Updated: Jul 26, 2019
For all the good that happened for the Arizona Coyotes in the 2018-19 season, the heartbreak will be what is most remembered. The Yotes haven't made the playoffs since 2012, and the only player that remains from that conference final run is their captain, Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Since that season, the Coyotes have had fight through middling, if not abysmal, play on the ice, to go along with stadium turmoil and frequent relocation rumors. Arizona fans are often ridiculed for not supporting their team, but it's difficult to cheer for a team that is quite unlucky and usually very bad. The problem plaguing the Yotes for years is that the process is present, but the results don't seem to follow. They've dealt with slews of injuries, missing out on top draft prospects, and players inexplicably breaking out once they've left via trade. That's a difficult problem to solve, but the Coyotes finally appear on the verge of breaking through after an encouraging season and a half.
Arizona began 2017-18 season as the worst team in the league, not winning their first contest until the end of October, twelve games into the campaign. From there, the team slowly gained momentum, finishing the year 17-9-3 run, a stretch predominantly supported by strong play from goalie Antti Raanta. It was believed by a fair amount of experts that if Raanta could stay healthy, the Coyotes would be a dark horse for a playoff spot in 2018-19. Antti Raanta did not stay healthy, but the Yotes were able to remain in the wild card chase, and lead that chase for much of the latter half of the season, thanks to a surprise renaissance from back-up goalie Darcy Kuemper. After sporting a .899 save percentage the year before, Kuemper improved to .925, the second highest save percentage of his career. Unfortunately, their competition for the second wild card spot in the West was the Colorado Avalanche, who used their own goalie voodoo to go on a torrid run in March and April to pass the Coyotes and clinch a playoff birth in the last week of the season. The death blow for Arizona was a 3-1 loss to the basement-dwelling Los Angeles Kings, where the Coyotes shelled LA goalie Jack Campbell with fifty shots and were only able to sneak one past the net minder. It was a fluke of a loss that can happen to any team at any time, but for the Coyotes, it came at the worst possible moment. More bad luck to add to the ever-growing pile.
The 2018-19 season hurt for Arizona, but many players took steps in the right direction over the course of the year and now gave promise for the future of the organization. John Chayka, the team's GM, is far from orthodox in his approach to improving his roster, but his vision has finally started to piece together after a few years of practice runs. During this offseason, Chayka has kept busy and now has new weapons to show for it, whether from bold trades or bold draft choices. With all the fluctuation, uncertainty, and ridicule the Arizona organization has had to fight through for years now, it's time for the hockey gods to lead them back to the promise land. It's time for the Coyotes to take the next step. They just need a good plan of attack.
Plan of Attack for the Arizona Coyotes
The first order of business for the Coyotes is to make their third jerseys into their primary jerseys. Wear them at home. Wear them on the road. Wear them while you eat. Wear them while you sleep. You will win every Stanley Cup until the end of time. This is not difficult.
Arizona's regular jerseys are pretty good looking as well, so they can probably make it work even if they don't glue their third jerseys to their bodies. (That option still has my vote, though.) What actually needs to happen is
The Offense Has To Be A) More Consistent and B) More Healthy (Hopefully)
The Coyotes looked to improve their place in the standings this offseason by ameliorating an offense that was inconsistent at best and a power play that fizzled out more often than not. Chayka boosted both of those areas in one move, trading an inconsistent talent in Alex Galchenyuk for a very consistent talent in Phil "The Thrill" "Nice Guy, Tries Hard, Loves the Game" "Hotdog Man" Kessel. Despite having a slower season at 5-on-5, Kessel was as much of a threat as usual on the power play (and still was a point-per-game player in a "slower" season). Here's the Penguins power play looked like in 2018-19, first with Kessel, and then without:
In the fateful game against the Kings, the Coyotes' power play went 0-for-5, indicative for how the rest of the season had gone for the man advantage. Arizona had the 26th-ranked powerplay last season, which is pretty bad, but just good enough to beat out five catfish with hockey sticks. Losing Galchenyuk is an acceptable price to pay for a talent like Kessel, who is already in kahoots with head coach Rick Tocchet and will likely fit in seamlessly into the Coyotes lineup.
The rest of the offense will also look to improve, hoping to benefit from a healthier and more consistent season across the board. The Coyotes only had two skaters who played in all eighty-two games last season, young forward Clayton Keller and veteran defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. Keller is representative of Arizona's scoring struggles in 2018-19, as in his sophomore season, he fell from twenty-three goals to fourteen, and forty-two assists to thirty-three. In total, Keller experienced an eighteen point drop, despite similar possession numbers and shots on goal carrying over from the season before. The young face of the franchise can easily bounce back, according to Coach Tocchet, by staying away from the perimeter of the offensive zone and being more assertive in the middle of the ice. Attacking the net and being aggressive in the offensive zone is a great way to break out of a slump, and passing to Phil Kessel is also a very effective way to improve point totals.
Further down the forward lineup, Arizona will look to its solid depth players to either continue to be solid or improve. Nick Schmaltz played well upon arrival from Chicago, Vinnie Hinostroza has improved every season of his career and will look to do so again, Michael Grabner is still fast and can still score shorthanded goals, Derek Stepan had a down season points-wise but still influences shot generation at a high level, freshly signed Christian Dvorak still has a lot to prove but is capable, and the list goes on. Arizona has a long list of intriguing players up front, and if a few of them improve, the Coyotes could find themselves in great position by the end of next season. There may also be room, if injuries arise again, for 2018 5th overall pick Barrett Hayton to step into a roster spot and add more skill to the Coyotes' bottom nine.
The Defense Has to Just Keep Being Good
While there are plenty of questions to answer up front for Arizona, the backend is a little more solidified. Captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson headlines the group, and while his best season is now four years in the rear view mirror, he can still produce a lot of offense and has a supporting cast to make up for his hit-or-miss defense. That includes Nik Hjalmarsson, who's been a defensive monster for years in both Chicago and Arizona. He will continue to be a defensive stalwart despite starting to show his age, ever so slightly. Jordan Oesterle moves the puck around effectively and can be an offensive contributor, and Alex Goligoski should continue to be solid on both ends of the ice. Jason Demers is another a solid, older defenseman holding down the backend.
The most encouraging aspect of the Arizona blueline is while the team will still get productive years out of their established defensemen, they also have reinforcements on the way. Jakob Chychrun will look to have a healthy season and continue the improvements he showed last year, and the Coyotes have a good cupboard of defensive prospects with Ilya Lyubushkin entering his second NHL season, Kyle Capobianco performing well at the AHL level, and Victor Soderstrom potentially pushing for a roster spot. The Coyotes have a stable group currently at the NHL level, and a good amount of help for this season and for seasons to come.
Darcy Kuemper Has to Repeat His Success or Antti Raanta Has to Get Healthy
The Arizona Coyotes' goaltending is in a very interesting spot going into the 2019-20 season. After Raanta went down with injury, Kuemper did a noble job of backstopping the team, seemingly out of nowhere. Now training camp will become a battle between the two keepers, as Raanta will look to claim the starting job back. It will be fascinating to see if Kuemper can string together another quality season as a starter, as he has made a career in the NHL as a backup (albeit a very solid one). The Arizona goaltending tandem has similar themes to the forward core, in that there is plenty of potential to bet on in the players, but consistency and health are key to their actual success. This theme perforates the entire organization, as they stand at the cusp of meaningful progression.
The Arizona Coyotes have the means to take the next step and qualify for the playoffs in the seasons to come. Even though last season ended on a sour note, there was a lot of promise and future potential that finally came to fruition, particularly on defense. Now, there is only a little more potential that has to be reached. Clayton Keller can and should bounce back, the powerplay is bound to improve with Kessel, the depth should produce at a higher clip, the defense should remain stout, and one of the two goalies (if not both) should be able to competently and healthily hold down the fort. In a tumultuous and sometimes shallow Pacific Division, a third place or wildcard position is more than obtainable. Now the team just has to do it. Nothing about making the playoffs is easy, but it's time. All the years of being a league laughingstock, all the years of relocation rumors, all the years of bad draft lottery luck, bad injury luck, bad puck luck, it's time. The Coyotes can go back on the hunt. They just have one last step to take.
But wear the jerseys, dang it.
Sources: AZ Central, Hockey Reference, Dobber's Frozen Tools, Hockey Viz, Charting Hockey, Fox Sports, NHL, SBNation's Five For Howling, SBNation's Jewels For the Crown