For Arizona coach Dave Tippett, there is something strangely eerie about this hockey season.
For the first time in a proud and productive coaching career, Tippett has dealt with failure.
Failure, in such a magnitude that the nature of this reality has forced a change in coaching and the way Tippett instructs his team.
In a coaching career which spans 12 NHL seasons, Tippett has never lost more than 35 games in any one season. That was a mark of 36-35-11 in coaching the Dallas Stars during the 2008-09 season.
Now, the Coyotes enter Thursday’s game with Colorado at home with a record of 21-41-8, tied with the Oilers for the worst record in the Western Conference. Only the Sabres, with 47 standing points, show less production.
While the losses continue to mount, the team will not approach its all-time mark for futility. That was set when the franchise was based in Winnipeg and the then-Jets compiled a 9-57-14 mark for the 1980-81 season.
For now, Tippett’s approach has transitioned from dealing with a majority of veterans and placing those players in proper position to execute. With the destructive season and push to younger players, Tippett adjusted his coaching methods to address a changed environment.
“Losing bothers you,” he said after practice Wednesday in the Gila River Arena. “The focus remains on the players you have here. Sure, there have been some changes, but the focus always remains the same.”
That’s winning, and the Coyotes, of late, have not won and have not scored.
For their 70 games to date, Arizona has lit the lamp 145 times, and only the Sabres, at 134 in the same amount of games, has scored less. Plus, the Coyotes have have been shut out 10 times, and scored only one goal in 21 other games. Coming into the Colorado game, they have scored three goals in their last five games.
At this point, Tippett says his concentration remains in overall improvement, and the rest will follow.
“Now, it’s an evaluation process and you have to determine certain things,” he said. “You need to know if a certain player is part of the solution or part of the problem. As a coach, you want to put a player in the best position to succeed. Yet, the evaluation process has to be fair.”
For those who know Tippett well, the season has been both agonizing and a challenge. The strength of Tippett’s coaching ability is a strong handle of the situation directly in front, and how to make the most of a current set of circumstances.
“(Tippett) has the character to adopt to the players he has,” said captain Shane Doan, who has played for Tippett for the past six seasons. “I haven’t seen much change in him this season. The message he constantly has for each player is you need to be better tomorrow than today.”
Here, Doan makes a critical point to no one’s surprise.
“Though (Tippett) has relied more on teaching here at the end of the season, this is still the best league in the world,” Doan added. “In the NHL, you’re expected to win, and this is not any kind of developmental league.”
During the season, others have witnessed a subtle change in Tippett’s approach.
“Earlier in the season, (Tippett) was putting players into position to execute and now that’s changed,” said Kyle Chipchura, who has played for Tippett in Arizona for parts of the last four seasons. “Now, it’s more teaching and help for the younger players.”
This transition period to coaching, mentoring and education, Tippett pointed out, resulted from players moved during the final minutes of the trade deadline. From a core of veterans to the influx of young talent, the movement of players made the composition and chemistry of the team harder to construct.
“You take a guy like Vermette,” Tippett said. “He did everything we asked. It was tough to trade guys like him, the veterans, and then begin to transition.”
The reference was to 32-year-old Antoine Vermette, dealt to the Chicago Blackhawks at the trade deadline earlier this month. For Vermette, the Coyotes picked up defenseman Klas Dahlbeck, now paired with Andrew Campbell. Two months ago, both were in the minors, and this pair now represents an important part of Tippett’s defensive core of the future.
For players showing leadership, exercising discipline and adherence to coaching, Tippett is one of the coaches in the forefront of reward.
When the Coyotes dealt defenseman Keith Yandle to the Rangers at the trade deadline, the “A” from Yandle’s sweater disappeared. Tippett, and his coaching staff, took Chipchura aside, and then placed the “A” on his number 24 sweater.
“That was a huge honor, but it was bigger because it came from the coaching staff,” Chipchura said. “I enjoying playing for (Tippett), and he’s trying his best to turn this around.”
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