SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Raffi Torres' game is based on force and fury, his hard-hitting style fueling his teammates and inspiring fear in opponents.
But as he sat out for 21 games, the result of a suspension for hitting Chicago's Marian Hossa in last year's playoffs, the Phoenix Coyotes left wing had to rethink the way he plays, find a way to retain his aggressiveness and remove some of the questionable hits that have gotten him in trouble in the past.
After hours of watching video with coach Dave Tippett, the new-version Torres gets his first live test when the Coyotes host the Dallas Stars on Saturday night.
"I'm excited—it's been quite a long time," Torres said Thursday. "I just want to be out there helping the boys out."
Since he broke into the NHL with the New York Islanders in 2001, Torres' contributions have come from his combination of skill and physical presence.
Playing for six teams in his 11 NHL seasons, Torres has scored 25 points or more seven times—his career high of 27 goals came in 2005-06 with Edmonton—and at least as many body-crushing hits.
The problem for Torres is that some of his hits have led to a few suspensions and a reputation—at least from some opponents—as a borderline dirty player.
Torres was suspended four games in 2011 for a hit to the head of Edmonton's Jordan Eberle while playing for Vancouver and again for two games last season for charging Minnesota Wild defenceman Nate Prosser.
Torres' hit on Hossa came in Game 3 of Phoenix's opening-round playoff series against Chicago, when he launched himself into the Blackhawks forward and sent him sprawling to the ice. Hossa had to be taken off on a stretcher and missed the remainder of the series.
Torres wasn't penalized for the hit, but the NHL hit him with a 25-game suspension, the longest for an on-ice offence since New York Islanders forward Chris Simon was banned 30 games for stomping on the ankle of Pittsburgh's Jarrko Ruutu in December 2007. It also matched the second-longest suspension ever.
League disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan cited Torres' discipline history as one of the factors in determining the length of the suspension, which was reduced to 21 games after an appeal by Torres and the NHL Players' Association.
Torres sat out the final 13 games of Phoenix's run to the Western Conference finals and had eight games left after the lockout-shortened season started this year.
As he sat out, Torres altered his mindset with the help of Tippett, searching for ways to maintain his ferocity, but not earn the suspensions that have come with it in the past.
"I think there are some things he can do to make him a better player but maybe make him a little less dangerous player," Tippett said. "He's a rugged guy. He plays hard, and that's how he's going to have to play. But there are some areas of the game we can show him where we can take some of the recklessness out of it."
A big key for Torres as he moves forward is making sure the focus of his physical play is to knock the puck away, not knock the player with it out.
In the past, Torres would often leave his man to seek out a big hit or go for the hit without regard for the puck.
With Tippett's help, Torres has made a conscious effort to change his mindset, to still be a physical presence, but do it with the intent of gaining the puck back for his team.
"(It's) just focusing on instead of going for the big hit, just kind of rubbing guys out and trying to take the puck at the same time," Torres said. "He showed me a bunch of clips where I was thinking puck first and hit second and it worked out, where I got a lot of scoring chances out of it. It's just a matter of me controlling my emotions throughout the game."
Tippett and Torres also went over little things like making sure he's looking at the puck and not the player when he's going for a hit—it adds to the perception that he's going after the puck, not the man—and realizing that the officials and league will likely be watching him a little closer than before.
"Me and Tip sat down and went over that kind of stuff, there might be a little bit more of a magnifying glass on you for the first couple of games, so there's no need to go out there running around like we've talked about," Torres said. "Just go out there and play the game, try to put myself in some good opportunities to score some goals and make some plays."
That's what the Coyotes are hoping for.
At his best, Torres is a disruptive force, a high-energy player who creates scoring opportunities for himself and teammates with his skill and physicality. After an uneven start to the season, the Coyotes are hoping his return can provide a spark to get them going.
"He's going to be a very energized player," Tippett said. "We've had lots of conversations about how he might have to change his game a little bit, but you watch him in practice he gives us energy and I think he's going to give us energy Saturday."
The Coyotes just hope it's the right energy, the kind that leads to goals and wins, not another suspension.
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