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When the Coyotes began the season with a 1-13-1 record, there was talk among league executives and media that this might be the worst team in the salary cap era, and one of the worst of all time. Arizona had the fewest goals in the NHL (23), the most goals allowed (60), the worst power-play percentage and the second worst penalty-killing percentage.
Some analysts wondered if GM Bill Armstrong had cut too deep with his rebuild plan.
A 3-2-1 record over the past six games suggests that such talk may have been an overreaction. The Coyotes had a litany of new faces to work into the lineup, they had a new coaching staff, they had new systems to absorb, and they had one of the league’s toughest schedules, facing nine of the current top 12 teams in the NHL over those first 15 games, with two lengthy East Coast trips.
An adjustment period was inevitable.
“When you have a new coach, new staff and new players, for sure, you need some time to gel,” coach André Tourigny said. “What I like for sure is the attitude of the guys, the way they fight.
“We’re in a tough schedule and the boys are showing up every day and working. If you look at all the metrics on our workload, our energy spent during games (has) improved. We talk a lot about how hard we worked at the beginning, but we’re still climbing, so it’s pretty impressive.”
Nobody is expecting this roster to compete for a playoff spot, but the recent run has stabilized the team and from a standings projection, the Coyotes are right where outsiders and insiders expected them to be. They have the second fewest points (10), the second-worst points percentage (.238) and all but seven NHL teams are 10 points clear of the Coyotes. Arizona is very much in the mix for a top-two pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, something the franchise has never had.
“I like where we’re at now,” GM Bill Armstrong said. “I was surprised at the start that we didn’t accumulate some more wins because of the way that we played in the preseason, but I think that was part of the process for us to go through as far as working out who was in the lineup every night.
“I think it took our coaches a little bit of time to get to know the players and get the right guys in the lineup to help make their systems work and make the team the best that it can be, but I like the fact that we’ve gotten better every single game. That’s what you want and that’s a credit to our coaches.”
The Coyotes passed the quarter point of the season in a 3-2 loss to the Dallas Stars at Gila River Arena on Saturday. With that, here’s a look back at the first 21 games.
Shayne Gostisbehere: When the Flyers gave the Coyotes Shayne Gostisbehere, a 2022 second-round pick and a 2022 seventh-round pick in exchange for nothing more than cap space, the word out of Philadelphia was that Gostisbehere had lost the dynamic element of his game that produced a runner-up finish for the 2016 Calder Trophy and 65-point season in 2017-18. The scouting report suggested that injuries had robbed him of that killer first step that made him so vital to igniting defensive-zone breakouts.
Gostisbehere begs to differ. He is tied with Quinn Hughes, Miro Heiskanen and Zach Werenski for ninth in points among NHL defensemen with 15, and he has held his own defensively.
“He has a reputation to be an offensive defenseman,” Tourigny said. “It’s not like he doesn’t want to play defense. He wants to be a good player on both sides of the puck and he wants to do the right thing. He’s tuning in probably more on the defensive side than the offensive side and that pays off for him because he makes points.
“He has probably tougher matchups than he has ever had because of the situation of our team. He is playing against top lines, top players every night — not the first line but the second line; he has the second toughest matchup — and he is doing a good job at it.”
Clayton Keller: When the Coyotes held their annual media day before the season began, Keller revealed to me that he had gained seven pounds of muscle through an exhaustive offseason workout regimen. Armstrong confirmed that commitment level, suggesting that no player had a better summer than Keller.
Early in the season, it wasn’t showing up on the scoresheet, but Keller looked more confident with the puck, he looked more decisive and therefore quicker, and he was going to the hard areas with far more regularity than he had shown over the first four years of his career.
Lately, the points have been coming along for the ride. Keller has seven points in his past five games and although his four-game point streak was broken on Saturday, it was his play up high in the offensive zone that eventually led to Travis Boyd’s game-tying goal in the second period.
Keller has 13 points in 21 games; not quite what you would hope for a guy with a cap hit of $7.15 million, but given the deficiencies of this roster, it’s fair to wonder how many more points he would have if he were playing with more skill at the center position. He has the second highest goals-for percentage on the team among players who have played at least seven games. He is driving offense, which the Coyotes need him to do, but he has also shored up his defensive game. The challenge for Keller will be to sustain this for 82 games, but right now, it looks like he has turned a corner.
“He has really been good lately, but I still think there’s more that he has to offer,” Armstrong said. “I still think there’s more in the tank for him.”
Karel Vejmelka: Vejmelka wasn’t a complete unknown. The Nashville Predators selected him late in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Draft, but they never convinced him to come to North America. Credit the Coyotes scouting staff (initially, Teal Fowler) with rediscovering him and getting the ball rolling on bringing Vejmelka to Arizona.
He wasn’t even supposed to make the NHL roster this season. The expectation was that Carter Hutton and Josef Kořenář would form the depth chart, but Vejmelka’s training camp and preseason earned him the backup spot, and when Hutton struggled and then got injured, Vejmelka was thrust into the starting role until the team claimed Scott Wedgewood off waivers. Vejmelka is an intriguing prospect for the future.
Scott Wedgewood: I won’t belabor this one. Everybody knows by now what Wedgewood has meant to the Coyotes. He has earned seven of the team’s 10 points and his feel-good saga may be the best Coyotes storyline of the season’s first quarter. If you want to read more, I wrote about it last week.
Lawson Crouse: Lawson Crouse doesn’t have a point in his past three games. If you don’t think that is eating at him, you don’t know Crouse. He is extremely competitive, he wants to make a difference and he was so excited about the opportunity for a fresh start with a new staff this season that he spent most of his summer both daydreaming and working toward it.
Crouse has five goals and 10 points, which still puts him on pace for career highs, but he is doing so much more away from the puck at 5 on 5, on the power play and on the penalty kill. He is also driving offense with the highest expected goals rate on the team (3.56).
Crouse, 24, will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season. He looks like a valuable piece for the Coyotes’ future.
“Because of his size, his skating, his grit and how he plays, he’s just a huge part of this organization,” Armstrong said. “There’s still parts of his game that he’s got to work and perfect, but if he keeps continuing to grow and progress, he can still add in more offense.”
Johan Larsson: Before he landed in the COVID-19 protocols, Larsson was logging the highest average ice time among of any forward on the team (Keller and Crosue have since surpassed him). Part of that was out of necessity due to the team’s lack of center depth, but Larsson was holding his own in tough defensive matchups.
He should return to the lineup on the road trip this week. If he keeps up this strong matchup play, he could be a valuable chip at the trade deadline due to his expiring contract and affordable price.
Travis Boyd: Travis Boyd is shooting 31.3 percent. That’s not going to last. Most players shoot around 10 percent so he is due for a major regression. Even so, for a player who was considered “just a guy” by media in Toronto, Boyd is making the most of his opportunity to jump up in the lineup with three Coyotes centers (Larsson, Jay Beagle and Nick Schmaltz) out of the lineup. He has already tied his career-high for goals and he is on pace to shatter all of his career numbers. Maybe that production and his all-around play will earn the 28-year-old free-agent to be a new deal this summer.
Dmitrij Jaškin: Jaškin led the KHL in goals last season and was among the league’s elite players for the past two. Armstrong knew that the Coyotes would need scoring and he drafted Jaškin in St. Louis so he took a chance on bringing Jaškin back to North America. It was an expensive risk that did not pay dividends.
Jaškin had just one assist in 12 games before Nashville’s Mark Borowiecki took out his knee and likely ended his season on Nov. 13. Jaškin’s one-year, $3.2 million deal opened eyes around the league. It is hard to envision him earning another NHL deal anywhere close to that once he has healed. If he wants to stay, he’ll likely have to accept a bottom-six role at a significantly reduced rate.
Jakob Chychrun: Chychrun’s first 16 games were alarming. The 2021 Norris Trophy candidate had one goal, two points, he was a league-worst minus-24 and he looked lost at both ends without the benefit of the veteran defensive corp that had surrounded him in years past, most notably defensive partner Alex Goligoski.
Chychrun revealed recently that his skates — a brand that he had used his entire life — were giving him major problems, both from a performance standpoint and from a pain (knees, ankles) standpoint. It’s hard to believe that the skates were the sole reason, but Chycnrun has stabilized since switching footwear. He looks more aggressive and confident with the puck, he has re-adopted a shoot-first mentality and he is just a minus-1 in his past five games despite regularly drawing the toughest assignments.
One of the greatest concerns about this rebuild is the impact it might have on some of the middle-core players who are a part of the team’s future. No player from that group is more important than Chychrun. The Coyotes hope he has turned the corner.
Carter Hutton: Nobody expected Carter Hutton to compete for a Vezina Trophy, but nobody expected Hutton to put up the worst goaltending numbers in the NHL (7.76 goals against average, 741 save percentage).
With Wedgewood and Vejmelka playing well, it will be interesting to see what the Coyotes do at this position once Hutton returns from a lower-body injury and the COVID-19 protocols. This, of course, assumes that he will return. There is some concern that the offseason ankle surgery Hutton had has not been a complete success.
Injuries: Hutton and Jaškin aren’t the only Coyotes who have been felled by injuries. Jay Beagle, Nick Schmaltz, Ryan Dzingel and Christian Fischer have all missed significant time with injuries while up-and-coming defenseman Conor Timmins is out for the year after ACL surgery.
The Coyotes roster was already thin. Injuries have made success a far greater challenge. Per mangameslost.com, the Coyotes were fourth in the league as of Nov. 25 in man games lost to injury (that bubble to the right of Ottawa).
Ottawa, Seattle, Montreal, Vancouver worse than expected: When the season began, the teams most likely to be in the hunt with the Coyotes for the top overall pick were Buffalo, Columbus, Anaheim, Seattle, New Jersey and Ottawa. The Ducks, Blue Jackets, Devils and Sabres have played better than expected, but the Kraken has struggled, the Senators have not progressed as expected and the Canadiens and Canucks are a pair of hot messes that are threatening to join the lottery for Shane Wright.
I didn’t project the Canadiens to make the playoffs this season, but I didn’t expect them to fall so far after a Cup Final run. As for the Canucks, it is hard to figure out what’s wrong without starting with GM Jim Benning. At any rate, the Coyotes have some competition.
Yeah, we expected that
Loui Eriksson: There were certain players whom you assumed had little left in the tank when the Coyotes acquired their one-year deals in exchange for assets or, in the case of Eriksson, the chance to shed Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s contract. Eriksson only played seven games for the Canucks last season and it is clear after 19 games in Arizona this season that his NHL career is at an end.
Eriksson had some very good years for Dallas and Boston, but there has been no renaissance with the Coyotes.
Anton Strålman: Strålman has been a serviceable defenseman, and like Eriksson and Andrew Ladd, he is a good veteran presence to have around younger players as they endure a season of consistent losing. Getting prospect Vladislav Kolyachonok and a 2024 second-round pick was all the Coyotes needed to make this salary acquisition palatable.
Phil Kessel: The Kessel trade watch continues. Phil wants out, the Coyotes want to grant him that wish and to Kessel’s credit, he hasn’t pouted about his situation. He has been playing hard. He has three goals and 11 points in 21 games, but he may have to wait a few months before his trade wish is granted.
Barrett Hayton: Hayton still hasn’t figured out how to produce points at the NHL level, but he has been a mostly responsible player in all three zones and he plays with an edge, using his size to get to hard areas. He is progressing.
“He is figuring out the league a little bit, but what I like is that he’s figuring out the league 10 pounds stronger, and that’s a credit to his work ethic in the offseason,” Armstrong said. “I love his spirit. I love his play. I love his compete.”
Kyle Capobianco: Capobianco has points in five of seven games since returning from injury. He looks more decisive with the puck and he looks better in his own end.
“I love his feel for the game,” Tourigny said. “I love his feel for offense. He has a natural feel for finding the open guys and making the clever play. He’s still a young defenseman; needs to keep growing his overall game but we’re excited about the upside.”
Lottery luck: As mentioned above, some new teams north of the border have entered the mix for the top overall picks in the NHL Draft. Much can and will happen over the next three quarters of the season, and the odds still are not great even if the Coyotes finish dead last in the league, but based on standings projections from some well respected models, the fight for Wright is still very much alive.
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