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Pacific Division Preview: Arizona Coyotes have the pieces in place to make the playoffs

The offseason addition of Phil Kessel should do wonders for a struggling offense.

Los Angeles Kings v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

As Year 3 of Vegas Golden Knights hockey fast approaches, we’ll take a look at the other teams in the Pacific Division ahead of the 2019-20 campaign. This series will provide an overview of each of Vegas’ division rivals, reviewing how the teams fared last season, examining organizational changes made during the offseason and exploring what their lineups might look like to start the season. Next up is Arizona.

The Arizona Coyotes have been in the midst of a rebuild under 30-year-old general manager John Chayka, who has done an admirable job over the last few seasons. The Coyotes were very competitive last season and came within four points of reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Ultimately, a lack of offense was the team’s Achilles’ heel, but an effective offseason could get this team right back in the race.

Season in review

Like the Ducks, the Coyotes struggled mightily to put the puck in the net last season.

Not one player on the team hit the 20-goal mark or the 50-point mark, and the team finished 28th in the NHL with 2.55 goals per game. Having an extra man on the ice didn’t help matters much as the Coyotes finished with the 26th-best power play, operating at just 16.3 percent despite finishing fifth in power-play opportunities (258).

Fortunately, the team’s overall defense was rock-solid, giving up 2.68 goals per game, good for fifth in the league.

A huge part of that success was thanks to stellar play by goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who put up fantastic numbers and was downright brilliant down the stretch, even drawing some Vezina consideration along the way.

After taking over the crease for the injured Antti Raanta, Kuemper finished the season with a 2.33 goals-against average and .925 save percentage but managed a 2.05 goals-against average and .933 save percentage between Jan. 1 and the end of the season, recording 22 wins (five of which were shutouts) in that time. Only Vezina winner Andrei Vasilevskiy and Stanley Cup winner Jordan Binnington had more wins in the second half (24).

But arguably the team’s greatest strength was its penalty kill, which finished tied for first in the league with an 85 percent success rate. The Coyotes gave up just 34 power-play goals, which was the second-lowest total in the league, and Arizona finished second in the NHL with 16 short-handed goals.

The unit was so effective that it even scored two goals on the same penalty kill.

Leading the way were forwards Brad Richardson and Michael Grabner, who combined for 12 goals and 15 short-handed points on the year, making them the most productive penalty-killing duo in the NHL.

Richardson had a fantastic season all-around, finishing tied for first on the team in goals with a career-best 19 tallies. However, Derek Stepan had the worst offensive season of his career with just 35 points in 72 games, and Clayton Keller saw an 18-point drop in production despite leading the team in points with 47.

Things may have been different if not for injuries.

After all, Nick Schmaltz, acquired from Chicago in late November, recorded 14 points in 17 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. The team averaged 2.71 goals per game with him in the lineup, so his loss was not insignificant.

Overall, Arizona finished third in the league in man games lost with key injuries also affecting Raanta, Christian Dvorak, Jason Demers, Jakob Chychrun, Richardson and Grabner. Only Keller and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson played in all 82 games.

As is often the case, though, the plethora of injuries created opportunities for other players to step up. One of the biggest surprises of Arizona’s season was Conor Garland, who did just that.

Garland provided a much-needed offensive spark and finished the season with 13 goals in 47 games while averaging just 12:47 of ice time a night. He led the team in Corsi For percentage at 5-on-5 (53.5). His two-goal game against Edmonton was particularly memorable, serving as a great example of the energy he brought to the team.

Even so, the team’s overall lack of offense was troubling.

Perhaps that’s why Chayka went out this summer and acquired himself a goal-scorer, not to mention some solid secondary scoring and center depth.

Offseason overview

Chayka made a big splash by landing elite winger Phil Kessel, who won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The main price was Alex Galchenyuk, who finished tied with Richardson for the team lead in goals (19), though additional assets were involved in the deal.

But Kessel could be a game-changer for a team in desperate need of scoring help, particularly on the power play. Kessel’s offensive legitimacy is backed by 11 straight seasons of 20-plus goals, six of which topped the 30-goal mark (not including the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season in which he was on pace for 34 goals).

He’ll be reunited with Coyotes bench boss Rick Tocchet, a.k.a. “The Phil Whisperer” from his time as assistant coach in Pittsburgh. Plus, Kessel hasn’t missed a regular-season game this decade, which should give an injury-plagued team some stability up front.

Also joining the Coyotes is center Carl Soderberg, who was acquired in a trade with the Avalanche in exchange for defenseman Kevin Connauton and a third-round draft pick. Soderberg gives Arizona appealing depth at center, which was a real issue in an injury-riddled 2018-19 season.

Soderberg has been a solid two-way center throughout his career and is coming off a strong performance in which he set a career high in goals (23) as part of a 49-point season. That would have been the highest point total on the Coyotes last season, and Soderberg was wildly overshadowed by the Avalanche’s electric top line. That bodes well for what he can bring to the desert.

Richard Panik, Nick Cousins and Josh Archibald were the other main offseason departures for the club.

With Keller entering the final season of his entry-level contract, Chayka decided to get ahead of the curve, signing Keller to an eight-year extension earlier this month. The deal will keep the 21-year-old in the desert through the 2027-28 season at an average annual value of $7.15 million.

This proactive approach is not new for Chayka, who similarly signed pending restricted free agents Dvorak, Schmaltz and Chychrun to long-term deals last year. There’s risk involved given the limited resumes, but Chayka has never shied away from risk since becoming the youngest general manager in NHL history.

Lineup preview

Tocchet has plenty of flexibility.

He now has five legitimate centers with which to work (not including prospect Barrett Hayton, who has impressed in training camp), many of whom can play wing as well. Stepan and Richardson will be two of the team’s four centers, though the other decisions will come down to line chemistry.

The easy assumption would be that Kessel and Keller will skate on the top line with either Schmaltz or Stepan; since Schmaltz skated with Dvorak earlier in his career, it’s possible the top-line role will be Stepan’s to lose, especially if Tocchet wants a more responsible two-way option on that line in order to give Kessel and Keller more freedom offensively.

Soderberg has centered Christian Fischer and Lawson Crouse in preseason, so that trio could stick; that would leave Vinnie Hinostroza and Garland to fill out the other two winger slots, one of which would be alongside Richardson and Grabner on what will be an impressive fourth unit. Of course, Hayton could push for one of those spots as well.

On the back end, it should be pretty straightforward, with Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Demers skating on the top pair, Chychrun skating with Hjalmarsson on the second pair and Alex Goligoski and Jordan Oesterle rounding out the top six. Ilya Lyubushkin and Kyle Capobianco are the likely contenders for the seventh defenseman.

Both Raanta and Kuemper have proven to be effective netminders for the Coyotes, but the team doesn’t have a concrete plan in place for allocating starts. It likely will be a 1A, 1B situation in which Tocchet runs with the hot hand, which seems to be a strategy several teams will employ this year. Adin Hill is waiting in the wings in case of injury, so goaltending should be a strength for Arizona once again.

Taking all of that into consideration, here’s one possibility for what the Coyotes’ lineup might look like to start the season:

Keller — Stepan — Kessel
Dvorak — Schmaltz — Garland
Crouse — Soderberg — Fischer
Hinostroza — Richardson — Grabner

Ekman-Larsson — Demers
Chychrun — Hjalmarsson
Goligoski — Oesterle

Raanta
Kuemper

Quick hits

2018-19 record: 39-35-8—86
Position in standings: Division-4, Conference-9, League-18
Pacific Division record: 16-10-3
Record against Vegas: 2-1-1
Playoff result: Did not qualify for playoffs
Power play (NHL rank): 16.3 percent (26)
Penalty kill (NHL rank): 85 percent (tied for 1st)
Goals for (NHL rank): 209 (28)
Goals against (NHL rank): 220 (26)
Leading scorers: Keller (14-33—47), Ekman-Larsson (14-30—44), Galchenyuk (19-22—41)
Top Corsi For % (min. 30 GP): Garland (53.5), Ekman-Larsson (51.66), Panik (50.96)
Goals above replacement: Goligoski (6.4), Panik (6.2), Oesterle (5.3)
Season opener: Oct. 3 @ Anaheim

Looking ahead to 2019-20

The Arizona Coyotes haven’t had a 30-goal scorer since Radim Vrbata netted 35 for the Phoenix Coyotes back in 2011-12; that was also the last time the franchise reached the postseason.

Coincidence?

Perhaps. But regardless, it’s a clear sign that this team is in need of goals. Kessel should help with that both at even strength and the power play, but it will have to be a team-wide effort if the Coyotes want a realistic chance of breaking the postseason drought.

Health will be key, but it appears as though the Coyotes will start the season with a healthy roster. However, the added depth and flexibility up front should help fortify Arizona’s safety net should injuries come knocking once again.

It wasn’t too long ago that Arizona was taking on front-loaded and LTIR contracts to reach the salary cap floor, but Chayka has taken this club to a new level. It wasn’t an overly active offseason, but it was an effective one nevertheless as Chayka addressed specific team needs without sacrificing the integrity of the roster. The product on the ice this season should reflect that.

It’s not a playoffs-or-bust scenario for the Coyotes, but the expectations for success in the desert are there, and there’s no reason this team can’t make it happen.

Golden Knights vs. Coyotes schedule

Oct. 10 @ Arizona
Nov. 29 vs. Arizona
Dec. 28 vs. Arizona
Mar. 18 @ Arizona
Mar. 25 vs. Arizona

Statistics courtesy of Evolving-Hockey, NHL.com, Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference.