The Arizona Coyotes have been on the rise over the past couple seasons and appear to have moved beyond the rebuilding phase. They are now ready to contend.
Led by the addition of premier goal-scoring winger Phil Kessel, the Coyotes are hoping to take the next step in their trajectory and compete for a playoff spot in 2019-20, which would be their first berth since 2011-12. The Coyotes were an elite defensive team last year with a major scoring deficiency, and that resulted in them finishing four points out of a playoff spot.
Arizona addressed that issue by swinging a trade for Kessel, and they’re hoping that injuries play a lesser role this season. Either way, the feeling around the Coyotes is that 2019-20 is the time for them to show the league what they’ve built.
The arrival of Kessel will undoubtedly have a profound impact on a Coyotes offense that did not boast a single 20-goal scorer last season. He’s scored 30 or more goals in six of his 13 NHL seasons and will be counted on as the team’s biggest source of offense.
Beyond Kessel, the Coyotes will look to Clayton Keller to revert to his rookie form after a sophomore slump. The Coyotes were ravaged by injuries last season and are expecting several of those players to thrive in good health. The most important of which may be Nick Schmaltz, who excelled playing with Keller in limited action and was an elite half-wall presence on the top power-play unit.
The blueline was the team’s heart and soul last season. Led by captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the defense corps is one of the NHL’s deepest and most balanced. Each of the club’s top seven defensemen is returning, including 2016 first-rounder Jakob Chychrun, who’s already a three-year veteran at 21.
Ekman-Larsson is looking forward to a full season alongside favorite partner Jason Demers, and Niklas Hjalmarsson remains one of the top shutdown blueliners in the league. Phil Housley replaces Scott Allen as the assistant coach in charge of defense. It will be interesting to gauge Housley’s impact considering how well-liked Allen was among the players.
The starting job will be the most intriguing storyline at training camp given the fact both Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper have excelled when given the opportunity to play long stretches. Unless one distances himself from the other, the Coyotes may elect to have the duo split the crease, with Raanta likely to receive a slightly higher percentage of starts.
This will be an important year in the development of prospects Adin Hill and Ivan Prosvetov. Hill, 23, played well in limited NHL time last season and could use another season in the AHL to refine his game. As for Prosvetov, 20, this will likely be his first season in the professional ranks.
The Coyotes will have different coaches in charge of both the power play and penalty kill. Housley will take over the power play (previously overseen by John MacLean) and MacLean will head up the penalty kill (previously run by Allen). The PK was tied for the league’s best last season, but no one is counting on another 16 shorthanded goals. Still, Michael Grabner, Brad Richardson and Hjalmarsson remain elite killers. As for the power play, which struggled in 2018-19, the Coyotes are hoping the additions of Kessel and a healthy Schmaltz will help turn the tide.
The players seem to enjoy playing for coach Rick Tocchet, who’s entering his third season in Arizona. How will Kessel, who is tight with his new coach from their days in Pittsburgh, fit into the club’s leadership hierarchy? The core of captain Ekman-Larsson and alternates Derek Stepan and Hjalmarsson is well-respected.
There will be a couple of forward spots up for grabs in training camp, with a few rookies in the running. Barrett Hayton, the fifth-overall pick from 2018 who has scoring punch and plays a 200-foot game, is the leading contender. Victor Soderstrom, the No. 11 selection in the 2019 draft, will likely wind up in the AHL or back in Sweden.
With the playoff drought hanging over the franchise, the feeling is that it needs to end now, and Kessel is central to that goal.
With new owner Alex Meruelo in the fold, the future may seem uncertain for members of the Coyotes’ brass, but it shouldn’t. John Chayka, the GM and president of hockey operations, inherited a train wreck in 2016 and has assembled a promising core, while CEO Ahron Cohen has bolstered the team’s community presence over the past year.
– Richard Morin
STANLEY CUP ODDS: 50/1
SEASON PREDICTION: 4th in the Pacific
Arizona’s problem isn’t drafting players; it’s keeping them long enough to reap the rewards. Dylan Strome, Max Domi and Brendan Perlini are examples, but maybe the trend stops with keystones Clayton Keller and Jakob Chychrun (with Barrett Hayton on the way). At the 2019 draft, Arizona traded up to No. 11 to land Victor Soderstrom, one of the top D-men in the draft class. Smart, mobile and skilled, he played heavy minutes with tough assignments in Brynas.
1. Barrett Hayton, C
Age 19 Team Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)
Elite scorer who developed into a leader as Greyhounds captain. Plays in all situations.
Acquired 5th overall, 2018 NHL ’19-20
2. Victor Soderstrom, D
Age 18 TeamBrynas (Swe.)
Smart, all-around game that saw him play key situations in an elite league. Very good skater.
Acquired 11th overall, 2019 NHL ’20-21
3. Kyle Capobianco, D
Age 22 TeamTucson (AHL)
An excellent skater and puck-mover. He made progress in own end. On cusp of breakthrough.
Acquired 63rd overall, 2015 NHL ’19-20
4. Nick Merkley, RW
Age 22 TeamTucson (AHL)
Finally healthy, he plays a hard-nosed style that makes it hard to knock him off the puck.
Acquired 30th overall, 2015 NHL ’19-20
5. Adin Hill, G
Age 23 TeamTucson (AHL)
Big, athletic netminder looked promising in 11 NHL starts. Needs to work on technical side.
Acquired 76th overall, 2015 nhl ’20-21
6. Filip Westerlund, D
Age 20 TeamFrolunda (Swe.)
Stay-at-home type battled injury that stalled development in third Swedish League season.
Acquired 44th overall, 2017 NHL ’21-22
7. Nate Schnarr, C
Age 20 TeamGuelph (OHL)
Big body with a good frame. He has a big shot that will be lethal on the power play.
Acquired 75th overall, 2017 NHL ’21-22
8. Kevin Bahl, D
Age 19 TeamOttawa (OHL)
A large defender who can move and play a shutdown role. His offense is coming around.
Acquired 55th overall, 2018 NHL ’22-23
9. John Farinacci, C
Age 18 TeamDexter (USHS)
Good skater and shooter who is a well-rounded player with keen hockey sense. Bound for Harvard.
Acquired 76th overall, 2019 NHL ’23-24
10. Cam Dineen, D
Age 21 Team Tucson (AHL)
Undersized puck-mover struggled in his first pro year. Positioning, anticipation will be key traits.
Acquired 68th overall, 2016 NHL ’22-23