Photo Credit Norm Hall & Getty Images
Injuries have plagued the Phoenix Coyotes all season long. From Keith Ballard's fractured wrist three-games into the season to Steven Reinprecht's broken collarbone that has kept him out of the lineup since October 14th. When defenseman Nick Boynton landed on the shelf with a fractured foot, a spot opened up for someone in the Coyotes system to step up and make a name for himself. Having exhibited all the tools to play at the NHL level, the Coyotes recalled defenseman Travis Roche from the San Antonio Rampage.
Roche, a 28-year old native of Grand Cache, Alberta, has bounced around throughout his professional hockey career. Originally signed by the Minnesota Wild in 2001 as a free agent after playing at the University of North Dakota, he spent most of his first few seasons in Houston with the Aeros of the American Hockey League (AHL). Now, after a little more than five seasons with the Houston Aeros and Chicago Wolves, Roche has made his way back to the NHL and although it appears he may be sticking around for quite a while, he is not taking anything for granted.
"It's been a big thrill for me to be here," said Roche. "I am enjoying it, but also I am not looking far ahead. I am taking it day by day and see how things go. I think things are going well here."
Having spent the majority of five seasons in the AHL, Roche understands why it has taken him this long to get another shot at the NHL and how to make the most of it this time around.
"I think I've learned a lot by not being (in the NHL) and about what it takes to be (in the NHL)," said Roche. "I am going to make the most of this opportunity and keep riding it out."
Since coming to Phoenix, fans and opponents alike have witnesses the skill of Roche. But some of the most glowing compliments have from the Coyotes coaching staff.
"He's been very good defensively," said Coyotes Associate Coach Ulf Samuelsson. "He's faced some of the quickest skaters in the league and he's making up for a lot of it with his good stick. He's got a very good stick and a great poke check so whenever he gets in trouble skating, he makes up for it with his smart stick."
Highly regarded for his offensive-minded play, Roche has transitioned seamlessly into the NHL game; and while he credits his tenure in the AHL with helping refine his game, there are parts of the AHL life he is in no hurry to revisit.
"The travel," said Roche. "The trips get to be a grind. Flying the day of a game and things like that definitely wears on your body. That's something I miss the least. I loved my six years in the minors, I've enjoyed it and been really happy with my time there."
Roche has scored 209 points (55 goals, 154 assists) in his AHL career. There is no doubt that he has offensive skills to succeed but the knock on Roche has been his defense and whether or not he is a liability in his own zone. Knowing that to sustain a long career as an NHL defenseman he would need to overcome questions surrounding his defensive game; Roche committed himself to being a smart player and his own zone first and when the opportunity presents itself, look to contribute offensively.
"I think I make a good outlet pass out of our zone," said Roche. "That's probably the best asset I have here. I like to play offensively and at the NHL level it's been hard to find that because I play with more of a cautious mindset. In the American league I know what I can do because I've done it there for a long time (as a result) I put up good numbers there. Here I haven't quite found that comfort zone on when I can get away with things that won't get me in trouble defensively. I think the further along I get, the more the offense will come. The last few games I've picked up points so it's starting to get there."
Upon his arrival in the valley, Roche was immediately paired with one of the league's top blueliners in Ed Jovanovski. Playing along side the three-time all-star certainly helped make the transition a much easier one.
"So far I think I've been pretty solid," said Roche. "I think Ed (Jovanovski) and I compliment each other pretty well. He's one of the best in the league (and) I just try to read off of him and create some chances for him and our forwards by getting the puck up to him quick."
Since his call up 12 games ago, Roche has shown he can handle the puck extremely well in his own end and he recognizes the right time to jump into the play, a habit that led directly to his first career NHL goal.
On December 16th, with the Coyotes trailing the Calgary Flames 4-2 in the third period, Roche jumped up into the play and drove hard to the net where he grabbed a rebound off an Oleg Saprykin shot. Roche quickly sent the puck over the goal line and into the net for his first career NHL goal.
"The feeling was incredible, I wish it would have lasted a little longer," said Roche. "It was something I'll remember forever. My parents are pretty upset because the game was blacked out in Canada, so they didn't get to see it, but I'll make sure to get a copy of the DVD and they'll eventually see it. It was great."