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Arizona Coyotes

Are the Arizona Coyotes shaping into playoff contenders?

GLENDALE, AZ - MARCH 31: The Coyotes celebrate after Arizona Coyotes center Christian Dvorak (18) scores a goal during the NHL hockey game between the Washington Capitals and the Arizona Coyotes on March 31, 2017 at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona.(Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire)
Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire

The Coyotes’ offseason got off to a troubling start when they parted with long-term Captain Shane Doan in such a disheartening way. After playing with the organization throughout his career, and voluntarily staying through some of its greatest struggles, Doan said he was “corporately fired” when the team informed him it would not re-sign the unrestricted free agent. Doan’s dismissal only reinforced the idea that the Coyotes were an unstable franchise, which has clouded their history in the desert.

Chayka’s other transactions have instilled more hope in the Coyotes’ on-ice future, and seem to be setting the Coyotes up for playoff contention sooner, rather than later.

Just prior to the poor handling of Doan, a transaction was made that had the makings of a strong move for the future: Mike Smith was traded to the Calgary Flames for Brandon Hickey, Chad Johnson, and a conditional 2018 third-round pick. Moving Smith may be a positive step for a team that has clearly struggled in recent seasons – even though it was not because of the player in net.

Smith was often blamed for the Coyotes’ shortcomings, despite the fact that the team around him was so dismal during much of his time there. Without Smith, the Coyotes may not have reached their greatest success as a franchise in 2012; although they came up short of their ultimate goal, it was still a major accomplishment for the team. Still, a change for both the Coyotes and Smith gives them both the chance for a much-needed fresh start next season.

Acquiring Hjalmarsson from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Laurent Dauphin and Connor Murphy was a favorable move for the Coyotes as well. In Hjalmarsson, the Coyotes receive an effective defensive defenseman who can complement their star offensive defenseman, Ekman-Larsson. While he may carry a slightly higher cap hit than Murphy ($4.1 million for two more years, versus Murphy’s $3.85 million hit for five more years) and be older (30, while Muphy is only 24), Hjalmarsson is a strong defender who vastly improves the Arizona blue line.

 

Chart via Ownthepuck.blogspot.ca

A player of Hjalmarsson’s caliber accepting a trade to the Coyotes defies the notion that Arizona is a toxic team and an unattractive destination for players.

After the Hjalmarsson-Murphy trade was finalized, Chayka made yet another game-changing trade: Anthony DeAngelo and the 2017 first-round pick (No. 7) to the Rangers for Stepan and Raanta. While DeAngelo appears to have a lot of upside, some of his on-ice antics and attitude problems diminished his overall worth to the Coyotes. As important as early draft picks may be, the young Coyotes had greater needs like a first-line center.

Stepan, 27, is a key two-way center who plays in all situations. In all seasons but his rookie one (2010-11, 45 points) and the condensed 48-game 2012-13 season (44 points), Stepan has exceeded the 50-point threshold. His $6.5 million cap hit is comparable to other first-line centers, expiring before a player is expected to steeply decline.

The Coyotes have been in search of a center of Stepan’s caliber in recent seasons, but have not been able find one via trade or free agency. While they have drafted early in recent seasons, their picks were not high enough to claim the top centers available each year. Trading for Stepan was vital for the Coyotes. They not only gain a strong player in Stepan, but a leader for this young offense now that they are without Doan.

Along with Stepan, the Coyotes acquired Raanta as their new netminder. Raanta’s first glimpse of the NHL was with the Blackhawks. While he struggled in his first season, his play was impressive enough to put him in contention as the team’s backup goaltender the next season. Unfortunately, when Scott Darling won the battle in Chicago as the backup, he saw his starts decrease, but New York noticed the Finnish netminder and acquired him that offseason.

Raanta was vital in his role as Henrik Lundqvist’s backup with the Rangers, backstopping the team while Lundqvist was injured. His training with Ranger goaltending coach Benoit Allaire prepared him for the opportunity to shine as a starting goaltender, and now in Arizona he finally has that chance.

Once free agency began, Chayka began targeting depth players to build this roster for next season. Adam Clendening signed a one-year, $650,000 contract with the Coyotes to lead off free agency. Clendening did not receive the best chance in New York last season, but impressed in his role as a third-pair defenseman when utilized, making him a low-risk signing with high upside. Forwards Michael Latta (one year, $650,000) and Emerson Etem (one year, $850,000) joined the team as well.

Not only were changes made to the roster, but a new coach was hired: Rick Tocchet replaced Dave Tippett. Prior to joining the Coyotes’ bench, Tocchet was most recently an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins (since 2014). Most notably in his time with the Penguins, he won two Stanley Cups and helped refresh and re-energize Phil Kessel once he was traded to Pittsburgh.

Chayka’s offseason transactions revitalized this roster with a number of right-now moves that help the Coyotes move closer to Stanley Cup contention than they have been in recent seasons. Plus, he still kept the team’s future in mind, particularly at the entry draft, in an effort to make this team competitive for years to come.

There are still a number of questions for the Coyotes next season: if Hjalmarsson and Stepan can have a great enough influence to genuinely improve this team, if Raanta can thrive in a starting role, if the rookies (Christian Dvorak, Brendan Perlini, Jakob Chychrun, Lawson Crouse, Christian Fischer, Dylan Strome, and Clayton Keller) will perform, and if they are ready for a more expanded role. Much of the team’s success is dependent on those questions for next season.

However, based on the offseason tactics by Chayka, this roster looks closer to contention than it has in years past and should at least make a valiant effort for the playoffs. If not this upcoming season, the Coyotes should be be making a splash in the near future if Chayka continues his impressive work of stabilizing the on-ice product in Arizona.

 

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