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During the team’s final preseason game in Tucson on Saturday, Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong felt something that he hadn’t felt since his days in St. Louis.
“I don’t know if it was just me being excited about going to Tucson, or if it was the fans and the energy in the building, or if it was our players, but I think you feel it a little bit as a team: I think people are excited about being here and what we are building,” he said. “I’d probably say it’s the first year I’ve been here that our entire roster wants to be here. That’s exciting for coaches, too. They want to work with players who are invested in the process of taking this team to the next level.”
Armstrong and coach André Tourigny have been saying it all summer: The Coyotes have moved into the next phase of the rebuild. The goal is no longer to be as bad as possible on the ice. The goal is no longer to hope for a top-two draft pick that has eluded this franchise for its entire Valley existence. Nor is the goal to accumulate bags full of draft assets. The Coyotes already have enough of those over the next three drafts, and they have a deepening pool of prospects from three previous bountiful drafts.
The goal now is to make positive strides on the ice. Armstrong has cautioned against unrealistic expectations, even saying at the team’s media day last month that this is not a playoff team. But the Coyotes want to be playing meaningful games in March and maybe even April. The coaches and players want even more than that.
“One day at a time,” Tourigny said Monday. “Since day one, we made sure we won the day. We’re focused on what we have to do. We’re excited for what’s ahead.”
As the Coyotes’ 2023-24 season begins with a four-game road trip through New Jersey, New York, Long Island and St. Louis, here are 10 questions whose answers could impact the trajectory of this team and franchise.
1. Will Coyotes make arena announcement soon?
Coyotes owner chairman and governor Alex Meruelo hinted at such an announcement in a letter to fans on Tuesday.
We know that the Coyotes have issued a letter of intent for a parcel of land in northwest Mesa. We also know that they have explored locations in east Phoenix, on Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community land, and to a lesser extent, Scottsdale.
We know that Fiesta Mall is not an option despite persistent reports on that site. We know that commissioner Gary Bettman has suggested an announcement could come at the All-Star break in February.
Even if the Coyotes do announce early and concrete plans for an arena — less than a year after the vote for the proposed Tempe Entertainment District failed — will they be able to close the deal? The relocation mongers are at it again and it does feel like the Meruelo Group is down to its last strike before the NHL Board of Governors explores other options, whether that means another local buyer or a change of scenery.
If the Meruelo Group manages to pull this off, it would be the last significant piece — albeit the biggest — in a change of direction for this franchise.
2. What can we expect from Logan Cooley?
Before the Coyotes took on the Los Angeles Kings in the NHL Global Series in Melbourne, Australia, GM Bill Armstrong and coach André Tourigny discussed the importance of managing expectations for Logan Cooley. Then Cooley scored what may end up being the most electric goal of 2023 (shown above).
Armstrong and Tourigny know they can’t do much about fans’ expectations, particularly for an organization that has had so little high-end talent at the center position, but that fact won’t change the way that they approach Cooley’s maiden NHL voyage.
“Some guys come in and they crush it,” Armstrong said. “Some guys creep on it; slowly getting better. Whatever his path might be, as an organization, we have to do the right thing behind the scenes and make sure that we nurture him and get him to grow.”
Chicago Blackhawks forward Connor Bedard is the overwhelming favorite to win the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year, but Cooley carries the second-best odds on the BetMGM sportsbook app and he isn’t shying away from the competition with his more-hyped counterpart.
“I’m super competitive,” he said. “I’ve always had high expectations for myself going to the hockey rink. I want to help this team win as many games as possible. I want to contribute to the team in any way possible, but yeah, I do want to put up big numbers, I do want to compete every night and I want to win the Calder Trophy. The reason I turned pro is because I felt ready to take the next step and I’m confident in my abilities to do those things that I want to accomplish this year.”
3. What will Roadrunners offer?
In the early years of Armstrong’s tenure, Roadrunners GM John Ferguson Jr. promised that there would come a time when the team’s AHL affiliate in Tucson would become the breeding ground for key Coyotes prospects.
After the Coyotes’ final preseason against the Ducks at Tucson Arena, Ferguson said that time has arrived. Tucson will ice a roster that includes 2021 first-round pick Dylan Guenther, 2021 second-round pick Josh Doan, fast-rising 2022 draft pick Maksymilian Szuber, 2019 first-round pick Victor Söderström, 2019 second-round pick Vladislav Kolyachonok, intriguing 2019 draft pick Aku Räty, feel-good story Ben McCartney, guys with something to prove such as Nathan Smith, Jan Jeník, and many more.
As coach Steve Potvin has noted, there are options, there will be internal competition and there will also be competition for precious call-ups to a Coyotes roster that is largely set. The Roadrunners are a southern Arizona hockey option well worth watching.
4. Might we see other contracts extended?
There are four key young Coyotes who can become restricted free agents after this season: defensemen JJ Moser, Juuso Välimäki, Sean Durzi, and center Barrett Hayton.
Armstrong has played the patient game with many RFAs in the past, re-signing Matias Maccelli, Connor Ingram, Jack McBain and Michael Carcone this summer, but he also signed Välimäki to a one-year extension in January, he signed goaltender Karel Vejmelka to a three-year extension in March 2022 (he also signed Liam O’Brien, Travis Boyd and Dysin Mayo around that same time), and he signed Ilya Lyubushkin to an early extension in 2021.
I suspect that the Coyotes will want a full season to evaluate Durzi before deciding on his future. They’ll also want to see if Välimäki and Hayton can build on what they did last season, but it’s worth noting that both have arbitration rights.
If I had to put my money on any of the aforementioned four guys getting extended, it would be Moser. He has impressed the management and coaching staffs since Day 1 in this organization and he is trending toward becoming a legitimate top-pairing defenseman. Moser looks like a piece of the core. There have been no talks, however, and it is worth noting that Moser will have arbitration rights if he plays 10 games this season (a fact that was updated in this story with the new information).
5. Will there be more trade-deadline deals?
The Coyotes have hinted that they will take a different approach this season than in seasons past. They will not be looking to add draft assets. They want to take a positive step forward on the ice.
The Coyotes hope to be playing meaningful games this spring, but what if things don’t go according to plan? What if the team is out of the playoff chase on March 8?
Defenseman Matt Dumba and forward Jason Zucker are both playing on one-year contracts with the very real possibility that neither would be back in 2024-25, no matter what the Coyotes do this season. Would the Coyotes really finish the season with two valuable assets on expiring contracts, or would they do the seemingly logical thing and flip them for assets to further stock the future?
6. Can Clayton Keller build off last season?
When asked this question, Keller expressed confidence.
“For sure,” he said. “I think you’re always looking to be better than you were the previous season.”
If Keller succeeds, he could become the first Coyote in Arizona franchise history to hit the 90-point mark; one season after tying Keith Tkachuk’s single-season points record.
So much of Keller’s success will depend on the players around him. Can linemates Nick Schmaltz and Hayton elevate their games and stay healthy? Can Cooley, Zucker and Alex Kerfoot take some of defensive attention away from Keller’s line by producing? Can Keller produce more points on the power play, where he has never recorded more than 20 points; a total he reached last season that ranked 80th in the NHL?
If Keller can take another step, he will put his name among the biggest names in this franchise’s history.
7. Can Nick Schmaltz play a full season?
As noted above, Schmaltz has been limited by injuries the past two seasons. Had he been healthy, it’s fair to wonder if he could have eclipsed the 80-point barrier alongside Keller, given his production levels. Schmaltz has 117 points in 126 games over the past two seasons.
The Coyotes believe that more strength will help Schmaltz stay healthy and withstand the rigors of the 82-game schedule. Schmaltz has always had a slighter build, but with the use of resistance and other forms of strength training this summer that still maintained flexibility, they hope to unlock his full potential.
There is no questioning Schmaltz’s skill level and you will find very few NHL players who generate speed with the puck through the neutral zone like he does. He has already built undeniable chemistry with Keller over the past two seasons. If Hayton takes another step forward, this line could be even more deadly than last season when it was one of the NHL’s 10 most productive lines.
8. How will goaltending platoon proceed?
It was hard to ignore how well Connor Ingram played once he got his feet under him last season. It was hard to ignore how good Ingram looked in the preseason, too. The Coyotes have not named a starter for the season opener in New Jersey, but even if Vejmelka holds onto his throne as the No. 1 guy, the competition for the net this season will be real and the split in games could be closer to even.
Ingram impressed the Coyotes so much that they signed him to a three-year extension this summer that will pay him an average annual value of $1.95 million. That extension puts Ingram under contract one year longer than Vejmelka ($2.725 million AAV).
Goalie coach Corey Schwab has noted the friendship that the two have forged, but that won’t stop them from competing for playing time. If they do in fact push each other to greater heights, that could help the Coyotes surprise other teams and confound preseason predictions with another overachieving performance.
9. How will new Coyotes fit?
Each newcomer has his own on-ice role.
Jason Zucker is here to shepherd Logan Cooley to NHL adulthood and protect his offensive forays and mistakes.
Matt Dumba is here to help the Coyotes defensive corps defend better than it has, and to add that head-on-a-swivel concern for opponents due to his big-hit ability.
Alex Kerfoot is here to provide versatility and two-way play up and down the lineup.
Sean Durzi is here to give the Coyotes mediocre power play a boost (with the help of new assistant coach and former Capitals power play guru Blaine Forsythe).
The one thing they all have in common is a trait that Armstrong has been able to mine as well as any GM in recent memory: character. Former teammates rave about all of them. So do former coaches and even media members. The feel-good Coyotes dressing room of 2022-23 could be even better in 2023-24.
10. Can Coyotes push for playoffs?
Arizona has become a trendy pick in some corners to qualify for the postseason for just the second time since 2012. It’s a lofty goal.
The Coyotes finished with 70 points last season. The playoff cutoff in the Western Conference last season was 95 points. It was 97 the previous season. That’s an enormous leap to expect from any team, let alone one that still has a significant amount of building to do.
Here’s a look at the top-10 turnaround seasons in NHL history, courtesy of NHL Stats. It should be noted that in Dave Tippett’s first season as coach (2009-10), the Coyotes improved by 28 points over the previous season, amassing an Arizona franchise record 107 points. That is also the largest single-season turnaround in Arizona franchise history when comparing full seasons.
One other note. If the Coyotes do make the playoffs, Mullett Arena will likely be the site, capacity restrictions notwithstanding.
“While we haven’t discussed it, I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t play in Mullett,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said.
Top photo via Getty Images
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