Five months ago, Peter Mueller took the ice at the Coyotes training camp looking to start a new chapter in his life. The same could be said for the entire Phoenix club, which had experienced an overhaul in the front office in the off-season. This year was seen as the perfect time to start something new.
In the first few days of camp, head coach Wayne Gretzky emphatically preached baby steps to his squad. Now, that wasn’t a joke directed at Mueller or the rest of the rookies just because the team decided to go with a youth movement this year. What Gretzky meant was that in order to build a winner from within, the team wasn’t taking any shortcuts. He challenged them to work hard, take things one day at a time and prove that the desert team was worth paying attention to.
And then Gretzky did what most NHL head coaches aren’t so willing to do with first-year players — he bestowed the utmost confidence in Bloomington, Minnesota native and gave him the space to succeed.
Coyotes Assistant General Manager Brad Treliving, like Gretzky, believed in the rookie and knew they would find success through patience.
"Nothing replaces playing," Treliving explained. "How Wayne has handled the young players, Peter included, by putting them in situations where you cannot experience any other way than going through it, was going to serve us and the players well."
Treliving also added that during that early period where everyone was adjusting, management was realistic with their on-ice expectations of players like Mueller and expected youthful mistakes.
"That doesn’t mean they’re going to play and if the mistake happens, they’re going to be stapled to be the bench," he said. "The most important thing is those players have played when they’ve made mistakes, and they’ve gone through situations where they were learning from and they’re back out there."
For Mueller, he approached the situation with great poise. Not only was he focused on keeping his roster spot, but he went about it the right way.
"I was just trying to fit in," he said. "I was looking for my timing and chemistry in order to get accustomed to the league."
Dubbed as future star for the club and the league for quite some time, he took in everything like a sponge and looked to the veterans to learn the ins and outs of the NHL life.
But there was one point early in the season when the new star might have been trying too hard to assimilate himself. Treliving said the coaching staff took notice. After going scoreless in his first four games and looking a bit out of tune, Gretzky scratched the rookie.
"There has to be accountability," Treliving explained of the move. "At the beginning of the year, until he could adjust to that pace and really feel comfortable with it, he sat out a game. That was not punishment by any stretch of it. Again, it was that accountability factor that’s there."
Thankfully Mueller got the message because the hiatus was short-lived.
"It took some time getting used everything," Mueller said honestly. "I mean, you have to look at it as this is your job now, so you have to bring your ‘A’ game every night."
Mueller continued to work hard at every stop and didn’t rattle when he was 11 games into the season and the points weren’t coming in.
"You can’t get caught up with that," he was quick to explain. "You just have to trust yourself and play your game. Everything will fall into place."
And so it did when he struck for his first career hat trick on Nov. 7 against the Anaheim Ducks.
"I think it was a bit of a turning point," he recalled. "I really started to feel that I could play in the league."
Treliving noted that the hat trick was timely, but he felt the forward was honestly a little overdue.
"You could see it coming in his play and in his pace," he said. "In offensive players, you always seem to say that the game looks easier for them. One of Peter’s biggest strengths is his vision. It was just a matter of time before the game slowed down for him so he could use his strengths."
As time moved on and the Coyotes juggled their lines to find the right chemistry, Mueller’s production picked up. But he would have stretches where he would string points together, and then go pointless for a few nights.
"You can’t get too worried over stuff like that," he said. "You just have to stay focused."
Then, Phoenix finally started to build some momentum. All of sudden, the team labeled as a dark horse – guided by its shining colt – starting running with the rest of the pack. No longer was the team looking from the inside out, but the Coyotes were in the thick of the playoff hunt and Mueller was heating up.
The rookie took off during the month of January, averaging a point a game. The team turned in a 9-4-1 record, their best monthly total to date. Mueller was recognized as the NHL’s rookie of the month for leading the freshmen with 14 points (6 goals, 8 assists).
"You can always have opportunities and chances playing well, but especially for offensive players, the confidence rises when you have results and success," Treliving explained about Mueller stepping up. "From there on in, it just seemed to go [right] for him. The pace was not overwhelming for him, he settled in and he was able to see things."
Looking back on last month’s point boom, Mueller deflected the praise to his linemates.
"There is definitely some chemistry there," he said. "It’s great to play with guys like [Shane] Doan and [Joel] Perrault."
The team has had a couple relapses in their quest to grab one of the remaining playoff spots in the west though. They’ve had nights where they’ve simply beaten themselves. But it hasn’t gotten them too down.
"The locker room is pretty tight," he reflected. "There are a lot of good guys here and there is a great amount of leadership in here. We’ve really come together."
Treliving said we should not be shocked by Mueller’s poise and presence.
"He’s a player that’s been in that situation really his whole life," he explained. "If you look at it, he’s always been the go-to guy. He’s been an offensive player wherever he’s been, he’s played up a level, he’s played ahead of his age bracket and he has had success at wherever he’s gone. So I think this is sort of a natural step for him but it is also a significant step.
"Responsibility is big and sometimes is overlooked," the Assistant GM added. "A lot of guys can go out and play, but there’s a significant difference from that when you’re accounted upon and you’re looked upon.
"Looking at it, it can only help his growth. If you get put in those situations where you’re looked upon and counted upon, that’s only going to help him grow and mature."
Treliving summed Mueller’s big role up well.
"If you look throughout the lineup, he’s not just playing, but he’s playing significant minutes," he stated. "I think you’d have to look long and hard to find a 19-year-old player who is playing the point on power play on a lot of other teams."
Mueller’s clutch play of late has not only been welcomed, but very timely.
"When the energy is up and the volume is up, he’s able to settle things down," Treliving said. "He’s still able to make a play in tight situations."
Treliving continued to explain that Mueller’s calmness and poise aren’t a strength you can all of a sudden improve by working at it. Rather, he stated it came with time and experience.
"That’s just an innate ability and god given gift that he has," he added. "It’s a huge strength that we’ve seen already this year and I think it’s going to be a big strength moving forward."
Nevertheless, the trust and confidence that Gretzky instilled in the young man from day one continues to shine through in a big way.
"I think it shows a tremendous amount of confidence," Mueller said of his coach.
Mueller currently stands third in rookie scoring behind Patrick Kane (CHI) and Nicklas Backstrom (WAS) with 42 points in 63 games, making it an interesting Calder Trophy race on our hands as the season closes out.
But Mueller won’t buy into the hype.
"That comes from you guys," he laughed. "You really can’t look into all of that. The team comes first in every situation. It’s always been like that from day one."
While many youngsters in his position might crumble under the pressure, this 19-year-old is taking it all in stride. It’s an approach that has earned Mueller a lot of respect from his teammates and the admiration of his coaches and management.
"He’s come a long way," Treliving finally added. "But that goes back to the fact that you can only make those steps by playing, playing significant minutes and playing in key situations.
"He’s a guy that has really become comfortable with the pace, comfortable with what happens in the league and I think he’d be the first to tell you that it’s another big step with these games in February and March."
Whether or not the Coyotes squeeze into the playoffs, the rookie hasn’t cut any corners and he’s earned every minute of his time and space on the ice. Now, just don’t be surprised if you continue to find Mueller in the thick of it helping his linemates lead the charge.