Maybe this was never going to be the year for the Arizona Coyotes. Maybe they were never going to compete with the top teams in the Pacific Division or make noise in the playoffs or even sneak into a wild-card spot. But the Coyotes were expected to at least make things interesting this season.
That expectation was born out of Arizona’s promising second half to the 2017-18 campaign, which had spurred on some belief that the Coyotes could hang tough in the Western Conference. Antti Raanta’s stellar play had some feeling as though he was one season away from cementing himself among the 10-best keepers in the NHL. The play of Clayton Keller had given Arizona a bright young star, and the off-season additions of Alex Galchenyuk, Michael Grabner, Vinnie Hinostroza and Jordan Oesterle looked as though they had the ability to move the needle, if only slightly.
But it continues to appear that if it wasn’t for bad luck, the Coyotes would have no luck at all.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Coyotes announced that Nick Schmaltz, who had quickly found his fit in the lineup after his early season acquisition from the Chicago Blackhawks, will be sidelined for the remainder of the campaign due to a lower-body injury. The Athletic’s Craig Morgan specified that Schmaltz, who has sat out the past three games and last took the ice during the Coyotes’ loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Dec. 30, is battling a knee ailment.
Losing Schmaltz is a heavy body blow to a team that’s struggling to find its footing this season, too. Since arriving in Arizona in late-November, Schmaltz has been the second-best scorer at the Coyotes’ disposal, putting up five goals and 14 points in 17 games. As important as his production, though, has been his role. Schmaltz plugged the hole as a second-line center, logging upwards of 18 minutes per game for Arizona and giving the Coyotes a capable one-two punch with him and Derek Stepan down the middle. In an instant, however, that depth has disappeared.
The injuries really have been the story of the season for the Coyotes, too, as they’ve gone from a team with potential to one with an infirmary that’s slowly but surely filling up with players nursing potentially season-ending injuries.
Just consider what the Coyotes are and have been without this season. Jason Demers, who was logging steady second-pairing minutes before he suffered a knee injury, has been sidelined since mid-November and has forced a once three-pair deep Arizona team into icing a weakened defense. Michael Grabner, who had six goals and 11 points in 25 games, has been out since early December with an eye injury with no timetable to return. Christian Dvorak, who signed a long-term extension this summer in hopes he’d take great strides in his development this season, hasn’t skated a single minute after suffering a pectoral injury during the off-season. He might miss the entire 2018-19 campaign, and that could temporarily hinder his growth as a player as he misses crucial minutes in a top-six role that was his to take hold of this season. None of this is to mention, either, that Galchenyuk and Hinostroza have both missed upwards of five games this season, while defensemen Jakob Chychrun, Alex Goligoski and Kevin Connauton have all had spells on the sidelines.
All of this has made it difficult to really get a grasp on where these Coyotes would be if they were, you know, entirely healthy at any point this season. What especially puts a damper on the campaign, though, is the loss of Raanta, who has played only three games since Nov. 2 and is in danger of missing the remainder of the 2018-19 campaign due to a lower-body injury.
As noted, when healthy last season, Raanta was exceptional, and the belief among some was that he could be the ultimate x-factor for a team that had potential find itself on the playoff bubble if all went according to plan. Instead, after posting a brilliant .929 save percentage and 2.10 goals-against average through his first nine starts and the Coyotes’ first dozen games of the campaign, Raanta hit the shelf with a lower-body injury. When he returned after a four-game absence, he was picked apart, surrendering 14 goals on 85 shots across 144 minutes of play. By Nov. 28, Raanta was back on the sidelines, went under the knife and hasn’t played since. He’s out indefinitely, and there’s no timeline for his return.
It should be said that Adin Hill and Darcy Kuemper have performed admirably in Raanta’s stead. The duo has combined for a .914 SP without Raanta. And others have likewise stepped up to plug holes for those who’ve fallen injured as the Coyotes have done their best to stick around in the Pacific and the wild-card race. Entering action Wednesday night, they sit six points back of the Minnesota Wild for the final berth in the Western Conference. But remaining within realistic striking distance of the wild-card race or flirting with a playoff berth is going to be remarkably difficult, however, without the services of the team’s No. 1 goaltender, a pair of top-six forwards, a penalty kill specialist and a member of the blueline’s top four. Those are losses that even the deepest of teams can rarely survive.
In that sense, the Schmaltz injury might be the final shot to the Coyotes’ already dwindling playoff hopes, the knockout punch that extends Arizona’s streak of early off-seasons to seven. One of these times, the luck is going to break the Coyotes’ way. But it appears that’s not going to happen anytime during the 2018-19 campaign.