The Arizona Coyotes have undoubtedly been one of the most active teams this offseason. Heading into his second season at the helm, general manager John Chayka leveraged the team’s cap space and draft picks into valuable assets such as defender Niklas Hjalmarsson, goaltender Antti Raanta, and center Derek Stepan.
Chayka was also forced to search for a new head coach after Dave Tippett and the organization abruptly parted ways right before the NHL Draft.
While the Coyotes clearly have one goal in mind this summer – show that they can escape the league’s basement – all these moves have left us with questions.
Will last year’s rookies take the next big step forward?
Last season, the Arizona Coyotes were one of the youngest teams in the league, and that was with 39-year-old captain Shane Doan driving up the average. Rookies Christian Dvorak (20), Brendan Perlini (20), Jakob Chychrun (18), Lawson Crouse (19), Christian Fischer (19), Dylan Strome (19) and Clayton Keller (18) all made appearances with varying levels of impact.
The big names to watch up front were Dvorak, Perlini and Crouse. Dvorak put up 33 points over 78 games, landing sixth on the team in total points. Perlini’s contribution was almost more impressive, with 14 goals in only 57 games (21 points total). That was good for .25 goals per game – tied for second on the team of players with 20 or more games. Crouse was the most disappointing of the trio. His “power forward” reputation didn’t show up on the scoreboard. He recorded only 12 points over 72 contests.
Still, the other names on the list look like they’ll gain increased roles next year. Fischer played only seven games for the Coyotes last year, but potted three goals. Strome’s junior team, the Erie Otters, went all the way to the CHL’s Memorial Cup Final. Keller was electric for Team USA at the IIHF World Championship in May.
Plus, on the defensive side of things, Chychrun logged valuable minutes, playing in 68 games, often alongside veterans Connor Murphy or Luke Schenn. With Murphy, Anthony DeAngelo, and Michael Stone on other teams, it could mean increased responsibility for the teenager in 2017-18.
If one thing has been made clear about rebuilding teams, it’s that improvement must come from within. The Coyotes have a promising crop of young players now, and it will be crucial that they take a step forward next year.
Can Anthony Duclair bounce back?
In 2015-16, the Coyotes’ biggest success story was the exciting rookie duo of Max Domi and Anthony Duclair. Together, they potted almost 40 goals and put up 96 total points. They played 81 games each and gave fans a much-needed light at the end of the rebuild tunnel.
Fast forward a year and the shine has worn off, at least for Duclair.
His slow start to the year caused him to be sent to the Tuscon Roadrunners of the AHL. He spent 16 games with the Roadrunners, but couldn’t shake his shooting percentage blues, recording just a single goal. He did put up a respectable seven assists, ending his tenure with 0.5 points per game.
At the NHL level, he managed only five goals and 15 points over 58 games, and a rough 6.6 shooting percentage. In 2015-16, 19 percent of his shots became goals. While everyone predicted that he would regress, a normal shooting percentage is between 10 and 12 percent; under seven is just abysmally bad luck.
It’s clear that Duclair has talent – even in an awful scoring year, he posted a plus-2.1 relative Corsi at even strength. Now, it’s just a matter of whether he can put everything together for a bounce-back year.
Is Hjalmarsson enough to save the blue line?
Despite having one of the best defenders in the NHL in Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the Coyotes’ defense has been historically awful. Last year, the Coyotes had a league-worst 62.6 Corsi Against per 60 at 5-on-5, and a third-worst 3.1 goals against per 60.
It’s something Chayka immediately went to work on even before the start of the 2016-17 season. First, he added Anthony DeAngelo in a draft-day trade, then he secured the services of veterans Alex Goligoski and Luke Schenn.
This summer, he has drastically changed his defensive corps once again, shipping out DeAngelo, Stone and Murphy and adding Niklas Hjalmarsson and Adam Clendening. Hjalmarsson is slated to play on Ekman-Larsson’s right, which leaves the other pairs up in the air. Schenn is probably best suited to a sheltered role, which means that Chychrun or Clendening will likely end up with Goligoski.
Hjalmarsson is known for being one of the best defensive defenders in the game, but is that going to be enough to make a difference on such a young squad?
Perhaps more significant than Hjalmarsson, though, will be the effect of new head coach Rick Tocchet. Chayka was impressed with Tocchet’s vision for the team, and a new system – along with the seasoned former Blackhawk – may just be enough to make a difference.
Can Raanta shoulder a starter’s role?
Unlike Derek Stepan, the other big acquisition from the New York Rangers, Antti Raanta is still a bit of an unknown quantity. While he’s already 28 years old, Raanta has only 94 NHL games under his belt. He has been in the league for four seasons now, and never broken 30 starts.
Raanta is an accomplished backup, that’s for sure. He boasts a career .917 save percentage, and on a defensively deficient Rangers team, put up a 2.26 GAA. Last season, when he put up 26 starts, a career high, he also put up a plus-6.67 goals saved above average.
It was enough to make him one of the most coveted goaltenders this offseason.
Still, netminders — despite strides made in statistical evaluation — remain maddeningly hard to predict. One guy who thrives as a No. 2 may buckle under the stress of being No. 1. While there’s every reason to believe this is a good move by the Coyotes, only Raanta’s play will answer this question.
Will the Coyotes have a home after next season?
Perhaps the most intriguing – and frustrating – wrinkle to the Coyotes’ offseason story is their arena search. Currently, the Coyotes play in Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona. The team extended their lease for the 2017-18 season, after finishing up a two-year lease. While the Coyotes and the new operators, AEG, could come to a “renewal” agreement, it appears the team has little desire to do so.
This has left the Coyotes searching for a more permanent home, with rumors being shot down at every turn. The most persistent rumor – usually originating in Canada – is relocation. Given the commitment by the NHL to grow hockey in the Sun Belt, along with the size and growth rate of the Phoenix area, relocation seems extremely unlikely.
Still, that doesn’t mean finding a new arena for the Coyotes in Arizona will be easy. Just after being bought out by now-sole owner Andrew Barroway, former minority owner Keith McCullough told TBNewsWatch that he was unsure if the Coyotes would be able to get a new arena.
Until this last major question gets answered, it could easily overshadow any on-ice improvements this year.
Data from datarink.com and hockey-reference.com
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