The Hockey News is rolling out its 2017-18 Team Previews daily, in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds, until the start of the season. Today, the Arizona Coyotes.
Stanley Cup odds: 55-1
Key additions: Niklas Hjalmarsson, D; Derek Stepan, C; Antti Raanta, G; Nick Cousins, C; Emerson Etem, RW
Key departures: Shane Doan, RW; Mike Smith, G; Radim Vrbata, RW; Connor Murphy, D; Alexander Burmistrov, C; Anthony DeAngelo, D; Peter Holland, C
Will Dylan Strome become a front-line NHL center?
Each of the top 11 picks from the 2015 draft class has already graduated to full-time NHL duty – except Strome, who went third overall that year. Questions abound about whether his skating can reach the caliber necessary to make him that coveted big, dominant center every team desperately seeks nowadays. For two consecutive autumns, the Coyotes have decided his skating, strength and two-way play weren’t where they needed to be for him to flourish on a scoring line. Is he finally ready to break through? He owned major junior once again and was named Memorial Cup MVP in 2016-17, and he’s worked on his footwork with Dawn Braid, the elite skating instructor who helped elevate John Tavares’ game. Strome, then, is doing all the right things.
Will it be enough? That remains to be seen. He’s been passed in the virtual prospect pecking order by Clayton Keller, who tops many prognosticators’ lists of Calder Trophy candidates this season. The Desert Dogs also traded for Derek Stepan, so it’s clear they still view the center position as an area of need. This season will go a long way toward telling us if Strome will become the talented consolation prize he was supposed to be for a team that missed out on Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel – or if Strome will start drifting toward bust status.
The Coyotes have been assembling an impressive collection of young scoring stars for the past five NHL drafts, from Max Domi in 2013 to Keller in 2016 and the likes of Strome, Brendan Perlini, Christian Dvorak, Anthony Duclair and Lawson Crouse in between. They’re not all going to flourish at the same time, but they all have undeniable skill and under the right coaching could move the needle the way Auston Matthews & Co. did in Toronto last season. That’s not a criticism against ex-coach Dave Tippett, whose defense-first focus using a discount lineup was applauded for many years. But maybe the puck-movement tactics expected to be employed by new bench boss Rick Tocchet will loosen the reins.
Besides Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Alex Goligoski, there was a lot of youth on the blueline last season. And that’s the area where inexperience is exposed the most. The acquisition of steady Niklas Hjalmarsson – and his 22 minutes of average ice time – and the maturation of impressive 19-year-old Jakob Chychrun will improve the defensive play in front of new No. 1 goalie Antti Raanta.
All you need to do is look at the ebb-and-flow of the Florida Panthers in the NHL standings over the past decade or so to dispel the common NHL myth that a lineup of young players is bound to get better. The Panthers, it seems, have been building with youth for ages. Every now and then they’ll make the playoffs, which opens the door for that well-used myth – they’ll only get better. But young players don’t always have an upward trajectory. Sometimes they level off or max out early. What if we’ve already seen the best of Duclair or Strome or Crouse?
Arizona will be more exciting to watch under Tocchet, but what if the rise in goals scored is matched or exceeded by the rise in goals against? Outgoing Mike Smith was a steady wall in net for six years, but that wasn’t enough to make the playoffs the past five seasons. Raanta has shown the chops to be a durable starter – the way Cam Talbot and Martin Jones did leading up to the season each ascended to a top job – but that doesn’t mean it’s a lock to happen. Remember when Tampa Bay acquired budding No. 1 Anders Lindback from Nashville and he turned out to be dreadful?
THN's PREDICTION: 6th in Pacific. But don’t lump Arizona in with bottom-feeders Vancouver and Vegas. The Coyotes should push L.A. and San Jose and finish closer to the middle of the pack. Few teams made as many roster tweaks this off-season. The additions of Stepan, Raanta and Hjalmarsson help a lot, and the Coyotes have potential for improvement from within thanks to their prospects, too.