The Hockey News’ 2018-19 Season Preview series dives into off-season transactions, best- and worst-case scenarios and one burning question for each team in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds.
Stanley Cup odds: 80-1
Key Additions: Alex Galchenyuk, C; Michael Grabner, LW; Vinnie Hinostroza, RW; Jordan Oesterle, D; Ilya Lyubushkin, D
Key Departures: Max Domi, LW; Jordan Martinook, LW, Luke Schenn, D; Zac Rinaldo, C
It’s tough to sugarcoat a season in which the Coyotes finished third-last for a second straight year and missed the playoffs for a sixth consecutive time. Tough, but not impossible. Fact of the matter is, Arizona was a solid team on the rise down the stretch. In the final two months of last season – a span in which most teams played 30 games – the Coyotes ranked second in the Pacific Division, fifth in the Western Conference and 11th overall. That’s getting into upper-crust territory.
It took a while for Arizona’s young team to adapt to new coach Rick Tocchet’s high-tempo style, but when it did, it played extremely well for a long stretch. Well enough for some observers to think the Coyotes can stay competitive from Day 1 this season. The additions of Alex Galchenyuk, Michael Grabner and Vinnie Hinostroza will boost a popgun attack. And young forwards such as Clayton Keller, Brendan Perlini, Christian Fischer and Dylan Strome have that much more experience.
With a mostly veteran defense corps and a solid goalie in Antti Raanta, who has been getting better every season that his workload increases, the Coyotes have no more excuses if they’re doormats again.
For as much potential as there is in youth, there’s an equal amount of uncertainty. Just because a young player has been drafted high and flourished as he advanced through the feeder leagues doesn’t mean the curve maintains an upward trajectory in the NHL. Max Domi was the latest in a long line of Coyotes whose development stagnated in the best league in the world. Arizona has had a plethora of ballyhooed prospects show up, audition well, then settle into low-impact roles on the bottom two lines or third defense pairing.
What if the change of scenery doesn’t suit Galchenyuk? What if Perlini, Fischer, Strome, Lawson Crouse and incoming rookie Nick Merkley don’t advance beyond “promising” or “budding?” The Pacific Division has a lot of veteran lineups that know how to attack weakness.
The Coyotes used to be known as an organization that was flush with young talent on the blueline. Now it’s mostly a patchwork of experienced players from other organizations. Arizona’s top four defensemen are all signed for the next three seasons, but other than the slick Oliver Ekman-Larsson, they’re not overly mobile, and they’re all 30 or older.
Can a healthy Raanta put the Coyotes in the playoff conversation?
If anyone ever questions the difference quality goaltending can make, point to the 2017-18 Coyotes. There was a veritable chasm between Raanta and the rest of the goalkeeping cohort in Arizona last season, almost enough that it’s hard to believe they backstopped the same teams.
Consider the following: Raanta and his five masked teammates averaged identical rates of 29.5 shots against per game. Raanta managed an excellent .930 save percentage, 2.24 goals-against average and three shutouts to go along with a 21-17-6 record. But facing the same workload, the quintet of Scott Wedgewood, Darcy Kuemper, Louis Domingue, Adin Hill and Marek Langhamer combined for a .889 SP, 3.49 GAA, two shutouts and ugly 8-24-6 record. That would seem to suggest that the Coyotes could have at least flirted with playoff contention had Raanta not missed 22 games due to injury last season. Instead, any post-season hopes they had sunk the minute Raanta landed on the injured list.
With Raanta hopefully healthy for an entire campaign, Arizona would seem to have a true No. 1 netminder capable of stealing games. That’s what a young team still learning and gelling will need. And if he recreates last season’s performance, Raanta could guide this team to wild-card contention and possibly even put himself in Vezina Trophy contention.
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ PREDICTION: 7th in the Pacific Division. The Coyotes are getting closer to competing, but it won’t happen quite yet. The offense still needs more consistent, high-end scoring and the blueline could use some added mobility. Raanta can be a game-changer, but his inability to stay healthy is cause for concern.
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