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With all of the roster challenges that the Coyotes are facing during this rebuild, the only real wish from the management staff is that the team remains competitive and continues to instill coach André Tourigny’s culture.
“We have to keep moving forward,” GM Bill Armstrong said.
The Coyotes accomplished the competitive part in their first three games in Tempe. They lost to Winnipeg in overtime, they lost a one-goal game to the New York Rangers on a late Mika Zibanejad power-play goal, and they beat the Florida Panthers.
Unfortunately for the Coyotes, they couldn’t close out the homestand with the same sort of effort against the Dallas Stars. Denis Gurianov scored 1:27 into the game, the Coyotes were a hot mess in their own zone and the Stars scored four first-period goals to chase goalie Connor Ingram and rout the Coyotes, 7-2 on Thursday, ending any Mullett Arena magic that may have been brewing.
“It’s really frustrating and very disappointing,” coach André Tourigny said. “We had a chance to have an above-.500 record at home and apparently we had no interest in it.”
When the Coyotes return to Mullett Arena for their next game on Dec. 9 against the Boston Bruins, we’ll have a much better sense of the team’s progress, and we’ll know whether Dylan Guenther has earned a roster spot after playing his ninth NHL game on Thursday.
In the meantime, here are five takeaways from Thursday.
Välimäki relishing opportunity with Coyotes
The waiver wire is a fascinating tool for Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong. With the team in rebuild mode, its payroll near the cap floor and the Coyotes near the head of the waiver claims line, Armstrong can take a flier on a player whenever one offers intrigue.
That was the case with defenseman Juuso Välimäki. The Flames’ 2017 first-round pick (16th overall) wasn’t able to cement a place in Calgary’s lineup. Part of that may be due to the fact that defensemen often mature at a slower rate (Välimäki just turned 24 last month), part of it was likely due to COVID-19’s impact on player development, and part of it was certainly due to the torn, right ACL that he suffered during a training session in August 2019 that required surgery and caused him to miss the entire 2019-20 season.
The part that gets mentioned less? His relationship with Flames coach Darryl Sutter, or rather the lack of a relationship. Calgary can afford to be picky about who plays on its deep blue line, but it bears mentioning that not a single defenseman on Calgary’s roster is younger than 26. Sutter likes his veterans and Välimäki never had a real chance to crack that lineup.
The Coyotes are on the other end of the spectrum, offering Välimäki a fresh start and a chance to play top-pair minutes alongside JJ Moser. He is averaging 17:18 of ice time and even logging a little bit of power play time.
“The opportunity part is all you can ask for and that’s the thing that I’ve been missing in the last couple of years,” said Välimäki, who scored his first goal as a Coyote on Thursday. “It gives you confidence. If you don’t have confidence in yourself, you can’t do anything. If you have it, you’re a completely different player. I’m able to make plays again and be strong on pucks, not be afraid to lose it or to make a mistake. I can skate with it. I haven’t been this happy playing hockey in a long time.”
Välimäki is also grateful for coach André Tourigny’s open-door policy.
“I like the honesty, I like the accountability part of it, but I also like the fact that he demands a lot from his players, but it’s based on work,” Välimäki said of Tourigny. “He doesn’t expect everyone to be perfect all the time. That’s not how it works. He understands we’re all human, but as long as you do the work, you’re trying to do the right thing and you’re competing, you’ll have a chance.
“I also like the communication part, where you can actually have conversations with him; he’ll talk to you all the time. He’ll tell you how he feels and if there’s something individually with each player, he’ll come and talk to you and he’ll do it in a way where he’s trying to get the most out of you. It can be a quiet, sit-down talk, or it could be a funny, laughing talk. He knows how to treat people and I really like that.”
One knock on Välimäki is his skating. Scouts have noted that it can look choppy at times. Armstrong thinks that Välimäki actually skates better with the puck than without it, but the Coyotes will continue to work with him on his stride, whether it’s defending the rush or in other areas.
This is one of the luxuries of a rebuild. Waiver claims often do not work out, but sometimes they do and the cost is nothing more than the salary that a team inherits. Sometimes, as was the case with Scott Wedgewood, you can parlay that claim into a decent draft pick. Other times, you just might find a player who can help the team long term.
Coyotes prepping for a 14-game trip
As noted above, GM Bill Armstrong wants the Coyotes to keep moving forward. A judgment on that goal will come later, but there is no arguing that the Coyotes are going to be doing a lot of movement over the next five weeks. The team departs Friday for a five-game Eastern road trip against the Capitals, Sabres, Islanders, Devils and Rangers. That segment kicks off 14 straight games on the road. That is tied for the longest road trip in NHL history, per NHL Stats.
Fortunately for the Coyotes, they won’t be staying on the road for all five weeks. The trip will be broken into four segments, with three stops at home.
- The Coyotes will come home from New York on Nov. 13 after this five-game segment.
- They will come home again after a Nov. 17 game in Vegas.
- They will come again after the four-game segment (with games against the Predators, Hurricanes, Red Wings and Wild) that ends on Nov. 27 in Minnesota, before departing on Nov. 30 for a four-game segment of games against the Kings, Canucks, Flames and Oilers.
Those stops back home will afford the players, coaches and staff a chance to reacquaint themselves with their families and friends, get their dry cleaning done and run errands. It will also allow them to pack as they normally would for shorter trips.
On the flip side, there is a fair amount of mental and physical preparation required for a team that won’t play on home ice for five weeks. The experience took its toll on the Islanders, who played their first 13 games on the road last season while UBS Arena was being built. The Islanders were still feeling the effects of that travel after they moved into their new building, and it played a role in them missing the playoffs after advancing to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final the year before.
Coyotes coach André Tourigny always preaches controlling what he can control. He has a meticulous plan for this lengthy road trip, but he wasn’t in a mood to discuss it after Thursday’s disappointing performance.
“We need to address tonight’s game and then we’ll all figure it out the rest of the trip,” he said. “There’s no need for us to look at what will happen in however many days. We need to take care of today. I don’t give a damn what will happen a month from now.”
Visitors offer thoughts on Mullett Arena experience
With all of the recent chatter about Mullett Arena’s undeniable drawbacks as an NHL venue, it occurred to me that I probably should rely less on media opinions and more on executives’, players’ and coaches’ opinions. They are the ones whose opinions clearly matter.
With the league paying such close attention to the narrative, it was fair to wonder if any would offer their honest thoughts instead of saying what the league wanted them to say so I reached out to half a dozen of them with the promise of anonymity.
Here are some takes after the first four-game segment at Mullett ended, taking with it those oft discussed and temporary visiting team spaces.
Overall: “Love the location and the ice. Locker room is a big area but a bit different, but it’s 100 times better than Glendale already, just with the whole set up and location.”
On the visiting dressing rooms: “That space is a joke. No team should have to deal with that.”
Overall: “I thought everything during the game was good. The atmosphere is so much better than Glendale. The location is the best part and I was really impressed with the fan involvement.”
On the visiting dressing rooms: “We didn’t get one complaint from our players about the dressing room and I’m glad a bunch of players stepped up publicly and commented about the ice because they didn’t have to do that. The ice is great.”
Overall: “For teams that come once a year it’s a novelty. Teams that have to go four or five times a year may get a little more frustrated. I think everyone will be a little more comfortable when there is some steel in the ground down the road and you know it’s truly temporary, but until that happens some people may get frustrated.”
On the visiting dressing rooms: “It’s not bad; a little cold.”
Overall: “It wasn’t awful. I just think the whole picture of it is more of the issue. Not having it sold out that small just hurts the scene, and the whole size and situation hurts the image. The temporary room wasn’t ideal but it wasn’t horrible, just cold. The rink itself was fine once the game started, the music was loud and the fans seemed into it. I think it’s more about what the team has dealt with the last few years that causes more of an image issue than what would be ideal.”
Scott Wedgewood’s return
Leah Merrall, Steve Peters and I had the chance to catch up with former Coyotes goalie and current Dallas Stars goalie Scott Wedgewood on the PHNX Coyotes podcast on Wednesday. It’s a fun segment so give it a listen.
On Thursday, Wedgewood made 28 saves in the Stars’ win.
It was quite a summer for Wedgewood. In June, he signed a two-year, $2 million contract with the Dallas Stars, giving him the stability that he has craved for so long in his pro career.
In July, he and his wife Brittany finally held a wedding ceremony for their family and friends on Ontario, after tying the knot two years earlier, only to have COVID-19 cancel the celebration.
Wedgewood will always hold a special place in Coyotes history.
Conversely, Arizona will always hold a special place in Wedgewood’s heart. It led to this opportunity with Dallas.
“That waiver-wire claim was another lifeline, per se, for me,” he said of the Coyotes waiver claim exactly one year ago. “It was an opportunity to come in and play, and I played well. I honestly relished in the chance of every night, I had to show up for the team to have a chance of winning.
“The games I played against Dallas were pretty much what they said to me when they got me, ‘We couldn’t beat you so why not get you?’ [The Coyotes] opened the door… I played well and opened up some eyes around the league, earned a spot on another team and earned myself a contract when I got to Dallas.”
Orange is the new black
The Coyotes unveiled their latest reverse retro jerseys in Thursday’s game and they were… electric. Electric, orange, that is. Or to be exact, desert sienna.
While some fans had wondered whether the Coyotes were trying to mimic Arizona State’s color palette, that was never the intent. To be blunt, these are not ASU’s colors and all of the colors in that jersey have been in the Coyotes’ palette for years.
Anyway, the jerseys really popped on the ice. I thought they were cool. One thing the Coyotes always seem to nail is their uniforms. The only gripe I had was one that nobody could solve (or would want to), based on NHL rules. I wanted to see the Stars wear their bright green uniforms instead of their road whites, just so I could see the color explosion of orange and green streaking back and forth across the ice like some psychedelic Irish trip.
I’m sure that was just a me thing.
Top photo: Stars forward Wyatt Johnston scores on Coyotes goalie Connor Ingram during the first period on Thursday. (Getty Images)
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