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Coyotes taking big-picture approach amid rough start

Tocchet, Chayka find positives despite 2-15-3 record in first 20 games

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

MONTREAL -- The Arizona Coyotes are 2-15-3, last in the NHL standings, seven points behind anyone else. They're the first team in the League's 100 years without a regulation win in the first 20 games of a season.

"Our record is indicative of our past play, and we're focused on our future play," general manager John Chayka said. "There's an old saying: You are what your record says you are. I really don't think that applies to this group."

There's no sugarcoating it: The start has been bad, far worse than expected. After a 4-1 loss at the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday, the Coyotes flew to Montreal on Wednesday and landed in the late afternoon. They didn't take the evening off. They held a video session and practice at Bell Centre to prepare to play the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; TSN2; RDS, FS-A).

Video: ARI@WPG: Goligoski scores on wrister through traffic

"I know the record doesn't look it, but there's been parts that I've really liked," coach Rick Tocchet said. "That's the one thing I don't want them to forget. There's certain parts out of the 20 I do want them to forget and reset. We talked about that [Wednesday]. We have to reset. There's some guys that have not played well, quite frankly."

But this is a team in the midst of a rebuild. It has the lowest payroll in the NHL and seven players 22 and younger. Tocchet is a new coach teaching a new up-tempo system. There were going to be growing pains. 

The growing pains weren't supposed to be this acute. But the Coyotes have had a brutal schedule with lots of travel and little practice time. Goaltender Antti Raanta has missed 10 games with a lower-body injury and struggled, the backups have struggled and the team has an .880 save percentage, last in the NHL. The defense should be a strength, but Jakob Chychrun hasn't played because of a knee injury and Niklas Hjalmarsson has missed the past eight games with an upper-body injury. Chychrun will start practicing soon, perhaps in Toronto on Sunday. Hjalmarsson is practicing.

Chayka looks at the big picture. The Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins all went through hard times before winning the Stanley Cup multiple times. The Houston Astros lost more than 100 games three years in a row in 2011-13; they just won the World Series.

"Everyone wants to be the Penguins or the Kings or the Blackhawks," Chayka said. "Everyone wants to be the Houston Astros. But no one really wants to go through the process of doing that. I don't think any of those teams are looking to lose games, but I think you've got to make smart investments in young assets and grow this thing organically. It's no secret: draft and develop. Sometimes you take your jabs when you're going through that.

"I think [you see] some of the perception on how dire our situation is -- how we can't get a win -- and then you see the teaching that's going on and the players buying in and the players practice and training, all the things that we're doing behind the scenes. There's a real sense of, we're on to something here and we're ready to kind of build that team that we've been waiting to have in Arizona, which isn't just a competitive team. It's a team that can hopefully sustain a high degree of excellence for a long time."

Video: WPG@ARI: Raanta turns aside Ehlers' wrister

If that sounds like an endorsement of Tocchet, it is.

"I'm very happy," Chayka said. "Yeah, thrilled. I see the work he does an hour after practice. I see him out here working with young guys that are maybe out of the lineup. He'll spend an hour with those guys. He'll do all the extra video work with [rookie forward Clayton] Keller. He'll take these guys out for dinner. The forecheck, the [defensive]-zone coverage, yeah, we're trying to clean it up. We're trying to get better that way. But if we can maximize the potential of all these young players, that's where we're going to get to be the top team that we want to try to be."

The problem, though, is that losing can beget losing, if you let it. As much as executives and coaches want to focus on the process, players can abandon the process if it doesn't lead to results. That can hurt development.

The Coyotes felt they were making progress when they defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 2-1 in a shootout Nov. 4, lost at the Washington Capitals 3-2 in overtime Nov. 6, lost at the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 on Nov. 7 and lost to the St. Louis Blues 3-2 in a shootout Nov. 9. Even though they lost to the Winnipeg Jets 4-1 on Saturday, they gave up only 10 scoring chances by their count.

But then they had 51 giveaways by their count in their 4-1 loss at Winnipeg on Tuesday.

"We just started playing with no structure, no system," defenseman Alex Goligoski said. "Obviously you saw how that went. We know what we're supposed to do. We're not doing it enough. And on top of that, when we are doing it, we aren't getting results. So it's just been frustrating, but we have to break through at some point."

The challenge now is to keep the first 20 games from snowballing in the next 62, not just for the sake of the last three quarters of the season, but for the seasons to come.

"We've got a young group looking to make a name for themselves," Chayka said. "They can't afford to get beaten down by the situation and get negative. They've got to continue to work hard and get better every day."

Tocchet has stayed positive.

"The pressure mounts because you're not winning," Tocchet said. "We've got a really young roster, so they start squeezing their sticks. For me, it's my job. I've got to do a better job of relaxing the young guys, trying to put a steady hand on this thing before it does get out of hand. … It's my job to keep telling them to play the right way, because if you keep doing the right things, it's going to turn."

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