Flashes of Promise in the Desert
Last season was a tale of two halves for the Coyotes. They lost 18 of their first 20 games, then won 11 of their last 19. Which Coyotes team will show up this season?
A pretty poor report card. Goaltending and team defense were okay; however, the Coyotes struggled to generate offense. A strong finish to the season after dealing with injuries has many in the desert and beyond excited about what this team can do this season.
What went right:
Antti Raanta was one of the best goalies in the NHL last season from January onwards. He sported a .941 save percentage and a 1.81 GAA, best among goalies who played in at least 20 games in that span. As a team, they allowed the 5th lowest GAA from January on and scored the 16th most points. On offense, Clayton Keller had a brilliant rookie year, being named a Calder finalist for his 23 goals, 65 points effort, both team highs. He also led the ‘Yotes in OZ possession time, scoring chances, and controlled entries while finishing just one shot on net shy of the team lead.
What Went Wrong:
Raanta’s late-season surge wasn’t enough to offset a horrid start to the season. The Coyotes won only 9 of their first 40 games, good for only 23 points, 5 fewer than Buffalo. That equates to roughly a 47 points season pace, which would be worse than the Avalanche’s horrible 2016-17 season of 48 points and the worst since the Atlanta Thrashers’ inaugural season of 39 points in 1999-00. During that span, they allowed a league-worst 5.5% true shooting percentage and the most goals against while ranking 30th in those categories for themselves.
Key Additions: Alex Galchenyuk, Vinnie Hinostroza, Michael Grabner
Key Departures: Max Domi, Marcus Kruger, Luke Schenn
Other Key moves: Extended Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Niklas Hjalmarsson, re-signed Darcy Kuemper
Without a doubt, the biggest coup of Arizona’s offseason was securing captain and elite defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson on a massive 8-year extension. The two-time all-star was subject of endless trade talks, especially with next season set to be the last one before he could hit unrestricted free agency. With this extension, both he and the team can move on from the uncertainty all this created and focus on the future, which looks even brighter after a solid offseason. They swapped youngsters with the Montreal Canadiens, getting Alex Galchenyuk in return of Max Domi. While Domi is promising in his own right, Galchenyuk seems to have more upside. The former 3rd overall pick already has a 30-goal season under his belt and nearly put up 20 last season while being shuffled all around the lineup on a terrible Montreal team. Even with a down season, he would’ve ranked first on the team in scoring chances and second in goals.
The Coyotes also added Hinostroza via trade to take on Hossa’s contract, costing them overpaid bottom 6 center Marcus Kruger and not much else. Hinostroza is still young at 24 and showed flashes as a puck mover last season, ranking top 20 league-wide in controlled entries per 20. In free agency, they brought in veteran Michael Grabner. The speedy winger should help Arizona’s 19th ranked penalty kill, as he paced the league in shorthanded blocked passes. He also reached 20 goals the last two season, although it comes with the asterisk of leading the league in empty net goals in that span with 11.
Next season preview
What could go right?
If they build on the end of last season, the Coyotes could be a surprising team. They have veterans through their lineups in players like Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Derek Stepan, Alex Goligoski, and Niklas Hjalmarsson. They have promising youngsters in Clayton Keller, Alex Galchenyuk and Jakob Chychrun. They also have Dylan Strome, who scored 53 points in 50 AHL games and looks ready to move to the NHL full time after finishing 10th in the league in passes to the slot per 20. A full season of a healthy Antti Raanta would be a big boost, especially if he plays like he did late last year. If he misses some games, Darcy Kuemper is a very capable backup with 131 games under his belt and a decent 2.58 GAA for his career. At the very least, the Coyotes should take a step forward this season and start establishing themselves as more than just perennial basement-dwellers.
What could go wrong?
On paper, Arizona is a much-improved team, but the same thing was said at the start of last season after they added veterans like Stepan and Raanta. If the new pieces take as much time to gel as they did to start off last season, the Coyotes will once again be heading nowhere fast. Arizona also has seven players still on their entry-level deals projected to be in the lineup come opening day, growing pains are to be expected as they continue to adapt to the NHL.
A problem that is likely to persist in the desert is the team’s struggle in the faceoff circle. Last year, they won only 47.7% of their draw, 28th in the NHL. Acquiring Marcus Kruger and his 50.7% career faceoff win rate from the Hurricanes could have helped, but the Coyotes chose to flip him to Chicago in the Hossa/Hinostroza deal later in the offseason. Alex Galchenyuk, the other center they added this offseason, has a career faceoff win rate of only 45.5%, so don’t expect him to boost the team’s numbers in that area. Expect the Coyotes to rank near the bottom of the league in that category again, forcing them to chase the puck more often as they fail to gain possession on faceoffs.
The Point Consensus 2018-19 Prediction: 7th in Pacific Division, 13th in Western Conference.