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Pacific Division Preview: Arizona Coyotes on the verge of returning to playoff contention

The Coyotes had a very active offseason. Here’s an overview of where they stand heading into 2018-19.

Vegas Golden Knights v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

As the regular season approaches, we’ll take a look at Vegas’ seven Pacific Division opponents to examine how they fared in 2017-18, what moves they’ve made in the offseason and what their lineups may look like to start the 2018-19 season. The Golden Knights have a full season and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final under their belts, so no one will be taking them lightly in Year 2. Here’s a look at the Arizona Coyotes.

The Arizona Coyotes enter the 2018-19 season with a lot of excitement after an especially productive offseason by 29-year-old general manager John Chayka. The roster has undergone extensive turnover in the last few seasons, but Chayka made a series of moves in the spring and summer that have set this team up for success moving forward. The upcoming season could be the year the ‘Yotes get back in the swing of things, even if a playoff berth seems beyond reach. A lot is still up in the air, but at the very least, this team will make life for its opponents very difficult.

Season recap

The Coyotes spent most of the season trying to recover from a woeful start that saw the team lose its first 11 games under new head coach Rick Tocchet. The start tied for the worst start in NHL history as the team went 0-10-1 out of the gate before picking up a 4-3 overtime win over the Philadelphia Flyers in late October. However, it would take another several weeks for the club to earn its first regulation win, which came Nov. 16 against Montreal. Two of those first 11 games were against the Knights, one of which was an overtime win for Vegas on this goal by James Neal.

But despite the ugly start, which pushed any playoff hopes way out of the picture early on, the Coyotes had several bright spots throughout the 2017-18 campaign.

For one thing, rookie Clayton Keller had a breakout season, which earned him a nomination for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. His 23 goals, 42 assists and 65 points led the team (though Derek Stepan also managed 42 assists in his debut season with Arizona). Although Stepan’s final stat line (14-42—56) was in line with his career numbers, his goal total was the lowest of his eight-year career, which is something he’ll look to improve this season. He and Keller eventually formed a solid top line with Richard Panik that was incredibly effective and difficult to contain. Panik, a mid-season acquisition, scored 19 points in 35 games and could very well exceed his career highs in goals (22) and points (44) with a full season in Arizona. He led the team in Corsi For percentage with a 54.35 rating at 5-on-5. The trio combined for 36 points in the final 12 games of the year.

For another, goaltender Antti Raanta proved that he can be a No. 1 goaltender in this league. His sensational season flew under the radar in his first year in the desert partly because of Arizona’s record and also because he was limited to 47 games due to injury. But his 2.24 goals-against average was tied for first (with Marc-Andre Fleury) among goalies with at least 35 appearances, and his .930 save percentage was the best in the league (min. 35 games). Raanta recorded three shutouts as part of an overall 21-17-6 record and managed a 1.58 goals-against average and .952 save percentage in his final 14 games; his strong play in the second half of the year helped the Coyotes finish the season on a 21-13-6 run.

Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson had an up-and-down year, managing just three more points than he recorded in 2016-17 and putting up a career-worst minus-28 rating. However, he saw a CF% improvement from 44.89 in 2016-17 to 51.09 in 2017-18, and he developed strong chemistry with defensive partner Jason Demers.

Other players who put together impressive campaigns include youngsters Brendan Perlini (22), Christian Fischer (21) and Christian Dvorak (22). Perlini recorded career highs in goals (17), assists (13) and points (30), as did Fischer (15-18—33). Dvorak contributed his second straight 15-goal season and set career highs in assists (22) and points (37).

At the other end of the spectrum, former first-round pick Max Domi had a very disappointing season, potting just nine goals and 45 points in 82 games after managing comparable numbers in 59 games the year before. As a result, he was dealt in the offseason. Similarly, Anthony Duclair had another poor season after his impressive 44-point campaign in 2015-16 and was eventually moved in the Panik deal.

The Coyotes were unable to recover from an abysmal start and what seemed like a constant stream of injuries, especially on the back end. Though Arizona finished last in the Western Conference last season, the Coyotes are climbing the ranks in the Pacific, and one could argue they made the most effective widespread changes of all eight teams in the division this offseason.

Offseason moves

The Coyotes got off to an early start by signing Raanta to a three-year extension in early April. The deal carries an average annual value of $4.25 million and keeps Raanta locked up through the 2020-21 season.

Chayka followed that up with a series of offseason moves that injected speed and skill up and down the lineup.

In a surprising one-for-one “hockey” trade, Arizona and Montreal swapped underachieving former first-round picks Domi and Alex Galchenyuk, both of whom were in desperate need of a fresh start. Galchenyuk, drafted third overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, tallied 19 goals and 51 points in 82 games last year, falling five points short of his career high (56) in 2015-16. The hope is that allowing him to play center, which was a point of ongoing contention in Montreal, will help Galchenyuk reach his true potential.

The team also re-signed defensemen Niklas Hjalmarsson, Kevin Connauton and Ekman-Larsson and acquired Vinnie Hinostroza and Jordan Oesterle via trade.

Hjalmarsson signed a two-year, $10 million extension that kicks in next season, while Connauton, who broke out for 11 goals and 21 points last season, signed a two-year, $2.75 million deal (AAV: $1.375 million).

But the most significant signing was the extension awarded to Ekman-Larsson, who agreed to terms on an eight-year, $66 million deal with an AAV of $8.25 million. Considering Arizona is a team working under a tight budget, this was a huge statement by the organization. Ekman-Larsson needed to be re-signed, whatever the cost, and the Coyotes took care of business. The Swedish rearguard was later rewarded with the “C” as the fourth captain in franchise history (since moving to Arizona).

Dvorak also signed a massive extension despite having one year remaining on his entry-level deal. The Palos, Illinois native, who has 30 goals and 70 points in two NHL seasons, inked a six-year, $26.7 million extension, which carries a cap hit of $4.45 million.

Chayka continued to operate within the confines of Arizona’s budget restrictions by taking on the final three years of injured veteran Marian Hossa’s front-loaded contract; by doing so, Chayka brought Hinostroza and Oesterle on board. Hinostroza wasn’t able to secure a top-six role in Chicago but could flourish in Arizona’s top six, and Oesterle has impressed thus far in preseason.

Additionally, the Coyotes signed speedster Michael Grabner to a three-year, $10.5 million deal via free agency. The 30-year-old Austrian winger has scored 27 goals in back-to-back seasons, and his responsible two-way game, elite speed and exceptional penalty killing will be key assets in Arizona.

Notable departures include Jordan Martinook (traded to Carolina) as well as Tobias Rieder, who was moved at the deadline in exchange for goaltender Darcy Kuemper.

Lineup preview

The Coyotes have multiple injuries that will affect the roster to start the season, especially down the middle. Galchenyuk has a lower-body injury, though he is listed as week-to-week, and Dvorak has yet to skate with the team; the same is true for Jakob Chychrun on the back end, who played just 50 games last season.

As a result, Keller and/or Hinostroza could shift to center on a temporary basis; Nick Cousins and Laurent Dauphin are also candidates to move to the middle.

Once everyone is healthy, though, the big question facing the Coyotes is where former third-overall pick Dylan Strome fits in. He’ll likely start the season as the third-line pivot given the injuries to Galchenyuk and Dvorak, but it’s unclear whether he’ll move to the wing once they return. With Stepan, Galchenyuk, Dvorak and Brad Richardson seemingly locked in at center, Strome’s role is something Tocchet will need to address down the line.

Either way, Strome is eager to make his mark with the Coyotes this season, especially since he is the only player taken in the top 10 of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft who has yet to establish himself at the NHL level (the other top-10 selections include Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Mitch Marner, Noah Hanifin, Pavel Zacha, Ivan Provorov, Zach Werenski, Timo Meier and Mikko Rantanen). Strome has produced at the junior and AHL levels, and he was impressive in a 10-game stint with the Coyotes at the end of last season in which he scored three goals and eight points, but he’s looking to become a key part of the big club this season.

Strome skated between Hinostroza and Grabner in training camp, while Galchenyuk played with Perlini and Fischer prior to his injury. Those could be the middle-six lines if Dvorak remains out of the lineup for an extended period of time.

Until Chychrun returns, the most likely candidates to fill in as the sixth and seventh defensemen are Oesterle and former KHL defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin. Oesterle has the edge, leaving Lyubushkin and Trevor Murphy to duke it out for that seventh slot.

That being said, here’s one possibility for how the Coyotes’ opening-night lineup could look:

Panik — Stepan — Fischer
Perlini — Keller — Hinostroza
Lawson Crouse — Strome — Grabner
Dauphin — Richardson — Cousins

Ekman-Larsson — Demers
Connauton — Hjalmarsson
Alex Goligoski — Oesterle

Raanta
Kuemper

Quick hits

2017-18 Team record: 29-41-12—70
Position in standings: Division-8, Conference-15, League-29
Pacific Division record: 10-12-7
Record against Vegas: 1-2-2
Playoff result: Did not qualify
Leading Scorers: Keller (23-42—65), Stepan (14-42—56), Domi (9-36—45)
Top Corsi For % (min. 10 GP): Panik (54.35), Demers (51.59), Ekman-Larsson (51.09)
Power play (NHL rank): 16.9 percent (26)
Penalty kill (NHL rank): 79.5 percent (19)
Goals for (NHL rank): 206 (30)
Goals against (NHL rank): 251 (11)
Team MVP: Keller (23-42—65), Raanta (21-17-6, GAA: 2.24, SV%: .930, SO: 3)
Season opener: Oct. 4 @ Dallas

Bottom line

Arizona has failed to make the playoffs in each of the last six seasons. Even though there is more talent, speed and skill throughout the Coyotes’ lineup, there’s a very good chance Arizona will stretch that streak to seven. After all, the Pacific Division remains competitive, and the Western Conference should be much tighter than it was last year with several Central Division teams expected to rebound. The Coyotes were out of the playoffs before last season even got going, and the result left Arizona in the basement of the division and conference.

That being said, this team is built to score more goals, and assuming Raanta can replicate his performance from last season, the pieces are in place for the Coyotes to be a formidable contender moving forward. Players will be more comfortable now that they’ve played a year in Tocchet’s system, which could go a long way towards a better start.

Injuries are a concern heading into the season, and Raanta’s health will be a pivotal factor in the outcome of the campaign. The Coyotes will need better fortune with injuries on the back end, especially since this is possibly the best defense corps this team has iced in years. But it won’t be too long before Arizona becomes a perennial playoff threat. Even if that does not come to fruition in the 2018-19 season, it will be surprising if Arizona does not climb the standings by at least 10 points.

Golden Knights vs. Coyotes schedule

Nov. 21 @ Arizona
Dec. 30 @ Arizona
Feb. 12 vs. Arizona
Apr. 4 vs. Arizona