This is one part of a multi-part series profiling the 2018-19 Pacific Division.
The Arizona Coyotes had two different seasons last year. There was the record-setting bad first half, and the surprisingly solid second half. Which team will we see next year? Are they ready to take a step forward?
29-41-12 – 70 points (8th in Pacific)
208 goals for (30th in the NHL)
256 goals against (22nd in NHL)
The Coyotes had an absolutely miserable start to the 2017-18 season. In fact, it was probably the worst start ever seen by an NHL team. They dropped their first 11 games in a row, tying an NHL record, and they set their own league record for futility by failing to win a game in regulation until their 21st game of the season on Nov. 16 – more than a month into the season.
As bad as the Coyotes were in the first half of the year, though, they actually pulled themselves together after the turn of the New Year. After going 9-27-5 in their first 41 games, the Coyotes went 20-14-7 the rest of the way. That’s good enough for a 94-point pace over an 82-game season.
Arizona’s improvement in the second half of the season is an indication of a young team with talent figuring life out at the NHL level under the guidance of new leadership. The Coyotes moved on from long-time head coach Dave Tippett prior to the season and replaced him with Rick Tocchet. Captain Shane Doan also retired and their starting goalie of six seasons, Mike Smith, was dealt to the Flames in the offseason. That’s a pretty substantial change in leadership to happen all at once, so the team’s tumultuous start isn’t all too unexpected.
Tocchet came from a role as an assistant coach on the Pittsburgh Penguins and had to shift to dealing with a handful of young players rather than a group of veterans. As time went along, the young players started to settle in and the team actually looked pretty good. Obviously, they were nowhere near being competitive, but there are quite a few reasons to believe the Coyotes could take a step forward this season.
Clayton Keller had a rookie season that earned him Calder Trophy consideration. Christian Dvorak, Brendan Perlini, Christian Fischer, and Jakob Chychrun, all under the age of 22, are all already solid NHL contributors. Dylan Strome, one of the best prospects not in the NHL, was dominant at the AHL level. Antti Raanta was lights out in the second half of the season, posting a .941 save percentage in 2018. There’s a lot of young talent on this roster. At some point, it’ll translate into success.
Notable additions: Alex Galchenyuk, Vinnie Hinostroza, Jordan Oesterle, Michael Grabner.
Notable subtractions: Max Domi, Jordan Martinook, Luke Schenn.
The Coyotes had yet another busy summer. In 2017, they pulled off some shocking deals, acquiring Niklas Hjalmarsson from Chicago and Derek Stepan and Raanta from New York. This year, they pulled a one-for-one swap involving Max Domi and Alex Galchenyuk, added Vinnie Hinostroza and Jordan Oesterle in return for taking on Marian Hossa’s LTIR contract, and signed Michael Grabner in free agency. Adding Galchenyuk as the team’s second winger and solid depth in Hinostroza, Grabner, and Oesterle will certainly make the Coyotes a better team than they were last year.
Beyond those additions, the Coyotes had a busy summer full of housekeeping. They signed franchise defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson to an eight-year extension and his partner Hjalmarsson to a two-year deal, they inked skilled centre Dvorak to a six-year deal, and Raanta to a three-year deal. The Coyotes seem to be confident in the core players they’ve acquired.
Of course, nothing is a given. Despite the fact Arizona is loaded with good, skilled young players, development still isn’t linear. Even though they had a very nice finish to last season, they could struggle this year again for a variety of reasons. Their blueline is still a little underwhelming, Raanta hasn’t proved he can be a true, top-level starting goalie over the course of a full season, and the team has multiple players in their early 20s in key roles.
I think it’s reasonable to expect Arizona to look more like the team that finished the 2017-18 season than the one that started the year. That said, to expect them to jump over the entire Pacific Division and into the playoffs might be a bit much.