Gretzky has a plan

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:26 AM ET

PHOENIX -- Unless you count the guy behind the bench, the Phoenix Coyotes don't have any true superstars.

But going into the most recent National Hockey League season, the Tampa Bay Lightning didn't have any either.

Whether goalie Nik Khabibulin or any of the top Tampa forwards developed into superstars as the year went on is not the issue. The point is that the team entered the season with nothing more than some skilled players, some speed and a well defined approach to the game.

The Phoenix Coyotes think that's an excellent approach.

The Lightning played a pressure game, never hesitating to send in two forecheckers in an effort to take possession of the puck in the most dangerous part of the rink.

STUDIED

Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky has studied the Lightning carefully. He has seen what they did and how they did it. And he sees no reason that the best parts of the Tampa Bay game can't be transplanted to Phoenix.

"They don't carry the puck, which would surprise people," he said. "You think they're always carrying the puck. They don't hang on to the puck for more than one or two seconds. They get to the hole. They let the puck do the work.

"And that's why, when they do get the puck, they have speed and energy because they're not wasting energy carrying the puck and trying to beat guys."

Gretzky recognizes the genesis of the system. It's based on the theories that John Muckler used to espouse when he coached Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers. When Muckler moved on to the Buffalo Sabres, John Tortorella, now the coach of the Lightning, was one of his assistants.

"They get the puck," said Gretzky of the Lightning. "They move it. They go to the hole. They get it back.

"That was Muckler's big thing. Don't carry the puck. They called it the One-Second Rule and you can see it's really incorporated into the Tampa Bay game. Brad Richards and Vinnie Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis, they give and go as good as anybody ever in hockey.

"I think that's a big part of their success. Everyone talks about how St. Louis is not very big. Part of his success is he doesn't have to try to beat a lot of guys one on one. He can. He's good enough to do it. But he gets by guys without the puck. He gives the puck. He goes behind them, gets it back and he gets a lot of open ice because of it, so he's not wasting a lot of energy. He's fabulous.

"If you watch him, he moves the puck. He knows where to move the puck to. He gets to the hole. He sees everyone on the ice and then when he does get the puck, he has the ability to snap the puck as well as anybody in the game."

BLAZING SPEED

This is the type of game Gretzky hopes to get from the Coyotes. He has some blazing speed on that team and he wants his players to use it to the fullest.

The new offside rules should put a premium on the transition game and on the ability to anticipate turnovers. If the Coyotes excel in those areas, then toss in an element of speed, they should be a difficult team to play against.

Gretzky realizes that he's putting a lot of faith into the NHL's promises to crack down on restraining fouls and he realizes that in any sport, you need more than offence to be successful.

But if the crackdown does last, the NHL will become a place where Gretzky's Game is played. After all, who in the sport's history was better at anticipating turnovers and making the most of the transition game?

Gretzky has no Gretzky on his team. Or even a Jari Kurri. But he has an enticing mix of talent, speed, youth, age and leadership.

He also has people who are willing to listen to him and who are optimistic about the advances that this team can make.

A Stanley Cup like the Lightning? Probably not.

But a team that's heading upward and poised to make great strides in that direction? Definitely.


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