GLENDALE, Ariz. — Year 2 in the National Hockey League was starting the same successful way that Year 1 finished for Peter Mueller.
He scored a goal in the Phoenix Coyotes’ season opener and through 13 games had five goals, five assists and a nice start on repeating, if not exceeding, the production of his rookie season when Mueller, who starred with the Everett Silvertips from 2005-2007, scored 22 goals.
Then, second-season reality set in.
Mueller has played 20 games since his last goal, Nov. 9 against San Jose, and he admits the frustration has gotten to him.
“It bothers me,” he said after practice last weekend. “It’s my job to score goals and right now it’s tough to score.”
It happens, especially at this stage of a player’s career, and the Coyotes understand.
Still, they need Mueller to score goals if they hope to contend for a playoff spot, particularly on a youth-filled team that has three players younger than him.
But the Coyotes also know they must be patient with a player who’s only 20 himself.
“He had a very successful first year with 22 goals and his name being bandied about for Rookie of the Year. The expectations going into Year 2 were high,” Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said. “But one of the things we always caution ourselves about is that he’s still a very young player.”
If anyone knows Mueller, it’s Maloney. Mueller lived with the GM’s family last year, something Maloney believes is important to help a teenage player adapt to hockey’s top level.
“He’s a very mild-mannered, low-key personality,” Maloney said. “But he’s fiercely competitive and he wants to be the best and be a top player in this league.
“He has come in and worked hard but he hasn’t had a lot of luck around the net lately. He needs to score a goal or two. The pressure he feels, he’s putting on himself.”
Mueller unleashed his frustration last week when, after he missed a point-blank shot against Nashville, he slammed the boards with his stick.
“When the chances stop happening, then you have problems,” Maloney said. “A year ago, that shot was in the back of the net. He’s got quick hands and a great release. But that’s the kind of year he’s having. He’s going through the sophomore blahs right now.”
The tough part is getting through it.
Mueller, who didn’t play Monday night at Edmonton because of a sore leg, knows he must continue to work hard and have faith in his ability.
“But I’m playing in the best league in the world and as long as the team is producing and we get those two points at the end of the day, personal stats don’t really mean anything,” he said. “There’s obviously more expectations and more responsibility, but it’s going fine for me. I’m just happy to be here and it’s a dream come true to be playing here.
“You understand that the second year is always tough. You’re a nobody when you come into the league, but now people understand what you bring to the table. You’re on other people’s radar screens.”
Despite the scoring drought, Mueller is contributing in other ways. After Tuesday night’s game at Colorado, his 15 assists are third-most on the team and his 20 points ranks him tied for third.
“He’s an offensive player and a very creative player,” Maloney said. “With the puck and the stick, he may be the most talented player in our whole system. When you’re not scoring on a regular basis, you start squeezing the stick a little tight, but it’ll come.
“The way I look at it, the work ethic is there and the second effort on pucks and all those little things are there. His talent will come through at some point. We just hope it’s tomorrow night and not a month from tomorrow night.”
Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky isn’t concerned.
“His hands are too good, he’s too good of a player not to score,” he told the Arizona Republic. “Obviously, he’s down on himself. Every NHL player loses a little bit of confidence, but as long as he’s working as hard as he’s been working, he’ll eventually score big goals for us.”
The Coyotes need that. Through 34 games they were seventh and in the final playoff position in the NHL’s Western Conference.
“It’s tough not to have expectations, and you have high expectations for yourself,” Mueller said. “But most of all, you really want to team make it into the playoffs.”
After Monday night’s loss at Edmonton, Gretzky said the Coyotes need their better players to step up, especially in the critical second half of the season.
A scoring surge from Mueller would be a big help.
“He’s a real key to the second half of our season,” Maloney said. “He can easily get a hot stick and run off 10 goals in 12 games. That’s the kind of ability Peter has. He just has to stay patient with it and hopefully he’ll bounce out of it.”