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Stanley Cup winning teams look for a way to sustain the previous season’s fire. Playoff teams look for a way to get over the hump in their quest for a championship. Non-playoff teams hope to take the next step in their evolution toward contention.
The Coyotes goals for the 2022-23 season are a bit more esoteric. As a team, they’ll be spinning their wheels for another year of the rebuild in hopes of acquiring more assets through trades and the 2023 NHL Draft. If you’re looking for signs of progress, you’ll have to dive a little deeper.
You’ll have to look at individuals such as Barrett Hayton, Clayton Keller, Lawson Crouse, Nick Schmaltz, Christian Fischer, JJ Moser, Karel Vejmelka and others. You’ll have to look at the culture that coach André Tourigny is trying to instill. You’ll have to look at the absorption of systems such as assistant coach John Madden’s aggressive PK and the subtle differences in the offensive zone.
“I think we’re ahead of where we were last year in terms of structure, in terms of understanding what we’re trying to do in our structure,” Tourigny said. “We have a roster of 23 players with us, but still, we have injured guys, and guys in Tucson that we believe can contribute at the NHL level.
“That’s a really good thing for us. Compared to one year ago where we were, and where we are now, I think we’re heading in the right direction.”
The biggest drivers of that direction will come later with an expected vote on the proposed arena in Tempe and a talent-rich 2023 Draft, but as the Coyotes open the regular season in Pittsburgh on Thursday, here are 10 questions to ponder.
1. How will the Coyotes manage a schedule in which 20 of their first 24 games are on the road?
The Coyotes have known for some time that their team areas at Mullett Arena would not be ready until December. That’s why the NHL laid out the schedule the way it did.
Arizona opens the season with a six-game road trip through Pittsburgh, Boston, Toronto, Montréal, Ottawa and Columbus. The Coyotes come home for four games against Winnipeg, the New York Rangers, Florida and Dallas, and then they head out on a 14-game road trip.
Fortunately for Arizona’s staff, most of whom have families waiting at home, they will come home twice during that lengthy second trip. They’ll come home for a couple days after five games of the trip before flying to Vegas for a game on Nov. 17. They’ll come home after Vegas before embarking on another four-game trip. They’ll come home from Minnesota and spend two more days at home before starting a five-game trip in Los Angeles.
The handful of days at home will help, but they are not adequate from a personal standpoint, and all of that travel will wreak havoc on players’ bodies and sleep habits. It will be a major challenge for the training staff and coaching staff to keep the players well rested with so much travel, and well conditioned when practice time will be minimal.
If you’re looking for the biggest reason why the Coyotes could finish at the bottom of the NHL standings this season, look no further than this one. The New York Islanders proved last season just how difficult such a start can be on a team when they played their first 13 games on the road while UBS Arena was being completed. New York was in the conference finals in 2020-21. Last season, they missed the playoffs by 16 points.
The road-heavy schedule will take its toll and it will likely linger into the home-heavy portion of the schedule later in the season, just as it did for the Islanders. Travel is tiring and the Coyotes have a travel schedule like none the NHL has ever seen.
2. How will visiting teams react to Mullett Arena?
There has been a lot of chatter about the Coyotes playing at ASU’s 5,001-seat Mullett Arena. Some players and coaches are excited about the experience that such a unique venue will provide. Plenty of national media and NHL fans have criticized the league and team for allowing it to happen. What we don’t know yet is how visiting teams will react once they have to play there.
The first four teams to visit Mullett — Winnipeg, the New York Rangers, Florida and Dallas — won’t even have the luxury of using the visiting team spaces that will be completed in December in the annex. Those teams are likely to have to dress and get treatment in a makeshift area on the community ice rink floor, which will be closed off on game days. That experience may not sit well with teams, but even when the visiting teams move into the annex, they’ll still have to walk outside to get to the ice surface, and past a concession stand which may have a barrier to keep fans from the players.
There shouldn’t be any issues with the ice itself, but with the NHLPA keeping a watchful eye, and national media doing the same, there could be some hiccups along the way. It’s also fair to wonder what reactions will be once the uniqueness of the venue wears off in Year 2 or 3 at Mullett. To be clear, this is a terrific college arena. It’s just not what NHL executives, coaches, players, fans and media are accustomed to, and there will no doubt be complaints along the way.
3. Will Jakob Chychrun become a distraction?
It’s a fair question. As Chychrun pointed out in that much-watched media-day segment above, it was the Coyotes who approached him first to gauge his feelings about sticking around during a rebuild. Once Chychrun’s camp thought about it, he decided he wanted to move on; a point that he made clear on break-up day after last season, and a point that he underscored in those viral media-day comments.
For a while now, it has felt like Chychrun has checked out on the Coyotes after they expressed a willingness to move on from him. He did not accompany them on their season-opening, six-game road trip and there is no timetable on his return as he rehabs a wrist injury that required a second surgery this offseason.
If you are making a list, in Chychrun’s six-year NHL career, he has had surgery on both knees, he had shoulder ligament surgery, he had ankle surgery to remove a bone spur, he has had two wrist surgeries and he has suffered at least one concussion. That’s a lot of injury history for GMs to ponder. It’s fair to wonder if he’ll need to play games before another GM is willing to pull the trigger on a trade for him. He may have to show other teams that he can still play at a high level after last season’s disappointing effort.
The plus side is that Chychrun is under team control for three more seasons at a reasonable $4.6-million cap hit that slots him perfectly into a team’s second defense pair. That makes a deal more palatable, but if Chychrun does have to play games again with the Coyotes, how will his teammates receive him? Will they understand that this is just business and Chychrun is doing what is best for him? Will they understand that not all players want to be a part of a rebuild? Or will they resent his absence and his “I want to win” comments? Every player wants to win, but let’s be honest, Chychrun didn’t do a lot to help the Coyotes win last season in what was arguably his worst season as a pro when he was used in a different way than he had been used previously.
It’s hard to see a path where Chychrun plays out his three years with the Coyotes after all that has transpired, but it’s also hard to see a path where he gets moved soon. Despite some chatter north of the border, a trade has never really been close because there is still a wide gap between the ask and the offers. For a franchise that peddles unusual storylines, this one is near the top of the list.
4. Can Clayton Keller build off last season?
Keller set a career-high in goals last season with 28 in 67 games. Had he not sustained a broken femur late in the season, he would have established a career high in points (he was on pace for 77), but he still finished with 63; two points off his career high.
An offseason training regimen that helped him shed seven pounds was the catalyst, but opportunity also provided Keller with the means to flourish. He logged a career-high 20:08 of average ice time, he played on the power play, the penalty kill and late in games when protecting leads. He also showed a greater attention to defensive detail than he had in the past while Tourigny asked him to shoulder more leadership responsibilities.
There are other areas of Keller’s game that can continue to evolve, but in an unstated quest to become something close to a point-per-game player over a full season (he had never missed a game before last season), Keller said he worked on two things this summer: better performance on the power play and his shot.
Of Keller’s 63 points in 67 games last season, only 11 (five goals) came on the power play. That is definitely an area that could help him increase his production, and he will have his opportunities this season on the top unit.
Only one player in Coyotes franchise history has topped the 80-point plateau — Keith Tkachuk had 86 in the team’s first season in Arizona in 1996-97 — and only eight times has a Coyote topped 70 points.
Tourigny has cautioned that Keller will face a lot more attention from opposing teams this season after his breakout year. The Coyotes don’t have a lot of scoring options for other teams to worry about so Keller will regularly face tough matchups. The path to improvement won’t be easy, but Keller is brimming with confidence and he is fully recovered from his injury. He has a chance to do something special in the context of Coyotes history.
5. Is Nick Schmaltz realizing his potential?
It’s hard to get the memory of Nick Schmaltz’s franchise-record, seven-point game out of your head when you discuss him. Schmaltz had a slow start last season while he was dealing with a hand injury. Once he came back from that and got his bearings, however, he ripped it up at a dizzying pace, registering 53 points (22 goals) over his final 49 games. He finished with 23 goals and 59 points in 63 games; the best offensive output of his career despite missing 19 games.
Like Keller, Schmaltz will surely face tougher matchups this season, but it is important to remember that he and Keller played a large chunk of the season with Travis Boyd as their center. Boyd had a breakthrough year with career numbers of his own, but nobody around the league is mistaking him for a true No. 1 or even a top-six center. Keller and Schmaltz were that good last year.
Schmaltz has always tantalized with his skill, specifically his ability to exploit defenses in transition because of his speed and puck handling ability through the neutral zone. At age 26, is he finalizing his full potential and making another one of former GM John Chayka’s questionable contracts look more sensible?
There’s no way of knowing if Schmaltz and Keller will sustain this level of play over the next few years, or even this year, but if they can to a large degree, it’s intriguing to imagine a more skilled center, added via the draft, to play between them.
6. Will goaltending give the Coyotes a chance?
Karel Vejmelka stole some games last season with elite play. He had 22 quality starts per Hockey Reference. That was an encouraging sign for a goaltender who had never played in the NHL before.
Overall, however, Vejmelka’s numbers were not good. He finished with a 3.68 goals against average (92nd in the NHL among 119 goalies who played), a .898 save percentage (tied for 72nd) and a minus-14.77 goals saved above average (66th). Per Hockey Reference’s Rob Vollman, he had 14 really bad starts (a save percentage below. 850), which was the most in the NHL.
Part of that can be attributed to playing behind a struggling team. Part of that can be attributed to playing too much (52 games). Until the Coyotes claimed Scott Wedgewood off waivers, Vejmelka was overworked, but when Wedgewood was here, Tourigny found a better balance.
There are two concerns therein. First, the Coyotes don’t know if they’ll have that balance again with newly claimed Connor Ingram, who was a terrific goaltender in the AHL, but has little to no body of work in the NHL. Second, Vejmelka is no mystery to the NHL now. Scouting reports will have dissected his game by the start of this season, highlighting weaknesses. He’ll have to adjust to those adjustments if he wants to take another step forward, but it will help if he isn’t overworked like he was last year when the Coyotes were still trying to find out what they had and what he could handle.
7. Will the Tempe arena be approved?
Both Tempe Mayor Corey Woods and council member Randy Keating told PHNX Sports that they would like to have a resolution on the Coyotes’ proposed arena and entertainment district before the holidays. City staff has already presented its findings and analysis of the proposal, the council has met a handful of times to discuss various aspects of that potential deal, and the city will host a series of public meetings over the next several weeks to solicit citizen input.
The timeline for this process still appears to be on track and it is no secret that the city council likes the Coyotes deal; especially because of the funding mechanisms and the opportunity for development along an underutilized corridor. All signs point toward approval of the deal by the council.
It’s what happens after that is still a mystery for the team and the league. Sky Harbor International Airport and the City of Phoenix have been active opponents of the proposal. They say that residences along the corridor are forbidden by the intergovernmental agreement that both sides signed in 1994 and they say that residences will create an unsafe flight path — both assertions that Coyotes attorney Nick Wood dismantled in a public meeting in June. They have been sending out fliers to nearby neighborhoods, offering all sorts of doomsday scenarios as scare tactics, which led to an angry response from Woods.
Even if the airport has no legal leg to stand on, the threat of a lawsuit could delay this process and keep the Coyotes in arena limbo longer than their three years (with an option for a fourth) at Mullett Arena currently allow. Further delays would only subject the league to more criticism as it holds fast to the idea of a franchise in Arizona.
There are other potential hurdles as well. The EPA must oversee cleanup and approval of the dump site. Citizens groups could file their own lawsuits regarding the development, and maybe the Goldwater Institute, long silent on this issue, could come calling as well.
At the very least, we should have clarity from the council within the next two months.
8. Which players will be moved at the trade deadline?
The three main players to watch are defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, forward Nick Ritchie and forward Nick Bjugstad. If Gostisbehere has another season like last season when he put up 51 points, he could fetch a good asset at the deadline (we’ll wait to see what the market looks like as we get closer). If he exceeds last season, maybe we’re even talking about a premium asset.
Nick Ritchie had 10 goals in 24 games once he came over in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Ritchie found a comfort zone with coach André Tourigny and got back to basics by going to the net. If the 2014 first-round pick (No. 10 overall) has found his scoring touch, a lot of teams will be looking for his style of player: A big, physical wing who goes to the hard area and scores goals around the net.
Bjugstad won’t fetch a high-end prospect, but if he can take advantage of the opportunity that he has been granted to play in a top-six role, he could get traded to a playoff team and the Coyotes could land a mid-round pick or a mid-level prospect.
The other key player to watch is Chychrun. If he isn’t dealt earlier, the deadline could provide some urgency for GMs looking for help during the playoff push.
9. Can the Tucson Roadrunners start building a winning culture that feeds the Coyotes?
Given the players that are likely to be there this season, yes. It was slightly surprising that the Coyote chose to cut veteran Alex Chiasson, who was on a PTO, and keep Matias Maccelli, who could use a little more refinement to his game. That said, Maccelli impressed during camp and the preseason and the Coyotes needed a little more scoring punch on their second line.
UPDATE: The Coyotes reassigned Maccelli to Tucson on Wednesday evening, but it was a paper move intended to give the team flexibility. He is not going to Tucson right now. Maccelli joined the team on its flight to Pittsburgh.
With or without him, Tucson will still be bolstered up front by the return of Jan Jeník, Michael Carcone, the additions of Nathan Smith, Jean-Sébastien Dea, Miloš Kelemen, Laurent Dauphin, and the eventual return to health of Ben McCartney. The Roadrunners will also boast a more veteran defensive corps with the addition of Ronald Knot and Lukáš Klok, a pair of European transfers who can bring the type of stability on the back end that most successful AHL teams have.
Coach Steve Potvin’s best-laid plans could be derailed if the Coyotes need to recall players due to injuries, as they did with regularity last season, but the Roadrunners should be better this season. The seasons to watch, however, are probably the following two seasons when some of the Coyotes’ high-end prospects become AHL eligible and start filtering through Tucson.
“I think it’s going to be a dramatic impact and I think your timeline is safe,” Roadrunners GM John Ferguson said. “You’re looking at drafting 17- and 18-year-olds. Outside of those that might be in Europe or the U.S. national team development program, if they’re drafted out of the Canadian junior leagues, they need to go back so typically they won’t be in Tucson for at least two years unless they’re a late birthdate or some of the outliers who skip a step.
“Two to three years is a fair horizon and it really is an exciting thing to be a part of. We see the challenge, but the opportunity is great and it’s an integral part of what we’re trying to do, what we’re trying to build and what we will build.”
10. Where will the Coyotes finish in the standings?
The NHL season always produces surprises. Although goaltender Carey Price missed most of the season, defenseman Shea Weber missed all of it and players such as Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Phillip Danault were gone, nobody expected the Canadiens to fall from Cup finalist to the worst overall record in one season. Barring that sort of surprise, the top two contenders for the league’s worst record are the Coyotes and the Chicago Blackhawks, who jettisoned a ton of players in the offseason and will likely trade star Patrick Kane at some point this season.
Beyond that, the teams most likely to be in the mix for the worst record and the best odds to land Connor Bedard are San Jose and Seattle in the Western Conference, and Philadelphia and Montréal in the Eastern Conference.
The Coyotes have never won an NHL Draft Lottery and they have never picked in the top two, but this is the rare year where picking No. 3 overall might be OK. Beyond Bedard, most draft analysts believe that the next two players available in this draft — Michigan center Adam Fantilli and Russian wing Matvei Michkov — are better than any player taken in the 2022 draft.
Top photo via Getty Images
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