Preview: Coyotes looking to build off strong finish in 2017-18
GLENDALE — The young talent of the Arizona Coyotes had an adjustment period under new coach Rick Tocchet last season. By the time they made it around the learning curve, any thought of the playoffs had long passed.
Backed by the confidence of a strong finish to 2017-18, key additions and a year in Tocchet’s system under their skates, the Coyotes are hoping to take a straight line to playoff contention this season.
“This is a franchise that’s about to turn a corner,” Coyotes President and CEO Ahron Cohen said. “We really see this as a sleeping giant.”
Expectations wilted quickly last season when the Coyotes lost their first 10 games and went 9-26 through late December.
2018-19 ARIZONA COYOTES
LAST SEASON: 29-41-12, 70 points. Last in Pacific Division.
COACH: Rick Tocchet (second season, fourth NHL season).
ADDED: C Alex Galchenyuk, F Michael Grabner, F Vinnie Hinostroza, D Jordan Oesterle, D Ilya Lyubushkin.
LOST: F Max Domi, F Jordan Martinook, D Luke Schenn, C Zac Rinaldo.
PLAYER TO WATCH: F Clayton Keller. The skilled forward had a super rookie season, finishing with 23 goals and 42 assists while becoming a finalist for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s best rookie. Keller had a midseason lull after a superb start to his rookie season and the Coyotes are hoping for even more production his second season as he gains more consistency.
OUTLOOK: The thought of a playoff push had been considered a longshot at best the past few seasons. It could be a reality this season with a still young but talented roster, a year under Tocchet’s system and added scoring depth. A big key will be keeping goalie Antti Raanta healthy after he was limited to 47 games a year ago. Do that and get the scoring boost they’re expecting and don’t be surprised to see the Coyotes in the playoff hunt late in the season.
A late-season push — 17-9-3— boosted their confidence heading into this season. Those young, talented guys have another year of NHL experience and know Tocchet’s system. A string of offseason moves added scoring and depth. A new captain, locked up in a long-term deal, provides stability.
A bid to make the playoffs — or at least be in contention — is not the longshot it’s been the past six postseason-less years.
“Obviously you’ve got a lot more veteran guys, established guys,” Coyotes GM John Chayka said. “Our youth has grown up, they’ve had a year or two years in the league, so you expect that they take that next step.”
A few things to look for from the Arizona Coyotes in 2018-19:
The Coyotes took a big step toward securing their long-term future by signing defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson to an eight-year deal that averages $8.25 million per season. The four-time All-Star had already taken more of a leadership role in the wake of Shane Doan’s retirement before last season and will be counted on even more after being named captain in preseason camp.
“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.”
THE NEW GUYS
A year after making major roster changes, the Coyotes again were busy during the offseason.
Arizona traded feisty and skilled forward Max Domi to Montreal for Alex Galchenyuk and added wingers Michael Grabner and Vinnie Hinostroza. The moves should give the Coyotes scoring depth, with numerous players capable of putting up 20-goal seasons.
“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.”
A big key: Keeping them healthy. Galchenyuk, Dylan Strome and Christian Dvorak all battled injuries during preseason camp. Galchenyuk will miss the start of the season and he is week to week with a lower-body injury.
The Coyotes traded for goalie Antti Raanta last season, hoping he would thrive in a No. 1 role. He did — when he was healthy.
Raanta was limited to 47 games last season, but had a winning record, finishing 21-17-6. He had a 2.24 goals-against average and .930 save percentage for a team that gave up plenty of shots, and got better as the season went along.
A healthy Raanta this season could go a long way to keeping Arizona in the playoff picture.
Forward Clayton Keller got his rookie season off to a fast start, cooled off and finished with a flourish. He was a Calder Trophy finalist and finished the season with 23 goals and 42 assists. The key for his sophomore season: Becoming more consistent.
“Any NHL player — the guy is turning 20 years old — consistency is key,” Tocchet said. “I’m not saying he’s inconsistent, but the great ones have a bad night and usually the next night they bounce back. That’s one of the things he’s probably going to learn.”