NHL.com recently did a "Coyote Ugly" story, highlighting the struggles of second-year players Martin Hanzal and Peter Mueller.
I like to think when I watch a player game in and game out, practice in and practice out, that I have a pretty good feel as to whether that player is playing well or not playing well.
The Coyotes went into the season with a plan. They committed to four fresh-faced rookies, to go along with five key sophomore players, with Mueller and Hanzal the centerpieces on their roster, as far as sophomores are concerned. That is more responsibility than any other team.
There have been definite stretches where Mueller has struggled. He worked hard in the off-season, adding muscle and bulk, going from 206 pounds to 216 pounds. As a team, they determined that was too much weight so he has worked his tail off, getting his weight down and moving his feet quicker. As a result, he has created far more energy and increased his scoring chances per game. He has to continue to do that consistently, and the goals are certain to come. He is that good with the puck. Last season he came on and scored 22 goals. He spent lots of time on the point on the power play, scoring seven power-play goals in the process. He also had three hat tricks on the road. That’s pretty good stuff.
Last season, Mueller could also be hidden by his coach, Wayne Gretzky, especially on the road, where Gretzky has been a master with his younger players. This season it’s a different story for a few reasons. Teams know who he is. He can't hide. He gets to see the other teams’ best defensemen and best defensive forward. He has notched five goals and 12 assists at this point, below expectations by both Peter and the team.
This season will add a few layers of skin to Peter for the future and all for the good. He is a difference-maker in the best league in the world. He will score in bunches and when they start, it will take a long time for them to stop. I see it in practice and in games. I talk to the other teams’ goalies about the Coyotes players they have their eye on. Peter is at the top of the list.
In my conversations with Peter, I remember quickly how it went for me in my second full season as an NHLer.
The criticism is far more stinging from the coaches, the expectations are higher, and the responsibilities to your "younger" teammates changes you for the better. So, while Mueller's season is going to have to improve for this team to get into the playoffs, it hasn't been as "ugly" as the headline puts it. Not even close.
For Hanzal to be included in this column is baffling.
I know the "Western" National Hockey League doesn't get as many eyeballs as our friends to the east, but come on.
Hanzal will win the Frank J. Selke Award. It may not be this season, but he will garner attention. I say here, he wins it next season.
As a second-season NHL player that played only one season of WHL hockey and then to the NHL, he will only get better and stronger on his 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame.
He is as good in his own zone as any centerman in the NHL. What position is the hardest to break in at? Many say it is on the blue line. It’s hard to argue that.
I, for one, believe it is at center ice. The responsibilities are far greater than that of a defenseman. There is more confusion in your own zone, especially with so many cycles down low. A centerman has to win face-offs, not lose his man, be down low in his own zone, often spending the whole shift from the hash marks to the boards. Then, if you get out of your zone, you are the guy that gets the puck through the middle of the ice and makes a play for your wingers. You need to create offense as well, go for a line change, and do it all again.
Then there is Hanzal. He doesn't get to do that against the other teams’ sophomores, or 18-, 19-, and 20-year old players. No, he does that against the NHL's BEST players. Every night.
If you are going to suggest a player is struggling and making it a headline, you better do some homework, watch some games and then ask some players he plays against.
In the West, Hanzal faces Joe Thornton, and did so all of last year as well, as a rookie. The Coyotes have a winning record vs. the Sharks in the past two years. While Big Joe remains a very top player in this league, I can assure you he has had all he can handle in the two games this season against the Coyotes. The series so far is a 3-2 win and a 3-2 loss. We highlighted the two players the entire game and could see that Hanzal was in Thornton’s kitchen.
He does it the old fashioned way. He rarely takes penalties. He has a great reach and stick. He separates great players from the puck, not an easy thing to do. He brings a great attitude to the rink. He wants to win. He plays that way.
I mentioned Thornton. Let’s continue with Ryan Getzlaf, Anze Kopitar and any one of the three-headed monsters at center ice for the Dallas Stars. All in the Pacific Division, Hanzal plays six games a season against each of them.
Last season, Hanzal had eight goals and 35 points.
Last week, he scored three goals against the Maple Leafs and has eight goals and 10 assists on the season, while defensively, he is plus 2.
That includes a recent game in Chicago that was a team embarrassment, a 7-1 loss.
There are going to be nights like that for every player and team, as bad as it seemed at the time. Young and old go through it. We all have.
I can assure you that sophomore Mueller and Hanzal will be at the other end of that score more than they will be at the losing end in their NHL careers.
They are both special players that take pride in winning and care about their jobs on the ice.
To say they have been "Coyote Ugly" is extremely misleading and disrespectful to what they and the team are accomplishing.