GLENDALE, Ariz. — Raffi Torres knows there are opinions he’ll never change.
“I have to understand that people are always going to be against me. Unfortunately, my style of play pisses off a lot of people,” the Coyotes forward said. “At the end of the day, all I can manage right these days is how I’m battling out there.”
On Saturday at Jobing.com Arena, Torres 2.0 made his 2013 NHL debut nearly 10 months after the old version leveled Chicago Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa with a head shot in last season’s playoffs that cost Torres a 21-game suspension and the bile of hockey nation.
There wasn’t anything eye-popping about Torres’ stat line in the Coyotes’ 2-0 win over the Stars. He recorded four shots, two hits, a blocked shot and a takeaway in 11 minutes, 53 seconds of ice time. But his energy gave his teammates a boost while giving the Stars something they didn’t have to think about when the teams met the previous night in Dallas.
“He makes everybody uncomfortable, and that is a huge asset to have,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. “You kind of feel that he more than paid for things that happened to him. It’s so good to have him back. His energy is just awesome.”
Torres has been working hard to alter his style of play. Phoenix coach Dave Tippett reviewed reams of film with his oft-suspended forward to alter a simple element of his game without removing the edge that makes Torres effective.
“You watch some of the puck battles on the walls,” Tippett said recently. “In a perfect example, he’d root around, find a puck in the corner, (get it) to the point, and he goes hard to the net and the puck comes there.
“He’s a hard guy to defend. For me, that’s not about hitting anybody. That’s about digging in there and then getting to the front of the net to create an opportunity. That’s hard, hard hockey without hitting anybody.”
Torres tried to employ that approach Saturday, but he admitted that the emotions of his first game back and 10 months of rust made it more difficult than he had hoped in the early stretches.
“There was a lot of nerves out there, and sometimes my emotions run a little too wild and I get too caught up in the game,” he said. “The first couple shifts, I was just kind of skating around way out of position and didn’t know where I was going.”
But as he settled in, Torres did the things that make him so valuable to his team. He got a good lick on Dallas defenseman Trevor Daly that led to a Phoenix shot on goal. He nearly scored himself in a goal-mouth scramble, and he won some puck battles — a staple of Tippett’s new handbook for Torres.
When asked how Torres had played after such a long layoff, Tippett chuckled with a bit of pride in his voice.
“Raff was good. He brought good energy,” Tippett said. “It’s funny when you see a guy who’s a veteran like that who’s excited and probably a little nervous to play.”
Torres was trying to avoid an emotional build-up. He didn’t open his computer to read the oodles of stories advancing his debut, and he avoided the critics who labeled him a menace. Unfortunately for Torres, he forgot to send a memo to his friends and family who kept texting him or calling him with words of encouragement.
“They don’t help at all,” he said, laughing.
The Phoenix fans did, however. He got a round of applause when he stepped on the ice and again on his hits.
“They’ve been supporting me throughout this whole ordeal,” he said. “It’s nice to feel welcomed.”
Torres understands that there are many mountains still to climb and critics to face. And while he understands he must avoid the reckless moments that have forged his reputation, he insists that the changes in his game are tweaks rather than wholesale shifts in philosophy.
“I’ve always been told you’ve got to get your feet going and try and run into someone early and that will kick-start your game. That’s my style of play. Either you like it or you hate it,” he said. “But nothing really bothers me any more. I’m in a good spot mentally, and physically, I feel like I’m in the best shape of my career.”