Wayne Gretzky was behind the bench for the two-game rookie tournament against the L.A. Kings last week, and it was business as usual for he and his coaching staff.
When you look around the NHL during the rookie camps and tournaments, you rarely see the head coaches behind the bench, for one reason or another.
That was not the case with Gretzky and the Coyotes as he and Ulf Samuelsson took care of the bench, while newcomer Doug Sulliman sat in the pressbox with Goaltenders Coach Grant Fuhr to take notes and get a feel for the young players.
Gretzky knows that the prospects he has will be a big part of the present and the very near future, not just players that have potential, and may be three or four years away, if at all.
He is on the bench and on the ice in practice grooming them through drills and systems that will be employed from Day 1.
It’s also good for the players to be around Wayne. It’s natural to be in awe of Gretzky, so the players have to get used to how he handles the bench, drills in practice and also his demeanor. He laughs a lot, observes most things that no one else even sees happening. He is serious, but knows when to lighten things up and more importantly, has been a player before and understands you will make mistakes.
There are plenty of negatives when you don't make the playoffs. You lose that winning culture, that expectation that you will win every night.
On the other hand, it allows you the opportunity to draft the best of the best in that year’s draft.
A team like the Red Wings haven't had top picks since Yzerman and Primeau, when they were not a very good hockey team. They have done well with later picks like Datzyuk and Zetterberg.
Pittsburgh had a rough stretch that resulted in Fleury, Staal, Crosby and Malkin, to name a few.
The Coyotes have Peter Mueller, Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker
, and Viktor Tikhonov
to go along with a slew of good draft picks that have resulted in picks like Chris Summers
, Nick Ross
, Brett MacLean
and Kevin Porter, to name just a few.
It’s no wonder Gretzky and Samuelsson are preparing the young players with the same intensity and attention to details as they would be doing with their regular lineup. They know they will play for them, and sooner rather than later.
The unique thing about this collection of players is they all have different games.
The puck follows Turris and he just makes smart plays. He gets plenty of chances and doesn't need much time to make a play. He has very quick hands and can snap the puck. He is a self motivated athlete that knows what he wants. It’s just a matter of time and experience for Kyle.
Boedker is a horse. He has big strong legs and has lots of jump. He checked in around 200 pounds and doesn't mind the physical part of the game. He is a left shot that plays the right side, and has a great one timer.
Tikhonov intrigued many teams. He grew up in Los Gatos, Calif., around the Sharks as his father Vasiliev was a coach with the Sharks and also with their farm team. He only recently got his Russian passport and was asked on several occasions to play for USA Hockey. He was not going to do that as his legendary grandfather, Viktor, is the President of Red Army. Young Tikhonov is a big strong kid that loves to drive to the net, and he can play all three forward positions. You can tell he has been around pro hockey all of his life, as he just fits in, he looks and acts like he belongs in the NHL.
Porter is a well-rounded, smart player. He won the Hobey Baker Award and I get the sense it wasn't just the point total. He is a leader. There were several times during the rookie games vs. L.A. that he got hit or slashed on a shift, and instead of retaliating, he took a number and made sure he got a piece of that player. He is smart with the puck on both sides of the ice. He was the most mature player in the two games and appears to have a real bright future.
Another piece of the lineup that has to excite Gretzky is his top line.
He finally has a big centerman that can go up against the big boys in the Pacific Division.
With Olli Jokinen, at 6-feet-3 and 220 pounds, he also has a center that wants the puck in his own zone to begin the breakout. Jokinen doesn't have to be the captain in the desert. He just has to play his game.
This is Shane Doan
's team, and Doan will patrol the left wing on the top line with Peter Mueller likely on the right wing.
That brings us to Ilya Bryzgalov. He is without a doubt the key to the process for Wayne and the Coyotes.He can be an All-Star. He can win a Vezina Trophy. He can be a Hart Trophy winner. That's what kind of upside he has. He has that potential for sure. He is athletic, mobile and large.
He will have to handle this team the right way. He will have to deal with adversity and have the maturity to handle some of the rough nights.
He has shown he can do that and now must know how massive the responsibility is. Every player will make mistakes, especially the young ones, and it’s so important in this situation for the veteran players, like Bryzgalov, to give his teammates confidence, no matter what happens on the ice.
What a year this should be.
Gretzky is going to have the time of his life behind the bench, in the room and on the plane with these guys.
I can't wait to be a part of it, the beginning of something real special in the desert.
I'm Darren Pang.