Photo Credit: © Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports

Pacific Preview: The Arizona Coyotes look poised to break out

This is one part of a multi-part series profiling the teams of the Pacific Division from an Oilers perspective. 

After having a disastrous, record-setting bad start to the 2017-18 season, the Arizona Coyotes were low-key pretty good after the turn of the New Year. Could that mean they’re finally poised for a breakout season?

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What did they do last season?

  • 29-41-12 – 70 points (8th in Pacific)
  • 208 goals for (30th in the NHL)
  • 256 goals against (22nd in NHL)

The Coyotes had an absolutely atrocious start to the 2017-18 season. In fact, they might have been the worst NHL team ever during the first month-and-a-bit. Arizona lost their first 11 games in a row, tying an NHL record. They then went on to set their own league record for futility by failing to win a game in regulation until their 21st game of the season on Nov. 16.

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The Coyotes’ struggle was due largely to a massive overhaul in leadership. The organization moved on from head coach Dave Tippett in the summer and Shane Doan retired, marking the end of two long-term eras in the desert.

Rick Tocchet was hired as the team’s new head coach, making the move from an assistant in Pittsburgh to running his own bench at the NHL for the first time in his career. There’s obviously a pretty steep learning curb when moving from the Crosby and Malkin-led Penguins to the overflowing-with-youth Coyotes, but, as time went along, the young players on the Coyotes pulled themselves together and the team started to look pretty good.

After going 9-27-5 in their first 41 games, the Coyotes went 20-14-7 the rest of the way. Their second half finish was good for a 94-point pace over the course of an 82-game season. It’s easy to look at the Coyotes and just assume they’ll be bad forever, but their finish to the 2017-18 season indicates otherwise. Clayton Keller was a runner-up for the Calder Trophy, they have multiple players under the age of 22 who are already solid contributors, Antti Raanta posted a .941 save percentage after the New Year, and the blueline looked solid when healthy.

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What did they do in the off-season?

  • Notable additions: Alex Galchenyuk, Vinnie Hinostroza, Jordan Oesterle, Michael Grabner.
  • Notable subtractions: Max Domi, Jordan Martinook, Luke Schenn.
  • Other stuff: Signed Oliver Ekman-Larsson to an eight-year extension, signed Christian Dvorak to a six-year contract, signed Niklas Hjalmarsson to a two-year extension, signed Antti Raanta to a three-year contract.

The Coyotes had a busy summer yet again.

They struck a deal with the Chicago Blackhawks, taking on Marian Hossa’s dead cap hit in exchange for solid depth players Vinnie Hinostroza and Jordan Oesterle. They came out nowhere and made a one-for-one swap with the Montreal Canadiens, sending Max Domi out in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk. They also added middle-six winger Michael Grabner to a multi-year deal to add to their scoring depth.

But, most importantly, the Coyotes managed to get Oliver Ekman-Larsson signed to an eight-year contract extension. OEL was set to hit the open market for the first time in his career after the 2018-19 season, but the extension ensures he’ll stick around in the desert for the prime of his career so long as the Coyotes aren’t relocated. Beyond that, Arizona also did some other housekeeping. They got Raanta signed to a three-year deal, Hjalmarsson signed to a two-year extension, and Christian Dvorak signed to a six-year deal.

Oct 15, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Coyotes center Dylan Strome (20) takes the ice to start the game against Philadelphia Flyers at Gila River Arena. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

What’s going to happen this season?

After an off-season in which they added Derek Stepan, Antti Raanta, and Jason Demers, it looked like the Coyotes were ready to take a step forward. That didn’t happen. As we know, the new-look Coyotes struggled under new leadership and completely fell on their face out of the gate.

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This year, it looks like things are going to go differently for the Coyotes. Like I mentioned earlier, Arizona had a very good finish to the season. Beyond continued improvement from their core of young players, a fully healthy roster also played a big role in Arizona’s improvement down the stretch. The blueline was completely revamped when Hjalmarsson and Jakob Chychrun returned from injury, and, as a result, Antti Raanta saw much better results in net.

The Coyotes are also a better and deeper team on paper this year than they were last. Galchenyuk gives them another skilled pivot up the middle, which takes pressure off of Dylan Strome who figured to play the entire season with the Coyotes this year, and Grabner gives the team a veteran scoring option they didn’t have on the wings last season.

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Of course, nothing is a given. Despite the fact Arizona is loaded with good, skilled young players, development still isn’t linear. Keller and other young forwards could easily take a step backward with increased pressure and Raanta has never been a top goalie over the course of a full season. I think it’s reasonable to expect Arizona to look more like the team that finished the 2017-18 season than the one that started the year. That said, to expect them to jump over the entire Pacific Division and into the playoffs might be a bit premature.

  • lee

    This team is built to survive and that’s pretty much it. They have been bad for so long, like the Oilers it becomes part of their culture. Buying out other teams horrible contracts and collecting a pile of young players that are cheap keeps them afloat and that’s about it.

  • grumpyKoala

    What worry me the most is that ranta had to be at 940+ so they hit relevance in the second half, what happen if he goes back to the usual 910 or 920. I have little faith in an encore scenario moreover that it is substenable over a full season

  • AlexTheOilersFanSince2006

    With no joking whatsoever, I can see them making noise in a season or two. They have some good young pieces (though I’m still skeptical on Barret Hayton). Raanta looks like a good goalie, and they just got Galc from Montreal.

  • TKB2677

    My question for the Coyotes would be who is their #1 center? They have Stephan. He’s a decent second line center at best who’s probably playing as their #1. He’s a 55 pt center. That’s not good enough.

    So if Stephan is their #1 center, who’s the second line center? Galchenyuk? Montreal has had ZERO centers for years yet for some reason didn’t play him at center much. Why? Either they are the dumbest people in the world or he’s nt good enough.

    You can’t win in the NHL without strength down the middle. The Oilers tried for years with Horcoff moonlighting as their #1 center. It didn’t work.