With a healthy Antti Raanta, a retooled offense and a solidified top four, the Coyotes could be in position to finally take a long-awaited step forward next season.
It’s been six years since the Arizona Coyotes saw the post-season, four since they’ve been considered an honest playoff contender and two since the franchise has seen anything other than the Western Conference basement. But given what the Coyotes have been up to this summer, it’s starting to feel as though the dog days could be over sooner rather than later in the desert.
On Thursday, Arizona made one of their bigger splashes of the summer, using salary cap space to their advantage and bringing Marian Hossa’s dead-weight contract to town from the Chicago Blackhawks in a move that also saw them acquire speedy, versatile forward Vinnie Hinostroza and offensive-minded depth rearguard Jordan Oesterle. In the swap, the Coyotes were forced to give up nothing more than Marcus Kruger, likely to be nothing more than a bottom-six center on his best day in Arizona, and prospect MacKenzie Entwistle, who is no sure thing.
Admittedly, the additions of Hinostroza and Oesterle aren’t the type of needle-moving acquisitions that one often associates with a wild-card contending club, but adding two NHL-calibre talents without giving up much more than fourth-line pivot makes for a tidy little deal. And when you look at the bigger picture in Arizona, there’s more than enough value there to be impressed with what GM John Chayka and Co. have done with the Coyotes this off-season.
While the Coyotes haven’t been grabbing headlines all summer with big, bold moves or nabbing the undisputed top free agents on big-money deals, Arizona has done well to address needs without breaking the bank. Case in point, the Coyotes still have upwards of $10.1 million in cap space following the acquisition of Hossa’s $5.275-million annual salary. But the cap space remaining doesn’t mean Arizona hasn’t acquired talent. Look no further than the two more notable deals the Coyotes have made that preceded the swap with the Blackhawks.
In mid-June, Chayka got the ball rolling on an off-season retooling with the acquisition of Alex Galchenyuk in a one-for-one deal that sent Max Domi to the Montreal Canadiens. And while Galchenyuk is not without his weaknesses — the jury is still out on where he’s best suited to play in the lineup — there’s no questioning his offensive ability. He’s a legitimate top-six scoring threat for Arizona, an asset of which they were in desperate need, and his career 20-goal, 50-point rate of scoring couldn’t have been added to the roster at a better time. The Coyotes’ 206 goals for last season marked the second-lowest total in the NHL, and the lack of consistent and experienced offensive talents came to roost on more nights than Arizona would care to admit. Galchenyuk does more than patch a hole. He undoubtedly makes the Coyotes better.
Arizona went beyond simply adding Galchenyuk and calling it a day, however, when they inked Michael Grabner, who is fresh off of back-to-back 27-goal seasons, to a three-year, $10.05-million deal in free agency. Again, he adds an offensive weapon to the Coyotes’ arsenal and gives them veteran depth scoring, something that was non-existent last season. Add to it that Grabner’s presence can offer shelter for younger wingers to grow, and the likes of Christian Fischer, Brendan Perlini and Nick Cousins could also benefit from Grabner coming to town.
The Coyotes weren’t entirely bereft of offense before either trade or signing, either. Derek Stepan still projects to be a 60-point top-line center, Clayton Keller’s sophomore season comes with the hope he can improve on his 23-goal, 65-point rookie campaign and Christian Dvorak quietly improved last season and could be primed to reach the 20-goal plateau as early as this coming campaign. And none of this is to mention Dylan Strome, who enters the year projecting to be a full-time piece in the NHL. He posted an impressive 20 goals and 53 points in 50 games last season with the AHL’s Tucson Roadrunners before following it up with a three-goal, eight-point performance in nine games during the Calder Cup playoffs. There are still well-warranted questions about Strome’s skating, but his ability to make offensive contributions is unquestioned. Given he finds the right fit, Strome could have 20-goal, 50-point potential next season.
Though the only roster-ready acquisitions have been up front, too, it should be said that Arizona has done a great job of going about their business on the blueline. The Coyotes put in the work to keep their defense corps together and erase all doubt that they’d be around beyond next season. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who seems bound to have a ‘C’ stitched to his sweater in the near future, was re-upped on an eight-year deal worth $66 million, Niklas Hjalmarsson’s pending free agency was cleared up on a two-year, $10-million pact and with Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers already locked in for another three campaigns each, Arizona’s back end appears set for at least another three seasons apart from a few minor tweaks.
The make-or-break in all of this seems to be the health and play of Antti Raanta, who missed 10 of the Coyotes’ first 13 games last season and sat out roughly two-dozen games due to injury in his first campaign in Arizona. The Coyotes were two completely different teams with and without Raanta, too. In the contests Raanta was healthy, Arizona pieced together a 21-17-6 record on the strength of a puck-stopper who posted a .930 save percentage and a 2.24 goals-against average. That’s exponentially better than any other netminder in Arizona last season.
Combined, the netminders who shared time with Raanta on the sidelines, which includes Darcy Kuemper, Scott Wedgewood, Adin Hill, Marek Langhamer and Louis Domingue, posted a combined .889 SP and 3.49 GAA in 42 total appearances. In fact, consider the following: Raanta made seven more appearances and faced more than 150 additional shots than his quintet of goaltending compatriots combined, yet he allowed 40 — forty, four-zero! — fewer goals against.
If we conservatively estimate a healthy Raanta would have played 60 games last season, it’s not far-fetched to suggest the Coyotes would have surrendered about 15 fewer goals against, which may have been enough for maybe five more wins throughout the year. That would have been enough to make Arizona a respectable 80-point team. Safe to say if Raanta can carry over his level of play and remain healthy well into the 2018-19 campaign, the Coyotes could be more solid between the pipes than they have been since Mike Smith’s standout 2011-12 campaign. But even if Raanta is average, the Coyotes — who from Jan. 1 onward had the 16th-best record in the NHL and ninth-best record in the Western Conference last season — will be in a far better place than they have been in recent years.
Is Arizona going to enter the season as Stanley Cup contenders? Absolutely not. Will they be favorites in the Pacific Division? That might be a stretch. But the Coyotes have been waiting oh-so-long for the chance to take a step forward, and with the way they closed last campaign, a healthy No. 1 netminder and some additional scoring punch and depth, this might just be the season they finally take it.
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