The Arizona Coyotes look to be one of the more improved teams in the National Hockey League this season. Prior to the start of the 2016-17 season, many thought the franchise could be a potential playoff contender last season. The team had not qualified for the playoffs since the 2011-12 season where they were eventually eliminated by the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Finals. The team replaced longtime general manager Don Maloney with analytics guru John Chayka. Chayka was bold in both free agency and the NHL Draft. He sent first a fifth-round pick to the Dallas Stars in exchange for the rights to Alex Goligoski. Goligoski later signed a five-year deal to join the Coyotes. Chayka also signed veterans Jamie McGinn, Luke Schenn, Radim Vrbata, and Ryan White.
At the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, the Coyotes acquired Dave Bolland and Lawson Crouse from the Florida Panthers in exchange for a conditional second-round pick and a 2018 third-round pick. The team also acquired Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Anthony DeAngelo in exchange for a second-round pick as well (Lightning added Libor Hajek with the 37th overall pick). Finally, the Coyotes managed to acquire a second first-round selection as well as Pavel Datsyuk‘s cap hit from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for a second-round pick (Arizona selected Jakob Chychrun with the 16th overall pick; Detroit selected Filip Hronek with the 53rd overall pick).
The Coyotes began the season with five rookies to begin the 2016-17 NHL season. The team won their home opener against the Philadelphia Flyers 4-3 in overtime. Despite an underwhelming season, the Coyotes managed to have some highlights including the following: goaltender Mike Smith was named as an All-Star for the first time in his career, Shane Doan scored his 400th career goal and completing his 21st season with the franchise, and the franchise’s rookies notched 110 total points. The team concluded the season with a 30-42-10 record; a record that saw them finish sixth in the Pacific Division and miss the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season.
This offseason, the Coyotes made several important transactions. On June 12, majority owner Andrew Barroway bought out the team’s minority owners; a move that gave him sole control as owner of the franchise. On June 17, the team traded goaltender Mike Smith to the Calgary Flames in exchange for prospect Brandon Hickey, goaltender Chad Johnson, and a conditional third-round selection in the 2017 NHL Draft. Two days later, the team ruffled some feathers when they announced that Shane Doan would not be given a new contract; a decision that allowed the longtime captain to become an unrestricted free agent. Following the Doan decision, the team mutually parted ways with longtime head coach Dave Tippett on June 22. Tippett had been coach of the Coyotes since the 2009-10 season.
Perhaps the largest news was announced on June 23, the first day of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Hours before the draft was scheduled to begin, the team traded defenseman Connor Murphy and prospect Laurent Dauphin to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Niklas Hjalmarsson. General manager John Chayka also made a statement when he traded defenseman Anthony DeAngelo and the seventh overall selection to the New York Rangers in exchange for center Derek Stepan and goaltender Antti Raanta. Finally, the team announced that former Coyotes player and Pittsburgh Penguins assistant Rick Tocchet would be named the franchise’s new head coach on July 11. A member of Mike Sullivan‘s coaching staff, Tocchet was able to win consecutive Stanley Cups.
With a single owner, a new head coach, and some new faces, there are still some lingering questions to be answered. The first question that needs to be answered is: will Dylan Strome live up to expectations? Strome, the third overall pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, has not played out an entire season on his entry-level contract. Strome participated in seven games last season; notching just one point. In order to secure a roster spot, Strome will have to display a strong training camp effort to the coaching staff. If not, then the team can assign him to the AHL until he’s ready for NHL action. The second question facing the team is regarding consistent goaltending. The Coyotes have not had a consistent goaltender since Mike Smith in 2011-12 when Mike Smith posted a 38-18-10 record that led the team deep into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Getting consistent goaltending will occur as long as the new defensive pairings play smarter at the blue line and limit the number of shots that goaltenders Antti Raanta and Louis Domingue face.
The third question that surrounds the franchise is again related to goaltending: can Antti Raanta play as a true number one? Raanta’s experience as a goaltender has taken him to being a backup to Corey Crawford on the Chicago Blackhawks and Henrik Lundqvist on the New York Rangers. Raanta’s contract is a low-risk deal (2 years, $2 million). If Raanta plays a stellar season, then the Coyotes could reward him with a nice contract extension. The fourth question that needs to be answered is: who will play on the second defensive pairing alongside Alex Goligoski in wake of Jakob Chychrun’s knee injury? The team has not disclosed many details regarding how long Chychrun’s injury will sideline him. The team does have some prospects whom they could call up such as Kyle Capobianco, Cameron Dineen, and Kyle Wood, yet the team could also look to the free agent market and sign a veteran like Cody Franson or Roman Polak. The fifth and final question that needs to be answered is whether the Coyotes can enter the playoffs after a dismal 2016-17 campaign. The Coyotes have a lot of young talent that can grow with the right coaching and veteran leadership, but that remains to be seen. With the acquisition of Stepan, the team may finally have found a true center that can help inspire the youth and up their performance.
What are your thoughts on the Arizona Coyotes this season? Does the team look poised for a better season after improving on paper? Will Rick Tocchet be able to coach a new team using a new coaching philosophy while providing confidence to a team looking to make their presence known?