Parker Michaels continues his NHL Season Preview series in reverse to first order according to his projected standings. Be sure to bookmark our Season Previews home base here where links to all 31 teams will appear as they’re posted. Today at No. 22, the Arizona Coyotes.
John Chayka became the youngest General Manager in NHL history when he took over duties for Arizona in May 2016. The Coyotes were coming off a 78-point season where they were 24th in league scoring and 25th in goals against.
Two seasons later, the team has taken two steps back with consecutive 70-point seasons, but showed signs of turning the corner over the second half of last season and Chayka’s plan for his rebuild may be ready to take another big step forward this year.
Arizona moved on from the old ways of head coach Dave Tippett last summer and brought in a forward-thinking new coach with Rick Tocchet who had just been part of back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins as an assistant coach. Phil Kessel gave high praise to Tocchet, calling him the best assistant coach he has ever had.
Chayka made other sweeping changes as they said goodbye to long-time captain Shane Doan and brought in several new pieces, including top line center Derek Stepan, defensive upgrades Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jason Demers and one of the top backup goaltender in the league with Antti Raanta who was ready to show what he could do as a full-time starter. Arizona was poised to make a jump in the standings.
Record: 29-41-12 (70 points), 8th in Pacific Division, 29th Overall
Playoffs: Missed by 25 points
It was a tale of two seasons for Arizona. The first half, mired in dark despair after a 0-11-1 start and just two wins after their first 20 games – zero in regulation. An 8-24-5 record entering the Christmas break and another season lost. A slow start maybe should have been expected with a new head coach and a much different system run by Tocchet, but their struggles were extreme. A first half beset by injury to key pieces including Raanta and Hjalmarsson were also a huge undoing. A season full of hope was quickly dissipated.
Then the second half, a 17-12-3 record after the All-Star break until the end of the season. A record which would save their franchise defenseman who was convinced to sign an 8-year extension after the season. That stretch of good play can be extended back to January 1 on the defensive end. After a return to health for Raanta, he led the entire NHL from January onward with a .942 save percentage and 1.84 goals-against average for goaltenders with at least 20 games and the return to health for Hjalmarsson and sophomore Jakob Chychrun helped lead the defense to the third fewest goals allowed over that same span. For the first time, the vision of Chayka’s rebuild was beginning to see the light.
Overall the Coyotes still struggled to score for the entirety of the season, finishing with just 208 goals (2.54 per game), second fewest in the league. Despite the overall ineptitude, the Coyotes had a couple of individual achievements. Rookie Clayton Keller led the team in goal scoring with 23 and overall points with 65 – the first of any Coyotes player to eclipse the 60-point mark since 39-year old Ray Whitney’s team leading 77 back in the 2011-12 season. Keller finished third in Calder Trophy voting and gave the team a real scoring threat moving forward. Derek Stepan’s first season in the desert was also a success as he recorded 56 points to become the first Arizona centerman to score over 50 points since Matthew Lombardi’s 53 way back in 2009-10. For the first time in years, the Coyotes had a competent first line and something to build on.
The defense used their second half surge to move up to 22nd overall in goals against, allowing 256 (3.12 per game). Oliver Ekman-Larsson was again an offensive force putting up 42 points, marking his fifth consecutive season with at least 39 points. Jason Demers proved to be an excellent top pair partner as the duo were the only two blueliners on the team to finish with positive possession numbers and held outstanding shot differentials relative to teammates.
The only other player to finish above 50% in shot differentials was forward Richard Panik, a midseason trade acquisition in January by Chayka who shipped out Anthony Duclair to the Chicago Blackhawks. Panik showed great chemistry especially alongside Stepan and Keller late in the year.
The season ended with renewed belief that Chayka’s plan was working and to stay the path but not before locking up their starting goaltender, as Raanta signed a three-year contract extension the day before the regular season ended. It was the start of what was bound to be another exciting summer in the desert.
Chayka has always been busy in the summer since taking over as GM and this summer was no different. In May, Jordan Martinook (a -0.7 projected Point Shares player) was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes for Marcus Kruger, who was then flipped later in July to Chicago along with a group of lesser prospects for budding star Vinnie Hinostroza and defenseman Jordan Oesterle. A flat out steal for the Coyotes but also carried the stipulation of taking on the remaining three years of veteran Marian Hossa’s contract.
Hossa officially retired from the NHL in May but still carries a salary cap hit of $5.275 million for three more seasons. Since his contract was heavily front-loaded, the actual salary due is only $1 million for each remaining year and with insurance coverage, the Coyotes are only on the hook for $200,000 per season. And the cap hit actually helps the low-payroll Coyotes reach the cap floor. A beautiful deal by Chayka.
Prior to the Kruger flip, Chayka pulled the strings on another outstanding deal about a week before the Entry Draft sending underperforming winger Max Domi to the Montreal Canadiens in a one-for-one trade for the misused Alex Galchenyuk.
At the draft itself, Arizona held the No.5 overall pick and as per usual, Chayka went off-the-board and selected 18-year old center Barrett Hayton who models his game after strong two-way centers Patrice Bergeron and Jonathan Toews. Hayton is expected to play most of this season in the OHL but could make an NHL impact next season.
The Coyotes had most of their business completed before the July 1 free agent window opened but that did not stop Chayka from adding even more. Speedy goal scorer Michael Grabner had up to ten teams interested in his services but decided on a 3-year, $10.05 million contract with the Coyotes. He should fit in well with their style of play and provide needed secondary scoring.
The Coyotes chose not to re-sign forwards Tobias Rieder, Zac Rinaldo and defenseman Luke Schenn who were all easily replaceable.
It was another A+ summer for Chayka and the roster seems all but set entering training camp as the Coyotes look for a return trip to the playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 season.
Stanley Cup: +15000 (Bookmaker)
Western Conference: +7500 (Bookmaker)
Pacific Division: +4500 (Bovada)
Regular Season Points: 81.5 (-110) (BetOnline), 81.5 (-115, -105) (Bookmaker), 81.5 (-145, +115) (Bovada)
Make Playoffs: YES +400, NO -600 (BetOnline)
Current odds as of September 16, 2018
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
*Individual Player Ratings represent how many points in the standings each player is directly responsible for over the course of the full season and is called Point Shares. It involves the base formula created by Justin Kubatko at hockey-reference.com. An explanation of how I further use his methods can be found here with a more detailed methodology by Kubatko himself, here. The average value for a forward is 3.5 and a defenseman is 4.4 Point Shares
*Salaries in green denote entry-level contract
NHL RANK: 24
Derek Stepan was brought in last year to stabilize the top of the depth chart and that is exactly what he provided, bringing great two-way skills to the middle. His 56 points were the fifth consecutive season between 53-57 points, a remarkable – yet unspectacular – consistency.
Over the course of 597 career games, Stepan has averaged 0.70 points per game without ever topping the 57-point mark, despite remaining incredibly healthy over the years (he has missed just 25 games over eight seasons). He formed instant chemistry with the rookie Keller but rates as a lower-end first line center which a Point Share value of 5.4 (average first line center is projected at 8.1 this year). Stepan will need to find another gear and get over the 60-point hump in order to help the Coyotes take that next step. A career-low 14 goals on just 6.7% shooting suggests that gear might be there.
The biggest acquisition this summer for Arizona was sniper Alex Galchenyuk who will finally be given a chance to play center. One of the first things Galchenyuk asked Chayka in their first phone conversation was if the Coyotes would let him play in the middle, as that is where he loves to play. Galchenyuk was expected to become a top centerman for Montreal but fell out of favor with GM Marc Bergevin and head coach Claude Julien for unapparent reasons, with Bergevin adamantly saying Galchenyuk was not capable of playing center. Yet, when the Canadiens gave him a chance the first go-around, all Galchenyuk did was score 16 goals over his final 22 games of the 2015-16 season, then score 23 points in his first 25 games to begin the 2016-17 season – all under center – before a knee injury knocked him out of action. The Canadiens strangely moved him to the wing where he was still one of Montreal’s most productive players despite being poorly utilized. He will get a chance in Arizona to become the center he is capable of and, personally, think he is in line for a big year.
The addition of Galchenyuk will allow Christian Dvorak to slide down to the third line spot where he should continue to build upon a solid first two seasons. Dvorak scored 15 goals in his rookie campaign on 17.0% shooting so there was concern of a sophomore drop-off. The decline came with just a 9.9% shooting percentage, but he still managed to score 15 goals again thanks to nearly doubling his shots on goal total. Dvorak is one of five players in the forward group 22-years old or younger so there is still room to grow. Dvorak will sit out the beginning of training camp with a minor lower-body injury but is expected to be fine in time for the season opener.
Brad Richardson returned from a broken leg the previous season to play 76 games but saw a drop in production with just three goals and 15 points. He does not provide much in terms of on-ice production, but the assistant captain was signed to a 2-year extension this summer due to his leadership and is one of the few veterans in the locker room.
NHL RANK: 12
The left wing position is the strength of the team this year and it starts with reigning rookie of the year winner, Clayton Keller. After a strong start to the season it looked as if Keller hit the proverbial rookie wall in January and would burn out to end the season, but the game-breaker found a second wind when March began, finishing the season on a tear with 21 points over his final 20 games to give him 65 overall. The sky is the limit for the 20-year old who could hit 50 assists this year with an added weapon like Galchenyuk on the powerplay.
Brendan Perlini is another youngster who took a positive step forward in his sophomore year. Perlini scored 17 goals and saw a significant improvement with his puck possession overall. He is expected to be a big piece in the top-six this year but Tocchet said he could also be given a chance on the right side of the top line.
The Coyotes need more goals this year and free agent signee Michael Grabner should be able to contribute in that department. Grabner has scored 27 goals in each of the last two seasons and while his shot differentials leave a lot to be desired, his goal scoring ability is the main reason for a higher than average rating. He struggled heavily after a midseason trade from the Rangers to New Jersey so there is concern of a carryover there, but he should fit in well with the Coyotes system.
Nick Cousins or Lawson Crouse is expected to get the fourth slot here with Josh Archibald the likely candidate to grab one of the extra forwards slots. Cousins could be the better choice as he had a solid first season with Arizona after coming over from the Philadelphia Flyers, scoring 12 goals in 71 games and had positive shot differentials relative to his teammates. Crouse took a big step back only appearing in 11 games after a 72-game 2016-17 season. Also playing against Crouse is the fact he is waivers-exempt, so he can be freely moved up and down the system.
NHL RANK: 22
Arizona’s right side is the most intriguing of the groups up front, starting with Richard Panik who made headlines for his strong performance to end last season then made more headlines the day after it ended when he was arrested for trespassing after refusing to leave the entrance of a Scottsdale bar. I will not post it here but Google “Richard Panik arrested” if you want to check out the arrest video which was released earlier this month for a nice little chuckle. The Coyotes issued a statement saying they dealt with the incident internally and while the NHL could technically still suspend him, it does not appear there will be any further discipline.
On the ice, Panik finished with 19 points in 35 games after the trade to Arizona and ended the season on a role after being moved to the top line with a productive 11 points over his final 12 games. He also carried over his impressive positive shot differentials from Chicago and led the Coyotes in puck possession numbers. Panik is expected to get first crack at keeping the spot to begin this season but as I mentioned above, Tocchet said Perlini could also get a look here.
Vinnie Hinostroza put up 25 points in 50 games with the Blackhawks last season but struggled down the stretch with just two assists over the final 15 games. His shot differentials were solid on a Hawks team where everyone seemed to have positive differentials, so it will be interesting to see how the third-year player performs outside of that system. Chayka felt he was undervalued in the Hawks organization so he is expected to begin in a great position on the wing of Galchenyuk.
The third spot is a wild card right now. The Coyotes are hoping Dylan Strome will finally make a big push during camp and earn a permanent spot in the top nine. With the Coyotes set at center, it might be tough so Tocchet suggested he might start on the wing. With the lack of natural right-wingers on the roster (only Fischer and Archibald), he could find a home here on the third line.
Strome himself is also hoping to play a full season in Arizona this time around after a better 10-game performance to end last season. Strome saw 11 games of action from the season opener until mid-December but struggled posting just one goal and no assists and was sent to Tucson in the AHL. It was there where Strome found his game and produced 53 points in 50 games, including 22 goals and earned another shot with the big club in March. Strome made good on his second chance with three goals and five assists over those final ten games and looked good with the puck.
If Galchenyuk for some reason struggles in the center role and has to be moved to the wing, Strome and Dvorak are expected to fill out the middle-six center spots. Until a spot down the middle develops though, Strome should find a home on the wing and if Hinostroza struggles early, could find himself in the top-six. It is a difficult situation for Tocchet to find playing time for everyone but Strome has the skill to force the coach’s hand to find a permanent spot for him this year.
Where exactly Strome might start remains to be seen but filling out the final spot on this side will be Christian Fischer. A 33-point rookie season for Fischer displayed his fine offensive skills and while his defensive game might hold him back from a top-six spot right now, Tocchet said he would get a chance to compete with Hinostroza for the second line slot. Hinostroza, Strome and Fischer could slot in any of the three spots but based on Chayka and Tocchet’s comments, this seems like the strongest likelihood as camp gets underway.
One prospect name to keep an eye on will be Nick Merkley who was expected to push for a spot this season but is still recovering from a knee injury which cut his season short in the AHL. He has high offensive upside and should get a look later this season once he is healthy.
This group as a whole has a lot of potential and could overshoot their projected ratings. Contrary, it feels as if this group could also substantially underwhelm with the hot and cold Panik and the unproven Hinostroza and Strome. It is going to be an interesting group to watch.
NHL RANK: 9
Oliver Ekman-Larsson was named captain on Thursday after signing an 8-year max contract extension this summer. He becomes the fourth captain in franchise history and the first since Shane Doan moved on. OEL has always been underrated when discussing the best defensemen in the NHL but he is in the elite category when it comes to driving offense and is responsible in his own end. Only Brent Burns has scored more goals than OEL since the 2014-15 season among all defensemen and his shot differentials are excellent for being on a poor team. His Point Shares value is lower than expected here at just 6.8 but is dragged down due to a terrible 2016-17 season which is partly responsible. He has values of 8.3, 8.8, 9.5 and 6.1 surrounding that miserable season and with a better team around him now, OEL could return to an 8-9 value once again.
Alex Goligoski put up his usual 35 points on offense last year but suffered through some of the worst defensive stats of his career. His shot differentials were well below his usual average and among the worst on the team. There really is not a great explanation as to why this occurred as he never dealt with any major injuries throughout the year. With Hjalmarsson and Chychrun out for large chunks of time due to injuries, it is possible the added responsibility was just too much for him to take on without a reliable partner. A steadier partner this season might be all Goligoski needs to return to form and for the Coyotes sake, they better hope so as the strength of this second pair is going to be a huge key to the team’s success.
Jakob Chychrun missed the start of last season after undergoing surgery for a summer knee injury and did not return until December. He was paired with Goligoski to start but the pair proved ineffective getting demolished in shot differentials and outscored 16-11 during 5-on-5 play as Chychrun struggled to regain his form. He was more effective later when paired with Hjalmarsson as the duo held positive possession numbers and were even in goals-for and against.
An unrelated knee injury knocked him out of the Coyotes final two games of the season and needed offseason surgery. He was cleared to resume skating early in August and was expected to be on track for training camp, until camp came around this week and it was announced he still is not ready. More concerning, Chychrun may not be ready until December again this season if the optimal full nine months for ACL surgery rehab is needed. The beginning of October will only be six months since surgery and although the Coyotes have not officially ruled him out yet to begin the season, it seems likely he will be on the shelf for a while longer.
Newly acquired Jordan Oesterle is expected to be the seventh defenseman this year but could step in on the third pair if Chychrun is not ready to begin the season. Oesterle was an effective defender once given a chance in Chicago last season after struggling for playing time in Edmonton for three years.
Kyle Capobianco is the closest North American Coyote prospect on the blueline to being NHL-ready. His offensive game is already there but he still needs work on the defensive end. He will compete for a spot during camp but was expected to begin the season in Tucson and be among the first names called if injuries occur. With Chychrun already possibly out to begin the season, he may get an early call.
NHL RANK: 23
Jason Demers has usually been a reliable defender over the course of his career and last season was no exception. He paired well with Ekman-Larsson and provided strong stay-at-home defense while OEL did his thing offensively. The pair were a positive possession duo in terms of shot differentials and were only -1 on the scoresheet for the year. While both players put up negative possession numbers when separated, it was OEL who really suffered in goal differential slipping to a -9 while Demers remained at -1, showing how important Demers was with his defensive support.
Over the course of ten seasons spent in Chicago, Niklas Hjalmarsson had become an excellent shutdown defenseman which is what Chayka hoped he was getting when he brought him in last summer. Thanks to upper and lower-body injuries though, Hjalmarsson was limited to just 48 games and was not his usual effective self on either end of the ice, posting his worst puck possession numbers of his career and lowest points per game average since the 2010-11 season. Chayka signed Hjalmarsson to a two-year, $10 million extension this summer so they still believe in his abilities and a return to health should provide instant improvement over last year, but it must be concerning that his offense and puck possession numbers have now steadily declined over each of the last three seasons. Like his partner, Goligoski, the fate of the Coyotes defense could rest on a strong bounce back from Hjalmarsson.
Kevin Connauton scored a career-high 11 goals last season and tied a high with 21 points but is an interesting case when it comes to puck possession. Throughout his career in Dallas, Columbus and now Arizona, Connauton has repeatedly been pummeled on the negative side of shot differentials but has been on the plus side more than he has not relative to his teammates.
Ilya Lyubushkin, Trevor Murphy and Robbie Russo will also make a push during camp. They have the advantage of being right-shot defensemen with the only current natural right-side defender being Demers. If Chychrun is not ready to begin the season, Connauton could switch to the left side and compete with Oesterle for minutes with one of these three earning some extra time on the right. Lyubushkin is maybe the most interesting of the group, a 24-year old defender with size and toughness coming over from the KHL. He can effectively move the puck and if he can quickly adapt to the NHL ice size, could help on the backend.
NHL RANK: 6
(Starter – 5, Backup – T-52)
Antti Raanta posted the best goaltending numbers of any player in the NHL from January to the end of the year, but it was the first half of his season he would like to have a do-over on. Raanta’s first season as a full-time starter did not begin the way he had hoped, and he talked this offseason about the difficulties he encountered moving from a backup to a full-time starter, saying his body was not properly conditioned last summer. He was focused on adding weight and muscle and did not focus on all the smaller pieces of a goaltender’s body which are critical to their movement.
Raanta said his hamstrings immediately tightened when he entered camp last season and injuries developed early. He played a total of 90 minutes over three games in October before being sidelined with a lower-body injury. Another injury in November knocked him out for a few more weeks and after allowing four goals on New Year’s Eve to the Anaheim Ducks, Raanta sat with a 5-11-2 record after just 20 games played. To some surprise, Raanta still posted a .912 save percentage during this time which is only league average and poor for a starter, but still a solid number considering the condition of his body.
With a new game plan this summer for his conditioning geared towards flexibility and core strength, Raanta enters training camp prepared to build on the end of last season’s success and there is nothing to suggest the career .922 save percentage goaltender cannot.
The backup plan will again be Darcy Kuemper who signed a 2-year extension in February after he was acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings. Kuemper posted a .932 save percentage over 19 games in LA going 10-1-3 in the process but those numbers should largely be contributed to the stellar Kings defensive system which year-over-year prop up their goaltender’s numbers. Prior to his time in LA, Kuemper was a below average goalie with a career .910 save percentage over five seasons with the Minnesota Wild, so it was not a complete surprise to see him struggle in ten games with the Coyotes, going 2-6-2 with a .899 save percentage. If he can provide league average numbers and does not have to appear in more than 20-25 games, the Coyotes would surely take that.
The Coyotes have a potent 1-2 punch down the middle for the first time in over 15 years with Stepan and Galchenyuk and that fits Tocchet’s system to a tee with how he wants to play. Tocchet was part of a great championship winning system in Pittsburgh with another strong center combo in Crosby and Malkin. Now, make no mistake, Stepan and Galchenyuk are nowhere near their level and the Coyotes do not have the complimentary pieces surrounding them but driving play down the middle is the key for any effective team in today’s NHL so at least Arizona is starting to build in the right direction.
They also have a power winger, a franchise offensive defenseman and one of the top goaltenders in the league so the pieces are beginning to fall into piece for this team. Further growth this season from young players like Perlini, Hinostroza, Dvorak, Strome and Chychrun will determine exactly how far the Coyotes can climb in the standings this year.
The over looks like a strong bet with Arizona’s regular season point total. My projection of 89.7 is well above the current 81.5 being offered across the board at offshore sportsbooks. The over has taken more bets at Bookmaker especially, with their line climbing to -145 so I am not alone in liking this bet. Arizona recorded just 70 points last season so the Coyotes are poised to be the team with the single highest jump in overall points according to my projections, just above the Buffalo Sabres.
Current Stanley Cup Futures have the Coyotes listed on average from 24th to 28th which makes my projection of 22nd higher than market. It looks like we might be finding value on Arizona to begin the season which could be either really good or really bad if they get off to a slow start.
The only awards candidate I would consider is Antti Raanta for the Vezina who should be a decent price. It is possible he could post strong enough numbers on his own to win this trophy but if the Coyotes manage to exceed expectations and sneak into a playoff spot, he could at least get a nomination which would give you options at the end of the season. Keep an eye open for when this prop bet becomes available.
Salary numbers from capfriendly.com, stats from hockey-reference.com and naturalstattrick.com