Originally Published: September 13, 2018 10:44 p.m.
GLENDALE — Every team enters training camp with optimism. The slate is clean, no losses to tarnish the outlook, every NHL team starting at the same place.
A year ago, the Arizona Coyotes had the extra boost of playing under a new coach, system and overhauled roster, yet it didn’t work out.
Heading into the start of this year’s training camp Thursday, the Coyotes have a dash of expectations to go with the optimism.
They know what coach Rick Tocchet expects and his system. They have a boost of confidence after closing last season with a flourish. They locked down a key player to a long-term contract, named him captain and made a series of offseason moves that should boost scoring.
After six rebuilding seasons, this may finally be the season the Coyotes trend upward from the bottom of the NHL standings.
“Everything that we’re doing in terms of developing a fan base, putting the right people in place, the right coach, the right infrastructure, the right players, we really see this as a sleeping giant,” Coyotes President and CEO Ahron Cohen said. “I think that’s starting to resonate with people. The last part of the season we really saw the steps we were taking moving forward.”
The Coyotes went into last season with a new-look roster after making major offseason moves and hiring a new coach in Tocchet, who won a pair of Stanley Cup titles as an assistant at Pittsburgh.
The optimism washed away like a desert flash flood as the Coyotes lost their first 10 games and were 9-26 through the end of December.
Some of it was adjusting to a new coach and new system. Youth also played a role. In preparing his players for the future, Tocchet put the young guys in tight spots early in the season and they didn’t initially handle it well. The Coyotes repeatedly gave up goals right after scoring and had trouble holding onto leads, often losing in the last five or six minutes of games.
But as the season wore on, Tocchet’s put-them-to-the-fire tactic paid off. Arizona’s defense tightened up and the Coyotes started winning those close games, finishing the season 17-9-3. They were still last in the Pacific Division, but the late run showed the potential of this young team and boosted their confidence heading into this season.
“Obviously, the last half of the season, everybody’s excited about that,” Tocchet said. “Can you use last year’s success? Yeah, it helps, but we still picked fifth in the draft so we still have a long way to go.”
The Coyotes took steps this offseason to speed up that process.
One was to lock up defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson for the next eight years.
A four-time All-Star, Ekman-Larsson has taken on more of a leadership role since Shane Doan’s retirement prior to last season and is still one of the NHL’s most skilled defensemen. On Thursday, the Coyotes named him captain, the first to wear the “C’’ since Doan retired.
Signing Ekman-Larsson to a deal that averages $8.25 million per year gives the Coyotes stability at the blue line and for the future.
“There’s a responsibility that he wants to lead this team into the next level,” Tocchet said. “He’s also a quality person. Everyone looks at him as a hockey player, but he’s a quality person. You want quality people in the room who care and it obviously adds to your chance at success.”
So should the additions general manager John Chayka made during the offseason.
The Coyotes were busy this summer, trading Max Domi to Montreal for Alex Galchenyuk and adding speedy winger Michael Grabner, among other deals.
The 24-year-old Galchenyuk scored 30 goals three seasons ago and has at least 44 points each of the past four seasons. The 30-year-old Grabner has scored 27 goals each of the past three seasons — with the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils — and has a 34-goal season on his resume.
Scoring has always been a problem for the Coyotes, so they could use the boost.
“There’s balance of scoring. If you go down the list, you go, ‘Oh jeez, this guy can score 18 or this guy can score 24,’” Tocchet said. “If you look up and down the lineup, there are guys with the potential to score these amount of goals. And when you add it all up, is there enough goals to win? Yeah, I think so.”