren’t happy with their play are going to play well and have a big impact for us, I can just tell. Just their attitude and the way they’ve talked to me in practice today. It’s a refreshing thing and it’s a reset for everybody.”

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