Former Gopher Taffe among big names in Phoenix

by Jabari Ritchie

It’s only been a few months since Jeff Taffe chose to forego his senior season with the Gophers for a shot at the NHL, but the Coyotes prospect can drop names like he’s been a pro for years.

Taffe can tell you about being involved in a trade with NHL and Olympic star Keith Tkachuk. He’s taken orders from reigning NHL coach of the year Bob Francis. Last May, when the Hastings native was flown out to Arizona to ink his contract, he watched a Coyotes playoff game from the owner’s box with none other than Wayne Gretzky, the team’s managing partner.

After bulking up this summer – and even skating with Gretzky and legendary NHL enforcer Marty McSorley for a week – Taffe found himself centering top-line wingers Tony Amonte and Shane Doan in an exhibition game at Los Angeles on Sept. 26. He even set up Amonte for a goal.

“It’s unbelievable, the people they have working here,” Taffe said last Friday. “They’re giving me every chance to play, and you’ve just got to go out there and work hard. I got a couple breaks last night and gave one to Tony, so it’s kind of fun.”

As if that cast of characters isn’t enough to keep the rookie from wanting a stint with the Coyotes’ AHL affiliate in Massachusetts for a little more seasoning, the big club’s in a town that averages highs of over 65 degrees in the dead of winter.

“It’s great, because you could have a game at night and go out and play 18 holes of golf in the morning and then go play hockey,” Taffe said of Phoenix. “It’s kind of weird, and the people don’t really understand the rules of the game all that well. But at the same time, if I make a bad play they don’t always understand what it is.”

Three-quarters of the way through the Coyotes camp, Taffe is making a case to stick.

Not only did Taffe add 14 pounds and lose two percent body fat over the summer, Francis called him the best player in a rookie camp held in Hull, Quebec, over the first week of September.

In three exhibition games, Taffe has scored a game-winning power-play goal and an assist.

“He had the puck all the time (at rookie camp),” Francis said. “It’s one thing to notice what somebody can do when he gets the puck. It’s another thing to notice what he does to get the puck. He moves off the puck extremely well, makes himself available, and when he gets it, usually something good occurs.”

His former teammates can attest to that. Taffe bagged 34 goals last season at Minnesota to lead the team.

But now, he plays on a smaller surface than Mariucci’s Olympic-sized sheet. In addition, Taffe gets less space to work with from NHL defensemen, who are bigger, faster and more aggressive than their college counterparts.

In a Coyotes practice two weeks ago, Taffe went into a corner for the puck and was hammered face-first into the boards by fellow prospect Martin Grenier, a 6-foot-5 inch defenseman who outweighs Taffe by more than 50 pounds.

“I had five stitches, my face was bleeding and I had a black eye for a week,” said Taffe, who doesn’t wear a visor. “When you’re playing in games out there, you have to take a look and be aware of who’s around you, because they’re men now. It’s their job to punish you.

“It’s unbelievable how big some of these guys are, and not only are they big, but they’re fast. It’s a whole different game now.”

Even with the added bulk, Taffe is finding the more physical NHL game to be quite an adjustment. He excelled as a finesse player in college, but has been forced to get rid of the puck quickly and learn to crash the net to find twine with the Coyotes.

“He’s a skilled guy, but this game now, you’ve got to be able to play in traffic,” said Phoenix’s all-star goaltender Sean Burke. “I just know that he’s a guy that needs to get a little stronger and bigger. The skills are going to be there, and they’re going to develop, there’s no doubt.

“But the skill’s not all that it takes.”