GLENDALE - The Coyotes began a new season and a new era on Thursday morning as players reported to Gila River Arena for training camp for the 2017-18 season. With a fresh coaching staff in place, Arizona will attempt to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2012.
Rick Tocchet has taken over as head coach. His message to the 55 players who arrived at camp was simple.
VIEW: Training Camp Roster
"I said to them that I respect every guy in the room," Tocchet said. "It's hard to be in this room. To get into an NHL training camp, to make a team or to be an established guy, it's hard. But it's going to get harder. They have to realize it's going to be hard and they have to embrace the struggle and they have to embrace the commitment and don't be afraid of it. It's going to hurt to win. It's easy just to lose by one. It's hard to win. I'm going to push them and our staff is going to really help them. That was my message. It's going to be painful, but there's nothing better than winning. That will sweeten the pain."
Tocchet's plan is to let the Coyotes play a style that best suits their skills. In other words, the predominantly young and speedy players will be given the green light to create offense. The players, he said, will help the coaches create the team's new identity.
"I know how I want us to play, but I want them to be a part of the identity," Tocchet said. "What are you going to bring to the team? Obviously, I want to play a fast style of hockey. If you look at the wingers we have, they're fast. I want to be a creative team. I want to be relentless … It starts today … I really think a good start for our hockey club is paramount. I'd like to really come out of the gate fast."
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Tocchet, who played for the Coyotes from 1997-2000, remembers those playoff teams and says they were the type of team needed in the Arizona hockey market.
"We had a good, smart, competitive team that played a fast style and that's what this fan base wants," Tocchet said. "We had offensive players with skill and the fans really connected. When we played downtown and the building was electric, we had a good advantage."
Video: Tocchet's Message: 'Embrace the Commitment'
Tocchet, and assistants John MacLean and Scott Allen, aren't the only newcomers who will help the Coyotes create a new identity. General Manager John Chayka has brought in a few proven veterans at key positions, including center Derek Stepan, goalie Antti Raanta and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson.
"It's exciting," Chayka said. "I think there's a lot of new faces and any time you have that there's a bit of nervous energy too, in some ways, which is good. They care and it's wide open, too. Obviously with the new staff, that gives everyone kind of a clean slate and a breath of fresh air. Whether it's special teams or whether it's Tucson or Arizona Coyotes, it's all open."
Stepan will be the team's top-line center and Raanta will be the starting goalie. Both came to the Coyotes in an off-season trade with the New York Rangers. Hjalmarsson, who will play alongside Oliver Ekman-Larsson as the top defensive pairing, also came to Arizona via trade with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Stepan has never not made the Stanley Cup Playoffs since breaking into the League with the Rangers in 2010-11. He says he is embracing this "unique" opportunity.
"Coming into a team where there has been a lot of changes might help me a little bit," Stepan said. "New coach, new system for everybody, and we're all kind of starting out at the same spot. As for the challenges with switching from New York to Arizona, I think my biggest thing is I have seen a lot of trades happen throughout my career. I have seen a lot of big ones go down and I've been close to a lot of big ones. The one's that guys have had success, they've fit in as fast as possible off the ice, try to get some of the younger guys to listen to them, get some of the older guys to like them, and just kind of fit in as fast as possible. That has kind of been my goal here."
The Coyotes also will rely on a core of young players who have evolved from junior stars into NHL regulars the past few seasons. Forwards Max Domi, Tobias Rieder, Brendan Perlini, Jordan Martinook, Lawson Crouse and Anthony Duclair all have grown into NHL players as a group and their chemistry - on and off the ice - is undeniable. Plus, there are several prospects on the cusp of bursting into the NHL. Look for Dylan Strome, Clayton Keller, and Christian Fischer all to push hard for a roster spot starting Friday.
"There's a big group of guys that are trying to make this team," Chayka said. "So, they've got an opportunity and now it's up to them. We've got a new coaching staff and they really don't know the difference between any of those guys, so whoever steps up and makes a case to make the team will make the team, and that's a good thing for us."
Tocchet said he hopes to trim the roster from 55 to 23 relatively quickly. He'd like to have the roster pared to what it will be for the season opener on Oct. 5 before the final three exhibition games.
On Thursday, Tocchet chose not to name a captain to replace Shane Doan.
"For me, it's a day-to-day thing," Tocchet said. "I don't know when I'm going to name one. I look in that room and I see a lot of leadership in there - Stepan, Hjalmarsson, the guys from last year. It will sort itself out. I don't have a timetable. There's a lot of good leaders in that room. And I know it's a big topic with the media and stuff, but I've played with guys that haven't had a letter that were the main leaders in the room … You don't have to have a letter to lead."
Ekman-Larsson is returning to the Coyotes for his eighth NHL season. He's hoping to rebound from a heartbreaking and disappointing season in 2016-17, and has accepted the personnel changes the team made in the off-season.
"You have got to keep in mind that it is a business and we're trying to get better," Ekman-Larsson said. "We haven't been doing good the last two, three, four years. If you're not playing well, changes are going to get made. It wasn't up to me, but I'm still here so I'm happy."
Video: Ekman-Larsson on Media Day 2017
The Coyotes will take the Gila River Arena ice for the first time on Friday at 9 a.m. It will be the first step in what Chayka is hoping will be a season that runs deep into the spring.
"Every season is sacred," Chayka said. "I told these guys we made a lot of moves this summer to win now. Having said that, we're cognizant that this is a process and where we are in that process … I think we have a good group of talented players. If we can stay on the right side of injuries, get some bounces, and our young players develop like we hope they can and expect they can, we expect to be a competitive team."
Video: Chayka Speaks on Media Day 2017