The Arizona Coyotes are no longer an afterthought. With a 39-35-8 record, they fell just four points short of a playoff berth last season. It was their strongest campaign since they reached the Western Conference Final seven years ago, which also marks their most recent trip to the postseason.
In other words, they’re finally trending up again.
On the flip side, you have to wonder how much stock you can place on Arizona’s final positioning. From October through early February, the Coyotes sat 26th in points percentage and looked dead in the water. From that point through mid-March, they registered a 13-5-1 record for the fourth-highest points percentage in the league. The team gets full marks for staying the course, but it’s considerably easier to perform without the pressure of expectations. Once the contenders adjusted to their trade deadline acquisitions, the intensity ramped up and the wheat was separated from the chaff. The Coyotes bowed out of the race with a 3-4-2 slump.
At any rate, you can only ride moral victories for so long. Arizona must pile up enough wins to get back into the playoffs and validate the team’s vision. General manager John Chayka, who took over in May 2016, is now on the clock. Unfortunately, he’s failed to truly remedy the squad’s biggest weakness: offense. Over the past three seasons, Arizona has averaged 2.33 (27th), 2.51 (30th) and 2.55 goals per game (28th).
This putrid attack is doubtless hindering his young team’s progress. In 2018-19, the Coyotes ranked sixth in goals allowed and tied for the best penalty kill in the league. Between the pipes, they registered a 92.2 on-ice save percentage (11th). Granted, they didn’t control the lion’s share of the action. Arizona owned 48.8% of the shot attempts (20th), 48.5% of the scoring chances (20th) and 48.1% of the high-danger chances (20th) at 5-on-5. They’re far from perfect, but they’ve still developed a solid, stingy identity under head coach Rick Tocchet. They just need the offense to do its part.
20-year-old Clayton Keller paced the Coyotes with 47 points in 82 games. That was the lowest total by a team’s leading scorer in the NHL. Due to their lack of firepower, their actual goal share (45.5%, 24th) lagged far behind their expected goal share (49.7%, 16th).
Can confirm: Clayton Keller is good at hockey. pic.twitter.com/V7f96Dap9u
— Arizona Coyotes (@ArizonaCoyotes) October 20, 2018
Chayka did pull off a couple of trades in hopes of bolstering the forward corps. Max Domi (72 points in 82 games) was dealt to Montreal for Alex Galchenyuk, and in his first year with the Coyotes, the 2012 third overall pick put up 41 points in 72 games. While the 25-year-old has always shown lofty upside, he’s rather inconsistent as a scorer and seldom willing to drive the bus. That doesn’t mean he can’t fit into the picture of course. It simply casts him in a complementary role, whereas Domi thrived as a go-to figure with the Habs.
In late November, Arizona moved former first-round picks Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini to Chicago for center Nick Schmaltz (14 points in 17 games). The trade appeared to benefit both teams, but context is important. Prior to suffering a season-ending lower-body injury, seven of Schmaltz’s 14 points with the Coyotes came on the power play and his prorated even-strength production would have ranked about 130th in the NHL.
That doesn’t move the needle for a squad that finished dead last in 5-on-5 goals last season.
Nevertheless, Chayka signed the 23-year-old to a seven-year, $40.9 million contract. Schmaltz could justify the team’s commitment to him with a greater impact at even strength, but it’s unclear if he can deliver the goods. 17 games is too small a sample size to reach any conclusions either way. With his terrific speed and playmaking, he certainly has the ability to push opposing defenses back and offer teammates better looks on net. Given the club’s 31st-ranked on-ice shooting percentage, these players require a boost in both the quantity and quality of their chances.
On Tuesday, Chayka made another splash by landing center Carl Soderberg from the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for defenseman Kevin Connauton and a third-rounder. That’s not a steep price for a steady two-way veteran. The 6’3”, 210-pounder posted 49 points in 82 games last season. Though he only has one year left on his deal, his $4.75 million cap hit does basically end the team’s pursuit of top-tier free agents this summer.
In fairness, it would have been difficult to lure any UFAs to the desert without drastically overpaying them. That’s why cheap, young talent is such a valuable resource.
The Coyotes may have dropped the ball in that respect. Holding the 14th overall pick in last week’s draft, Arizona traded up to No. 11 with a few offensive weapons remaining on the board. But instead of selecting the best scorer in the class (Cole Caufield), a promising all-around forward (Peyton Krebs, Matthew Boldy, Alex Newhook) or even a boom-or-bust dynamic prospect (Arthur Kaliyev), it opted for Swedish blueliner Victor Soderstrom. The kid is loaded with potential, but why move up in order to solidify an area of strength?
#SHL: RHD Victor Soderstrom (Ranked No. 12) wristed home his fourth goal of the season but Brynas dropped a 4-2 decision to HV71. Soderstrom leads all U20 SHL defensemen in goals (4), shots (51) and TOI (16:42) pic.twitter.com/E6xee387tS
— Steve Kournianos (@TheDraftAnalyst) February 22, 2019
The Coyotes are in dire need of a sniper. They weren’t actually that bad at generating high-danger bids last season (16th in HDCF), but they ranked 31st in high-danger goals. Whenever they pierced the opposition’s structure, they didn’t have the finishing touch required to beat the last line of defense.
The draft was a golden opportunity to bring in a low-cost, high-impact forward…and they chose to focus on the back end.
With Derek Stepan, Christian Dvorak, Christian Fischer, Michael Grabner, Lawson Crouse, Brad Richardson, Vinnie Hinostroza and Conor Garland, there’s decent support up front. Captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson supplements the offense with his poise and terrific point shot, while veterans Niklas Hjalmarsson and Alex Goligoski provide Tocchet with a dependable presence along the blue line.
Moreover, 21-year-old Jakob Chychrun continues to quietly improve his game, keeping his zone squeaky-clean thanks to good mobility, sound positioning and an active stick. His shot, chance and high-danger chance shares have risen in each of his three pro seasons and he finished second among Coyotes defensemen with a 52.4 xGF% in 2018-19.
Arizona can skate with just about any opponent and defends quite well. The players have clearly bought into Tocchet’s system too.
This roster is just missing one major piece to get over the postseason hump. A high-end forward would elevate the top six and push others down to a more comfortable spot. How can Chayka get his hands on one, though? They aren’t readily available via trade, free agents don’t have Arizona listed as a preferred destination and the team used this season’s first-rounder on a defenseman. A healthy Schmaltz and the addition of Soderberg may not be enough — especially when you consider the night-and-day contrast between the majority of the season and the Coyotes’ late push.
Make no mistake: The Coyotes are slowly but surely turning things around. However, they may not be quite as close as the standings indicate. As such, patience will be key to handling the peaks and valleys of this rebuild. They may need to take another step back in order to shore up their foundation and truly blossom as a group.
Indulging in false hope could prevent them from ever reaching the finish line.