Coyotes are still committed to Dave Tippett’s vision

Dec 28, 2016, 6:36 PM | Updated: Dec 29, 2016, 11:19 am
Arizona Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett speaks at a news conference announcing his five-year contra...
Arizona Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett speaks at a news conference announcing his five-year contract extension, Thursday, May 5, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)
(AP Photo/Matt York)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Wednesday’s practice had just ended. Dave Tippett was making his way past a collection of staff members and players gathered in the hallway just outside the Coyotes locker room that leads to the coaches offices at one end, the gym at the other end.

Somebody said something that made Tippett laugh that tight-lipped chuckle — the one he’ll tell you is the product of too much dental work during his playing days. Tippett paused a moment, offered his own crooked-mouthed retort and then sauntered on his skates to his office.

It’s a side of Arizona’s coach the public rarely sees. It’s a side of Arizona’s coach that hasn’t surfaced enough during this struggle of a season.

Tippett knows the Coyotes are not achieving as much as fans had hoped they would this season. He knows because the Coyotes are not achieving as much as he hoped they would, despite the challenge of a roster dotted by far more youth than last year’s edition.

He knows some fans are questioning his ability to lead this team, even if their analysis lacks a nuanced understanding of the game or the process now underway. He knows some believe he is holding back the skilled players with his supposedly defense-heavy structure that in truth bears a remarkable resemblance to most other NHL coaches’ approach. He knows some fans even believe the ownership group jettisoned the wrong guy when they fired GM Don Maloney last summer, after nine seasons on the job.

So what keeps a coach who wears losing as visibly as missing teeth coming back for more?

“The competitiveness is always there but there’s another side of it now that is the ability to build something real and sustainable and hopefully very strong,” Tippett said. “There are days when you have to do a reality check to remind yourself of that. There’s a lot of frustration days for sure, but to build something, that side can be very fulfilling as well.”

Tippett doesn’t expect fans to understand every decision he makes, nor is he arrogant enough to believe every decision he makes will be correct. But if they are looking for signs of progress in a season where the team will likely take a step back in the standings, he hopes they will look deeper than wins and losses.

“The signs of progress for me are the impact that our young players are having on the team,” he said. “I see where a guy like [left wing Lawson] Crouse was at the start of the year and where he is now. He looks and feels like an NHL’er rather than hoping to be an NHL’er.

“The other part of progress, I think you see in the new guys we brought in like [defenseman Alex] Goligoski. The first two or three weeks it was a struggle for him, but now you see him; he’s a real solid player in there for us.”

When Tippett scratches a young player such as defenseman Jakob Chychrun or Anthony DeAngelo for a few games, it isn’t to punish that player and it isn’t to stifle his offensive creativity. It is to teach.

“We’re pushing creativity,” Tippett said. “We want these players to be good offensive players but there’s another element that you have to be able to play without the puck. We want to become a team that can play in tight games and know how to play. Your young players, if they don’t learn a base of playing without the puck and defending, they’ll just be chasing it the whole time; you’ll never become a good team.

“If you just look at [DeAngelo’s] play and the ability to pass, it’s phenomenal, high-end. But if you look at the defending part of it, there’s lots to learn there … Especially with a young defenseman, there’s lots to learn.”

When DeAngelo sits in the press box, Tippett doesn’t want him watching how other players employ similar strengths. He wants him to watch how other players approach parts of the game that represent DeAngelo’s weaknesses.

“Don’t watch the puck movement stuff,” Tippett said. “Watch the defending stuff; watch [Oliver Ekman-Larsson] use his stick to defend. It’s never ending, the teaching process for these young guys … There’s times when those young players, they just need a mental break. It’s all consuming for them. It’s the process of becoming a good player.”

Tippett got some assurance from ownership that he would be allowed to see this process through when he signed a five-year extension this summer and added the title of executive vice president of hockey operations. In a way, that was Tippett’s reward for sticking with the franchise through lean financial years, and talent deficient years — the latter of which ultimately led to a falling out with Maloney — but it was also because ownership believed in his approach.

It is hard for fans to separate the last four non-playoff seasons from Tippett’s role in them. All they see is continued losing under the guidance of the same guy, but until this year, Tippett had no say in scouting, little control over the resources to build a development staff and no control over the acquisition of free agents. Let’s face it, the rosters the Coyotes have put on the ice would have challenged any coach.

“I think Tip’s been as good as anybody in the league at getting wins out of teams that sometimes aren’t expected to,” said Edmonton Oilers coach Todd McLellan, who asked Tippett to be part of his Team North America coaching staff at the World Cup of Hockey this summer. “Sometimes young teams, or teams that have had some budget constraints or other constraints put on them can make it difficult for a coach, but he’s always been able to get teams through.”

Tippett’s new role does raise questions. How long do he and GM John Chayka get before they must produce results? And if the results don’t come, how exactly would a 27-year-old GM who makes considerably less than him and brings considerably less experience to the table fire Tippett?

For now, that consideration is not even on ownership’s table. Tippett has finally been granted some keys to the kingdom. He deserves the time and opportunity to unlock sustained success because he is the guy most responsible for the franchise’s only run of success.

“People have no idea how lucky they are that Dave Tippett is still in Arizona,” Chayka said. “He can squeeze blood out of a stone and he’s so proven; got such a long track record of getting the most out of his group and maximizing each player. There’s no one else in the world that I would have more faith in to lead our whole group — our young group, our old group and our entire group — to where we need to be.”

Rangers at Coyotes

When: 7 p.m., Thursday
Where: Gila River Arena, Glendale
TV: FOX Sports Arizona Plus
Radio: ESPN 620 AM
Records: Coyotes 11-19-5. Rangers 24-12-1.

Injury report: Coyotes — C Brad Richardson (broken right tibia and fibula) and LW Max Domi (hand) are out indefinitely. RW Ryan White (lower body) is day to day. Rangers — G Henrik Lundqvist (flu), RW Rick Nash (groin) and RW Pavel Buchnevich (back) are day to day. Buchnevich did not make the trip. C Mika Zibanejad (leg) is out until at least mid-January.

Scouting the Rangers: New York is 7-3 in its last 10 games and snapped a two-game losing streak by rallying to beat Ottawa on Tuesday … The Rangers’ possession numbers have been in the bottom third of the league all season … C Derek Stepan leads the Rangers with 28 points (nine goals). RW Michael Grabner leads the team with 14 goals … The Rangers recalled G Brandon Halverson from Hartford (AHL) on Tuesday to serve as the backup to Antti Raanta while Lundqvist is sick.

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Coyotes are still committed to Dave Tippett’s vision