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Rookies fit right in with resurgent Coyotes

Monday, 01.14.2008 / 9:43 AM / Rookie Watch

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

Peter Mueller’s already one of the Phoenix Coyotes’ top line forwards.
Compared to some of his teammates, Daniel Carcillo is a grizzled veteran. That’s the kind of reputation an extra 18 games of National Hockey League experience buys you in one corner of the Phoenix Coyotes dressing room.

“To get the experience before this season is just a huge help,” Carcillo, who recently went on injured reserve with a knee sprain, told NHL.com. “I knew in the summer what I had to work toward.”

Peter Mueller and Martin Hanzal didn’t, but along with Carcillo and center Daniel Winnik, Phoenix’s four rookie forwards are playing big minutes for what is arguably the League’s most surprising team.

Picked by many pundits to finish last in the Pacific Division, Phoenix finds itself right in the thick of the playoff race in the Western Conference because the rookies have meshed with resurgent veterans like Radim Vrbata, Steven Reinprecht, and Derek Morris.

The Coyotes currently stand 11th in the Western Conference, only four points out of a playoff spot.

“We’ve been in awe,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan told NHL.com. “Our rookies have been incredible. We’re very fortunate that they’re all good guys; that everybody can hang around with them. Obviously there are growing pains, but they’ve been great in wanting to get better and do more. They want to learn.”

Finding four rookies contributing to one team is rare, but Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky and General Manager Don Maloney operate under the philosophy that if you’re not hurting the team, you’ll keep getting your ice time.

It’s the other way to build a contender, one that doesn’t involve lucrative contracts.

At least, not yet.

“The young guys come with energy and they come with sort of a unique naiveté,” Gretzky said. “They don’t really understand the microscope and pressure they’re under, but they work hard every day.”

Mueller is the most celebrated of the four. He’s also the youngest at 19, meaning he was 12 when Gretzky played his last NHL game. But he’s already one of the Coyotes’ top line forwards.

The Minnesota kid, who was selected ninth overall in the 2006 Entry Draft and began this season living with Maloney (he has moved into his own digs), has 10 goals and 12 assists while conducting a lot of his business around the net.

“He has really adapted to the fact that he can use his body for his whole game where in the beginning you just noticed his hands were so incredible,” Doan said of Mueller, who is averaging around 16 minutes of ice time per game. “He uses his body now to protect the puck so well. You can see he’s going to be one of those special players.”

Hanzal, the Czech standout who was Phoenix’s first-round choice in 2005, has proven to be the best playmaker of the young bunch. His 18 assists tell that side of his story. His other assets, including his 6-foot-5 frame, have many pundits screaming about his potential as a burgeoning power forward.

Winnik is turning into a solid third-line, penalty-killing forward. And Gretzky called Carcillo a cross between Sean Avery and Darcy Tucker, “but he’s a good kid.”

“If he says that’s what I am, than that’s what I am,” said Carcillo, who prides himself on being one of those pesty, get-under-your-skin type wingers who may find himself in the penalty box more often than he’d like right now. “Avery talks a lot, and I don’t think I do that much talking. In that respect, I don’t think I’m like him, but he’s a good player and so is Tucker.”

Rookies, though, rarely prosper without the guidance of some willing veterans.

Gretzky said that before he and fellow Hall of Famers Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr turned the old Edmonton Oilers into a mid-1980s dynasty, veterans like Lee Fogolin, Bill Flett, and Dave Dryden served as mentors.

“I think we have a great future ahead of us” -- Daniel Carcillo on the Phoenix Coyotes.

“They were the older players sprinkled in around us to teach us exactly how hard you have to work each and every day,” Gretzky said.

Doan, Reinprecht, Morris, and Ed Jovanovski are the Coyotes’ counselors.

“We just try to do something every night to help them,” Morris said.

Gretzky is obviously the head counselor, and he seems to genuinely enjoy bringing along the young players and molding them into the type of talents he envisions them to be. His smile grows wider just talking about it.

“Every night you can’t be good. Everybody has bad games. Everyone knows that,” Gretzky said. “There are a ton of Hall of Fame players who had a lot of bad games, but I’ll tell you the one thing about Hall of Fame guys is they work hard every shift, every night.

“You look at the best players in the game now, (Henrik) Zetterberg, (Sidney) Crosby, (Vincent) Lecavalier and (Joe) Thornton, they’re blessed with talent and ability, but the thing about them that is so special is they work hard every shift and every game.

“That’s what I try to instill into our guys.”

Look out, because there are more on the way.

Kyle Turris, the third overall pick at last June’s draft, recently helped Canada win yet another gold medal at the IIHF World Junior Championships with four goals, four assists and a plus-3 rating. Turris is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin.

Blake Wheeler, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound power forward who was the fifth-overall pick in 2004, is still one of the top players at the University of Minnesota.

“I think we have a great future ahead of us,” Carcillo said. “Turris is an amazing young player, and Wheeler probably could have played this year if he wanted to. Those two guys alone are going to insert a lot of offense to this group.”

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com.



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