It’s safe to say that not many people would have expected the Arizona Coyotes to make the playoffs this season. Even after landing the best coaching candidate out there and supplementing their roster with some legitimate veteran talent, that kind of leap would have been expecting too much.
It’s even safer to say that nobody expected this kind of epic tire fire, either. The Coyotes are downright ghastly. In fact, they’re on pace to outdo last season’s Colorado Avalanche as the worst team in the NHL’s salary cap era. You know, that era where small-market teams such as the Coyotes were supposed to have equal footing with the league’s economic powerhouses. Last season, the Avalanche managed just 48 points. With Thursday night’s 4-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Coyotes are on pace for 46. The good news, though, is that the Avalanche had a goal differential of minus-112, while the Coyotes are on pace to score only 101 fewer goals than they allow this season.
The problems are many. Their power play takes them out of games, they give up far too many shots, they can’t score and they start plays without the puck far too often. They were undermined by some absolutely god-awful goaltending early in the season when Antti Raanta was hurt the first time. But the Coyotes were supposed to be better under new coach Rick Tocchet in two areas. They were supposed to be much more difficult to play against and they were supposed to be better prepared to play games. It turns out the Coyotes have actually regressed in those two areas. They don’t scare anybody, at home or on the road. In fact, if you read Tocchet’s comments after the loss to Tampa Bay, they’re failing on all counts.
“Some guys just gave in,” Tocchet told reporters after the game. "(The power play) helped the demise of our game. Very, very soft. I hate soft plays, I hate soft players. We were soft tonight.”
But he wasn’t finished ripping into his team after watching it not only lose, but roll over, against the league’s best team. “It’s not just about scoring goals,” he said. “It’s about battle level, it’s about details. Our details tonight, and I put that on me, our details were awful tonight. Really bad. That’s what bothers me because I love details. Our details sucked, basically.”
What makes this all so difficult to fathom is that the Coyotes, on paper, are not near as putrid as they are on the ice. Are they a playoff team? Probably not. But GM John Chayka actually made some very shrewd moves over the summer, picking up veterans such as Derek Stepan up front, Niklas Hjalmarsson on defense and Raanta in goal. The Coyotes have been victimized by the fact that both Hjalmarsson and Raanta have been out of the lineup for long stretches, but the fact that the Coyotes have bottomed out so badly without them indicates that this organization still has a long way to go to accumulate the kind of depth it needs to seriously compete in the NHL.
Aside from rookie Clayton Keller, who emerged as the frontrunner for the Calder Trophy and got out of a major funk with a goal against the Lightning, there’s not one player on the roster who has met expectations this season. This is not a great team. It is one that, if it ever hoped to be challenging for a playoff spot, would do so on the dint of hard work, preparation and attention to detail, attributes that have too often gone missing in Arizona.
And your trusty correspondent has a theory as to why that is the case. And it all has to do with accountability. First, having so many young players in your organization is a double-edged sword. With veterans, you know what you have. With young players, all you have is promise. Lots of times it’s realized, sometimes it’s not. For example, what players such as Max Domi and Anthony Duclair showed us as juniors and first year pros would have led most people to believe that they’d be further advanced in their careers by now. But they’ve stalled, and in some ways regressed.
A lot of that has to do with accountability. In that there’s too little of it in a place such as Arizona. Fans and observers there, the few that there are, aren’t likely to put a whole lot of pressure on a player who’s not producing. And too few care about the sport there to take a critical look at this team and where it’s failing. As a result, there’s little pressure. Yes, Tocchet has the ability to sit players, but when you don’t have any depth, with whom are you going to replace these guys?
And losing breeds more losing. The kids in Arizona are learning how to lose, and they’re getting pretty good at it. The more often you lose and the less that is expected of you, the more likely you’re going to accept it easily and not be bothered by it. The Coyotes are not a great team, but there is no excuse for being so badly outworked by opponents. That’s a culture thing and Tocchet has a long, long way to go to change it, longer than most of us would have ever imagined.
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