GLENDALE, Ariz. — Peter Mueller is skating again with a feel for the puck and a smile on his face.
On a young Phoenix Coyotes team that is taking some hard lumps this season, life in the National Hockey League is grand for the 19-year-old Mueller.
After two seasons with the Everett Silvertips, he’s playing at hockey’s top level, living in a city where the sun always shines, making big-time money — a reported $850,000 a year — and enjoying his first major purchase, a black Cadillac Escalade EXT. That rig is outfitted with stylish black rims, the recommendation of Zack Dailey, one of Mueller’s best friends with the Silvertips.
Mueller already has a hat trick, a newfound confidence in his game and the faith of an organization that selected him with the eighth overall pick in the 2006 NHL draft.
A month ago, Mueller was overwhelmed and worried.
The size, strength and skill of the NHL ran the depth of every roster, and the speed was like nothing he’d experienced in junior hockey with the Silvertips.
“Instead of having a second to consider what you’re going to do with the puck, you have maybe a half-second in this league,” he said.
The pressure to perform and stay in the NHL was a huge hindrance. He wasn’t winning faceoffs, wasn’t getting quality shots, wasn’t playing with confidence.
“He was coming into the rink hanging onto his stick a little too tight,” Coyotes left wing Daniel Carcillo said. “It’s natural, especially for a kid his age.”
Mueller had made the team after an impressive training camp but, believing he needed to play well or face the possibility of being sent back to the Silvertips, he struggled when the regular season began.
Because of NHL rules, the Coyotes had to decide whether to keep Mueller all season or return him to the Silvertips before he played his 10th game. Because he’s 19, Mueller is too young for the professional minor leagues, so Everett was the only place he could play if the Coyotes decided he wasn’t ready for the NHL.
It was a burden that knocked him off the puck like a rugged defenseman.
“I know I can play up here,” Mueller said. “But it was either this or juniors, and I was worried.”
After four dismal games — no goals, no assists and only two shots on goal — coach Wayne Gretzky gave Mueller a mental break. He scratched him from the lineup and had him watch the Oct. 13 game against Minnesota from high in Jobing.com Arena, the Coyotes’ home.
“I sat him down and said, ‘Listen, don’t be overwhelmed by this,’ ” Gretzky said. “I told him, ‘We’re going to put you up top for one game. Sit back and see the game from afar to see exactly the difference in what you were competing in last year with what you’re competing in now. But don’t panic about it.’ “
But how could Mueller not panic? In his mind, he’d played poorly and had only five more games to prove he belonged in the NHL.
“It’s natural that he was thinking about it,” Gretzky said. “You realize how good this is when you’re flying around in private airplanes and getting paid pretty good money, staying in the best hotels, playing in really nice arenas. It’s either this or you go back and play junior hockey in front of 4,000 people and you’re riding around in a bus for a lot of hours.”
All the while, Gretzky and the Coyotes held onto a secret that they wouldn’t dare tell Mueller. They’d decided long before the regular season began that Mueller would remain with the Coyotes, regardless of how he played in those first games.
“We didn’t want to come out and tell him on Day 1 that he was here for good,” Gretzky said. “We didn’t want him to let his guard down. In some ways, it’s good to keep guys on the edge a little bit.”
As difficult as it was for Mueller to watch the Oct. 13 game in street clothes, he said it was right decision.
“It was a reality check for me,” he said. “I wasn’t playing the way I was supposed to play. I’m supposed to have confidence with the puck. Then I asked myself, ‘Why should I be worried? I’m up here living my dream.’ I had close friends and family basically saying the same thing, that this is my dream and I shouldn’t let anybody take it from me.”
Gretzky has tried different things to help Mueller succeed. He uses Mueller considerably on the power play and moved him out of the center position and to a wing to ease his responsibilities. He also moved Mueller onto the line with veterans Shane Doan and Steven Reinprecht.
“Eventually, we’ll move him back to the middle and he’s going to be the centerman for this team for a lot of years,” Gretzky said. “But as I’ve told Peter, it’s better to play the wing at this level than to go back to junior and play center.”
One game after Gretzky scratched him from the lineup, Mueller scored his first NHL goal Oct. 18 at home against Edmonton. Two days later he recorded his first assist.
Mueller played his 10th game at Dallas on Nov. 2, ensuring he would remain with the Coyotes all season. In the seven games after it became official that Mueller would remain with the Coyotes, had three goals, three assists and was successful on nearly 69 percent of his faceoffs.
“After that 10th game, he really started to show a lot more what he can do,” Carcillo said. “He’s carrying the puck, he’s skating, he’s back checking and he’s doing all the little things you need to do to be successful.”
Nothing bolstered Mueller’s confidence like the game he had Nov. 7 at Anaheim, when he scored three goals.
“That was a big step for me,” he said. “It told me I can do this, that I can stay here.”
Make no mistake, Mueller knows the NHL will remain a huge challenge, especially on a Coyotes team with an average age of less than 24. But he’s handling it with a smile these days.
“He’s starting to have fun now that he knows he’s going to be here all year,” Gretzky said. “His hockey sense and his puck-handling ability are among the best that we have on our team. We’re thrilled with his progress and we think he has an opportunity to be a star in this league.”