Three times the question was asked of Coyotes forward Jeff Halpern: What will you do when your playing days are over?
Three times Halpern tried to answer. Three times he fell back on the only answer his mind can cope with, one month short of his 38th birthday.
"I’ve been asked for a couple years now what would be my next move. My goal is never to play badly enough where stopping my play becomes that necessary next step," Halpern said, smiling. "It’s an amazing way to wake up every morning and do something you love. And with that, the financial compensation that goes along with it puts you in a unique situation where, when you’re fortunate to play as long as some guys are fortunate to play, you don’t have to race into anything else. You have time to figure things out or time to slow down."
Halpern understands that retirement is coming. He’s an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. But it’s hard to find a player who’s worked harder or overcome so much to wring every last drop out of his playing days.
"He’s prolonged his career because he’s a great person, a great teammate and he works his butt off every day," said Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, who also coached Halpern in Dallas. "You get a guy like that who checks his ego at the door and just comes to work every day — you love professional guys like that."
The Phoenix chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association has nominated Halpern for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which recognizes the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
Scouting the Oilers: What’s left to say about the Oilers, who are going to finish last in the Western Conference despite some preseason playoff predictions and much greater expectations for a team that has drafted so high for so long? The Oilers are 3-6-1 in their last 10 games, they’ve allowed more goals than any team in the NHL (257) and they aren’t even scoring that much given all that supposed offensive firepower (their 190 goals are tied for 24th in the league). Edmonton is without D Andrew Ference (pectoral tear) and Fs Nail Yakupov (ankle), Jesse Joensuu (ankle) and Ryan Jones (torn PCL). F Taylor Hall has eight points in his last five games, and F Jordan Eberle has seven points in his last six games.
Despite the death of his mother, a knee injury in the 2008 World Championships that Tippett believes stalled his career and a three-week stint in Finland earlier this season when no NHL teams were calling, Halpern has managed to rack up 14 NHL seasons out of Princeton University. The foundation for that longevity goes back to his parents, Halpern said.
"Their work ethic was the biggest thing I always saw — and the importance they placed on being a good person," he said. "As a kid, you always want to make your parents proud, so I’ve always tried to carry those trademarks moving forward. It’s always been important for me to continue their legacy."
When Martin Erat arrived at the trade deadline and Martin Hanzal finally returned from an injury, the long-anticipated Czech line finally materialized for the Coyotes, with right wing Radim Vrbata joining the fray.
The experiment lasted all of three games. Tippett explained why Wednesday in Los Angeles.
"A little bit too much bob and weave and not enough straight ahead," he said.
The Czechs may play together again this season (they played one shift together against Winnipeg on Tuesday), and they could see a prolonged stint together next season if Vrbata is re-signed (he’ll be an unrestricted free agent). But at this time of the season, with points at a premium, there is no room for experimentation or patience.
"We didn’t produce as much as we’d like," Vrbata said. "I don’t think (it was) for lack of chemistry. We had chances; we just didn’t score. It’s all about scoring.
"If he would have come earlier or before the season, that’s where you can try it for five to seven games and see how it looks. Now, it’s desperation time."
Erat admitted Wednesday that he is finally getting his legs under him and finding a comfort level in the Coyotes lineup. Tippett also thinks he’s been more effective on the right wing, which is why he’s been moving around.
"He would certainly like to have a little more offensive production," Tippett said of Erat, who has just one goal in 12 games with the Coyotes. "But if you look at the way our games are going, that goes right through our lineup."
As noted Wednesday, the Coyotes’ most expensive forwards are in prolonged slumps. Martin Hanzal hasn’t scored since returning from an injury on March 15 (11 straight overall), Vrbata has one goal in his last 12 games, Shane Doan has two in his last 14 games and Antoine Vermette has two in his last 15 games.
"(Kyle) Chipchura’s got more goals than Hanzal, Ribeiro, Erat and Vrbata lately, but we’re in every game," Tippett said. "Would I like those top guys to chip in a little more? Sure, jump in any time."
Thomas Greiss knew reporters wanted to talk to him Wednesday in Los Angeles about his extended and fairly successful stint as Mike Smith’s replacement in goal. But he warned them with a laugh.
"There’s no story here," he said. "Just meat and potatoes."
Aside from his love of mountain biking — a hobby that has taken him to the Alps and Whistler, among other notable stops — Greiss reveals very little of his inner workings and rarely displays emotion. He didn’t even celebrate after the Coyotes won in a shootout in New Jersey recently when he stopped all three shooters.
"It’s just me," he said. "I don’t get too high, don’t get too low. Just pretty relaxed. Just maybe a German thing. Pretty laid-back people."