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Coyotes at the quarter mark: eight observations (good, bad, injuries)

Craig Morgan Avatar
November 26, 2023
Injuries have been a major challenge for the Coyotes.

When the Coyotes’ preseason began a full two months ago in Melbourne, Australia, there was optimism. While GM Bill Armstrong cautioned at media day that this was not yet a playoff team, he felt that Arizona could at least play meaningful games in March and grow from that experience. 

The Coyotes were aggressive in free agency, adding forwards Jason Zucker, Alex Kerfoot, Nick Bjugstad and defensemen Matt Dumba and Troy Stecher. Armstrong showed a willingness to part with draft assets by trading a 2024 second-round pick to the Los Angeles Kings for defenseman Sean Durzi. Those moves, coupled with the maturation of the team’s core players — Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz, Lawson Crouse, Barrett Hayton, Matias Maccelli, JJ Moser — and the addition of top prospect Logan Cooley signaled that the Coyotes had moved into phase two of their rebuild.

Despite that aforementioned trip to Australia, despite an entire preseason played on the road, and despite a season-opening four game road trip that began on the East Coast, the Coyotes went 8-6-2 and sat in a wild card spot on Nov. 17; six days before the infamous Thanksgiving cutoff.

Unfortunately for Arizona, a rash of injuries just before, and during a season-long, 11-day, five-game road trip exposed some of the team’s greatest flaws: an inconsistent ability to defend and a lack of depth at the critical center and defense positions.

Just when it looked like the team was heading into a tailspin, however, they produced a stunning 2-0 win in Las Vegas over the defending Stanley Cup champion Golden Knights on Saturday.

Arizona hit the 20-game mark of the NHL season — roughly the quarter mark — at 9-9-2. By virtue of that win, they sat one point behind the Seattle Kraken for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot with two games in hand. It’s a marked improvement over André Tourigny’s first two seasons as coach. Arizona was 7-10-3 at this point last season; 4-14-2 in 2021-22.

Despite the impact of the injuries, and despite his team’s resiliency, Tourigny has higher aspirations.

“A lot of people get their evaluation out of results. I don’t,” he said. “I know we have room to be better. I know we got caught up in some hype around the team that affected our performance. Performance is not results. It’s the way you play, the way you manage the puck, the way you manage your game.

“Since the beginning of the season, a lot of people have talked about our start in a positive way. For me, there’s a lot of growth; there’s a lot of things [in which] we need to be better. There’s a lot of things under our control [where] we can be better. That doesn’t guarantee better results. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying we can be better as a team; perform better than [what you’ve seen].”

The results won’t get any easier to achieve with a brutal upcoming schedule that includes the Tampa Bay Lightning, Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals, but in the next couple of weeks, the Coyotes should at least welcome back a couple of their injured players (Travis Dermott and Jack McBain).

Here are eight observations as the Coyotes hit the quarter mark of the NHL season.

Sean Durzi leads the Coyotes defensive corps in goals (five) and points (12). (Getty Images)

Durzi better than anticipated

There is a cynical narrative that exists among some NHL personnel that Armstrong is too in love with draft picks to cash them in for existing players that make the team better. Sean Durzi is proof that such a narrative is flawed.

While his details away from the puck and his decisiveness still have room for growth, Durzi has exceeded outsider’s expectations through the first quarter of the season.

Durzi, 25, entered play on Saturday tied for third among NHL defensemen in goals (five) and tied for 23rd in points (12). He has helped the power play become one of the NHL’s top 10 units and he looks every bit the core piece that Armstrong envisioned when he acquired him.

“He’s exactly what we thought we were getting,” Armstrong said. “We did a lot of homework on him. I knew him from my scouting days so I was pretty excited about what he could add. I felt like we were missing Ghost (Shayne Gostisbehere) from last year so we could put him in that slot and he could help out that first [power play] unit. He could give that first unit somebody that could shoot the puck and also make plays. We’re pretty excited about having him.”

Matias Maccelli leads the Coyotes with 13 assists. (Getty Images)

Maccelli is magic 🤌🏼

It is almost criminal that Edmonton Oilers goalie Stuart Skinner finished ahead of Maccelli (and Sabres defenseman Owen Power) in 2023 Calder Trophy voting. It highlights how few voters do their due diligence when voting, and it highlights how little attention players in Arizona garner nationally.

Pay any attention at all to Matias Maccelli and you will notice one thing immediately. His passing ability is sublime. His vision, combined with his skill and timing make him, at present, the best set-up man on the team, as reflected in his team-leading assist total.

But Maccelli has been more than a passer this season. While he still needs to shoot more, he has become a more complete player, and he has teamed with Lawson Crouse and Nick Bjugstad to form what Tourigny has termed the Coyotes’ best line.

You could make a strong argument that Maccelli has been the team MVP this season, but he has some stiff competition from the guy below.

Coyotes forward Lawson Crouse is on pace for 42 goals. (Getty Images)

Crouse is crushing it

When the 2022-23 season began, and fresh off a career-high 20-goal performance last season, Crouse set a public aspiration of 30 goals. He finished with 24 while also racking up a career-high 45 points, but he remained undeterred.

This preseason, he set the same 30-goal bar for himself. He is on pace to crush it. After a snakebitten October in which he had countless chances but could not finish, Crouse has 10 goals in 12 November games which was tied with Nashville’s Filip Forsberg for the league lead.

He also plays a critical role in the Coyotes leadership group, as Tourigny highlighted in the first edition of Bear Necessities.

I’ll have more on Crouse’s torrid start this week, but suffice to say that marriage, a new contract and a new house look good on him. And of course, Butter helps.

“We moved into our new house October 29th and he’s been on fire since,” his wife, Claire, texted. “I joke with him that he’s worried about paying it off. In all honesty, he’s very happy, very relaxed and grateful to be settled in here. It’s a nice feeling.”

The Coyotes have continued their game-by-game rotation of goalies Karel Vejmelka (left) and Connor Ingram. (Getty Images)

puzzling Goaltending rotation

Only six teams since 2000 have rotated their goalies on a game-by-game basis longer than the Coyotes have this season. Tourigny said at the start of the season that he views Karel Vejmelka and Connor Ingram as equals in ability, and he doubled down on the team’s approach on Nov. 20.

From the external view, however, the approach doesn’t pass the eye test. Ingram has put up better numbers, he has won more games and as numerous ex-NHL players have noted, Coyotes players are definitely aware of those facts when they play in front of the respective goalies.

“In this situation, it’s interesting because you can make the argument that one goalie, just by how he plays, creates more confidence for the team,” said former New York Ranger Mike Richter, who was a part of the tandem that set the NHL record (76 games) for rotating goalies on a game-by-game basis. “The cause and effect is reversed. It may not be out of the blue that the team suddenly plays well in front of him and scores more for him. They may just have more confidence because they’ve watched how he goes about his business.”

It was hard to argue with that assessment after Ingram’s second career shutout on Saturday. Coaches normally give a goaltender who has posted a shutout the next start any way, but Ingram’s numbers scream for it.

Karel VejmelkaConnor Ingram
Goals against per game3.452.64
Shots against323323
#High danger shots against6662
#High-danger save %.788.871
Save %.892.920
*Goals saved above expected-3.267.43
Goal support per game2.723.91

# — Via naturalstattrick.com
* — Via evolving-hockey.com

Tourigny is not dead set on maintaining this rotation, but he insisted previously that the internal evaluation shows a different picture than the external one.

“Maybe at some point we’ll go with the guy who gives us a better chance to win, whether it’s Veg or Ingy,” Tourigny said.

If that doesn’t happen on Tuesday against Tampa, it’s hard to imagine it ever happening.

Barrett Hayton is expected to miss four to six weeks with a hand injury sustained on Nov. 16 in Columbus. (Getty Images)

devastating Coyotes Injuries

Barrett Hayton takes a lot of flak for his lack of points production (two goals, four points in 16 games). In that respect, his exit from the lineup felt like a mic drop.

Not only did Hayton score on the final play before he left the ice in Columbus in a 3-2 win on Nov. 16; the Coyotes are 1-3 since he sustained a hand injury.

Unfortunately for the Coyotes, Hayton is not the only key piece missing. Center Jack McBain sustained a lower-body injury when he slammed awkwardly into the boards and was favoring his leg. Defenseman Travis Dermott sustained a hand injury, and defenseman Juuso Välimäki endured a terrifying injury when he took a puck to the mouth and required surgery on his jaw, per Tourigny.

While any team would be impacted by the loss of two regular centers and two regular defensemen, the injuries highlighted the Coyotes’ lack of depth at both positions. At center in particular, Hayton and McBain are two critical net-front presences who create space for their linemates while also playing key roles defensively with their duties down low in the defensive zone.

The losses of Dermott (who should be back soon) and Välimäki have magnified another issue.

Matt Dumba missed the game in Las Vegas on Saturday with what was listed as a lower-body injury. (Getty Images)

Blue line blues

For most of this month, Calgary Flames defenseman Noah Hanifin has been linked to the Coyotes in trade rumors first circulated by Sportnet’s Elliotte Friedman. It’s a rumor that has some legs, even if the Coyotes’ level of pursuit of the impending UFA has been a bit exaggerated.

If the Coyotes are to acquire Hanifin, they’ll have to do so without giving up any top prospects and they’ll also need him to sign a contract extension whose term and dollar fit within their long-term budget as a team that will not spend anywhere near the cap ceiling.

Why would the Coyotes pursue Hanifin? He’s a top-four defenseman who is still young enough (he’ll be 27 in two months) to play at a high level with their core players for the majority of his tenure.

More to the point, the Coyotes really need another top-four option because offseason acquisition Matt Dumba has not played like one. On Saturday in Vegas, Dumba was out of the lineup with what was listed as a lower-body injury even though he practiced on Friday. This season, Dumba has been a victim of his own defensive lapses, some bad reads, some ill-timed rushes and some catastrophic turnovers.

When Dermott and Välimäki return to the lineup, that will help, but the reality is this: at this point in their careers, neither player looks like a top-four defenseman. Aside from JJ Moser and Durzi, the Coyotes don’t have any on their roster. The thinned out blue line has only magnified that reality during the current stretch.

Dumba isn’t the only player getting victimized. So is Josh Brown, while call-ups Michael Kesselring and Vladislav Kolyachonok (who sustained a leg injury on Saturday) look better served with limited minutes.

It’s unclear if the Coyotes will address this situation with a major move like Hanifin (who has four or five other suitors), a smaller move for a shutdown defenseman, or if they will stand pat, understanding that they are still in a rebuild. At the very least, Tourigny has made it clear that egregious mental and tactical errors will not be tolerated.

Coyotes forward Jason Zucker has four goals in 13 games. (Getty Images)

Offseason UFA signings a mixed bag

Aside from Dumba, the Coyotes signed forwards Jason Zucker and Alex Kerfoot this offseason, while bringing back UFA center Nick Bjugstad and UFA defenseman Troy Stecher.

Zucker was coming on before an injury sidelined him on Oct. 21. He has been mostly solid since his return on Nov. 9. Kerfoot has been excellent on the team’s penalty-killing unit, and has six points (one goal) in 20 games.

Bjugstad has recaptured the chemistry he had last season with Maccelli and Crouse, and Stecher has played all but two games in various roles.

None of the signings has knocked it out of the park in terms of production, but other than Dumba, none can be described as a disappointment based on their contributions. They look like what they were supposed to be: good veterans to fill in around the Coyotes’ core players, providing depth, leadership, stability and secondary scoring.

Logan Cooley’s play at 5-on-5 has been subpar. (Getty Images)

Cooley a work in progress

Logan Cooley teased greatness in Australia with that iconic goal that made a casual hockey fan base sit up and take notice. Since the regular season began, such skill displays have been more of a rarity than a regularity.

As we highlighted on the PHNX Coyotes show on Friday, Cooley is struggling to produce at 5-on-5 (nine of his 13 points have come on the power play), he is struggling to adapt to the NHL’s tighter space-and-time windows, he is making bad decisions with the puck and he is being victimized by glaring defensive mistakes.

“It’s a long season,” said Cooley’s new linemate, forward Clayton Keller. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in your first season or your seventh, you’re gonna have some stretches where things don’t go your way. Ultimately, that’s what makes you the player that you want to be is when you go through those difficult stretches where maybe the puck’s not bouncing for you or things aren’t going right. He’s a great teammate, a great guy and he’s an unbelievable player with unbelievable skills. He’s just gotta go out there and play, relax, have fun.”

Saturday’s game in Vegas was a good step in that direction. Cooley played a responsible game defensively, saving a scoring chance with a heady play in front of Ingram. He did not turn the puck over and his hustle and stick play helped him win a puck battle behind the net to set up Keller on the game-winning goal.

Unfortunately, he is still lacking a little bit of confidence. He had three prime shooting opportunities that he did not take, opting instead for lower percentage passes.

Cooley is 19. It is obviously not time to panic. He’s not going to Tucson any time soon, and it is doubtful the franchise would ever send him down. For now, Tourigny is preaching patience. The Coyotes coach has worked with, and helped a lot of young players throughout his career. He feels confident that he can help one more.

“He will figure it out,” Tourigny said. “He just needs to calm down offensively. He’s forcing the play. He needs to get inside and be consistent defensively.

“His progression and challenges are normal for a young guy. We were expecting it. We will do the right thing with him.”

Top bench photo of Arizona Coyotes players (right to left) JJ Moser, Matt Dumba, Michael Kesselring, Sean Durzi and Lawson Crouse via Getty Images

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