You can’t say the Arizona Coyotes didn’t try something different this summer.
Instead of a few mediocre veteran free agent signings, they seemed more bent on kicking their way out of whatever rebuild they’d been working on by making a pair of big trades for more impactful vets who can make a much bigger difference than some middle-six forward signed for $3.5 million because, well, you gotta spend money on somebody.
The more notable of these was taking on Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta for Anthony DeAngelo and a first-round pick. The other, of course, was dropped in their lap because Stan Bowman found himself ground into submission by a slow-growing salary cap, and he consequently had to give up Niklas Hjalmarsson for 70 cents on the dollar.
They also swapped out their old coach, who has had some measure of success just about everywhere he’s gone, for a relative unknown. Dave Tippett is, as far as I’m concerned, a coach that easily slots into the top third of the league, despite the rough results on a clearly rebuilding team that has long been a doormat in the Western Conference.
Meanwhile, Rick Tocchet, I mean, who knows. He was the head coach in Tampa for a while back when they, too, were in rough shape talent-wise. They got outshot pretty broadly, their special teams ranged between horrible and nothing-to-write-home-about and they didn’t get much goaltending. The standings — 53 wins over 148 games — reflect these issues nicely.
But their offseason acquisitions, coaching questions aside, represent a better haul than most teams got this summer. The question is whether that’s enough to really move the needle in any appreciable way and push this team closer to the playoffs.
Not that anyone would mistake this for a playoff team, of course, but you’d like to see progress on that front with these additions. Progress shouldn’t be that difficult, either; they only had 70 points last season. Just on the talent influx alone, as well as the maturation of the team’s stunning six (SIX!) forwards on ELCs, you’d expect that number to go up. But if you have questions about how all this is going to work, well, you’re right to be cautious here.
Yes they have Stepan and Anthony Duclair and Max Domi as guys who are proven top-six NHLers with some scoring upside, to one extent or another. Tobias Rieder has never cleared 40 points in three seasons, and he played the second-most 5-on-5 minutes among Coyotes forwards last year (the guy in front of him, Radim Vrbata, has taken his services elsewhere). Jordan Martinook was third, and while I actually think he’s pretty decent in certain roles, he shouldn’t be anywhere near your top-three in ice time.
Now part of those issues were that the Coyotes were a little unfortunate last season. Domi missed time, and Duclair ended up being sent down because his game wasn’t where it needed to be. One imagines they would have otherwise been considered much bigger parts of the offense.
Similarly, Christian Dvorak is another guy who, as a rookie, put up 30-plus points, which ain’t bad at all but he also only got 15 minutes a night. How does that work in a bigger role? What does Clayton Keller, who only turned 19 in July, look like after three games at the end of last season? Can Lawson Crouse, who was pretty bad as a 19-year-old himself last season, actually live up to the draft hype? Can Brandon Perlini be more than an AHL/NHL tweener? These are all big questions with very iffy answers, but almost all of them will be asked to play big roles.
Given that this team spent much of the summer shedding veterans who previously sheltered them from bigger roles, that’s not an option anymore. Their non-ELC forward pool is thin to say the least. Rieder, Duclair and Martinook have been mentioned. Nick Cousins is an OK depth player who shouldn’t be anywhere near your top-six. That leaves Jamie McGinn and Brad Richardson, the latter of whom missed most of last season and frankly isn’t that good to begin with. Maybe throw in Emerson Etem, who’s on a two-way and might be an NHLer by default.
The good news is that the addition of Hjalmarsson makes that blueline a little respectable. Put him with Oliver Ekman-Larsson and, wow, that might be a good top pair for once. We’ve heard forever — and seen plenty of evidence — that Ekman-Larsson is a very good No. 1 defender, and pairing him with a guy who can lock things down defensively for once could bring some serious results.
Deeper down the lineup, well, Alex Goligoski as your No. 3 is probably pretty good. But after that, yikes. Luke Schenn, Kevin Connauton, Adam Clendening? Not ideal, and it’s not really clear what other options the team has with Jakob Chychrun out long-term (though they say his knee injury isn’t season-ending). Maybe they can finagle a trade for one of Vegas’s 20 defensemen on NHL contracts. But would you really want any of those guys?
The really interesting issue with the Coyotes overall is the gambit in net. Raanta has pretty good career numbers (.917), but he’s never played more than 30 games in a season. Meanwhile, Louis Domingue is in almost the same boat (career max 39 games played) but his career numbers are quite bad at just .910. This obviously lends itself to a 1a/1b scenario, but it’ll be an interesting division of labor either way.
The change in net comes at the expense of the now-traded Mike Smith, shipped to divisional rival Calgary in a Machiavellian move by John Chayka to simultaneously solve his own problem and give a team with which he directly competes a new one. But the question is this: Are Smith and Domingue’s numbers the past two years or so a result of playing behind a bad team, or because they are bad goalies? If it’s the latter, well, Raanta might fix that. If it’s the former, well, Raanta’s career average may be poised to take a tumble.
It’s hard to imagine this team even cracks 82 points, which would be a .500 record as far as the NHL is concerned. Asking for 12 points of improvement from all these new or developing players and a guy who hasn’t been a head coach for some time, well, it’s a lot. And frankly, even if they got to that point without some sort of PDO-fest of a season the likes of which haven’t really been seen since the “Save By Roy” Avalanche, you’d still have to say, “Oh right, they’re still 10 points out of the playoffs.”
The good news, I guess, is that their division is a pretty big question mark after, say, Edmonton and Anaheim, and there are some pretty rotten teams in there that will probably help keep them out of the basement. This is a team that’s better, but they’re not even close to being competitive for anything you’d want a team to compete for.
This is Chayka starting the process of pulling out of the rebuild. It’ll probably take another year or two before they’re ready to say, “OK, we’re here.” And when that happens, what a coincidence, it’ll be just in time for all the guys they acquired this summer to have truly aged out of their primes.
Just another fun season of Coyotes hockey.
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