Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2015-16, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our collective LWOS 2015-16 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today we continue the series with the Arizona Coyotes.
Puck Drop Preview: 2015-16 Arizona Coyotes
Prior to the start of the 2014-15 season, there was actually a bit of optimism around the Coyotes organization. The club made great strides the previous season, falling just short of a playoff spot, and there was hope among some that the newly-rebranded Arizona Coyotes could again contend for a place in the post-season.
Through the first month of the season, things actually didn’t look so bad for the club, as they sported a .500 record on November 7th, but a 15-game stretch from mid-November to mid-December in which the team won just once in regulation put them in a hole they ultimately couldn’t climb out of.
By season’s end, and with the opportunity to draft either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, the team was in full tank mode. Veterans Antoine Vermette, Keith Yandle and Zybnek Michalek were dumped for draft picks and prospects, and the team stumbled to just four wins in their final 28 games to finish 29th overall with 56 points (down from 89 points the season before). Unfortunately the plan only partially worked, as the Edmonton Oilers won the draft lottery, pushing Arizona to third. While the player they chose at that spot, Dylan Strome, is certainly an uber-prospect, he’s not at the generational talent level of McDavid or Eichel.
Arizona’s summer was largely about bringing in a group of stable, veteran depth players to augment what should be a pretty exciting core of prospects joining the big club over the next couple of years. GM Don Maloney kicked things off by trading last season’s leading scorer, Sam Gagner (you know your team is in trouble when your top scoring forward has but 15 goals and 41 points), to Philadelphia in a move that saw defenseman Nicklas Grossmann and Chris Pronger (or, at least his contract anyways) come back to the dessert.
At the draft, the Coyotes picked up the aforementioned Strome, who projects to be a number-one center, at 3rd overall, and playmaking center Nick Merkley from Kelowna in the WHL with the 30th pick, which they acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks in the Vermette deal.
Funnily enough, both Vermette and Michalek were both brought back into the fold when free agency opened on July 1st. Arizona also added gritty bottom-six forwards Brad Richardson and Steve Downie as well as goaltender Anders Lindback to back-up starting netminder Mike Smith. The team also did well to ink Strome to an entry-level contract and re-up with Mikkel Boedker for one more season.
2015-16 Opening Day Lineup
Shane Doan – Antoine Vermette – Mikkel Boedker
Max Domi – Martin Hanzal – Tobias Rieder
Anthony Duclair – Brad Richardson – Lucas Lessio
Kyle Chipchura – Boyd Gordon – Steve Downie
Joe Vitale, John Scott
It’s no surprise that Arizona’s forward group is going to be in flux next season. As it stands now, the team is flush with veterans up the middle, and while Strome may get a try-out to start the season, that depth at center allows the team to take their time with the 18-year-old. The real question will be on the left side, where Doan has been a mainstay on the top line for many years, but he will turn 39 on October 10th and is more suited for a bottom-six role in what is likely his last NHL season. 20-year-olds Domi and Duclair seem like the most likely to move up
if when that happens, but there’s room on the roster for a few other youngster to earn some ice time, most notably Lessio and Brendan Perlini.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson – Michael Stone
Brandon Gormley – Connor Murphy
Nicklass Grossmann – Zbynek Michalek
Unlike the forward crops, the defense has already graduated many of it’s top prospects (Ekman-Larsson, Stone, Murphy, Gormley and Dahlbeck are all 25 or younger), so it’s largely sink-or-swim with this group, though Maloney has expressed interest in bringing another right-handed shot into the mix. Expect the sublime Ekman-Larsson, the team’s lone all-star last season and undoubtedly their best player, to again carry the large majority of the heavy lifting on both sides of the puck.
The only question in goal is whether Smith will show up or not, and after leading the league in both losses and goals against last season, the prospects of him posting a quality season look slim (more on that later). The 27-year-old Lindback, after a quality stretch with Buffalo last season that saw him post a .928 EV SV% in 16 games, has a legitimate opportunity to unseat Smith and take the reigns as the starting goaltender for the first time in his career.
Players to Watch
In Ekman-Larsson, the Coyotes have a truly special player. He lead the team in scoring last season in both goals (23 – 1st among all NHL d-men) and points (43). At 24 years old he’s emerged as one of the NHL’s best defensemen on both sides of the puck, averaging more than 0.50 points-per-game over the last three seasons. If the Coyotes are to make any noise at all in the Western Conference, it will come largely on the back of Ekman-Larsson’s contributions.
Doan’s entry in this section is really just a stick-tap to the franchise’s most beloved player as he very likely skates his swan song season. Doan is one of the longest-serving captains in NHL history after getting the “C” all the way back in 2003-04, and has played a remarkable 1394 games with the franchise. Long lauded for his grittiness, leadership and contributions both on and off the ice, it’s a good time for Coyotes fans to appreciate Doan for all he’s done.
On the Rise
After a season in which Domi scored 102 points in just 57 games as captain of the London Knights in the OHL, as well as helping Team Canada to gold at the World Junior Championships with 10 points in 7 games, it goes without saying that the Coyotes are excited to see what he can do at the NHL level. While Domi might see some time with Springfield in the AHL, he will be given every opportunity to succeed on the big club, and has received some legitimate pre-season Calder Trophy buzz.
On the Decline
Unfortunately for the Coyotes, Smith has come to define the word “decline.” His absolutely brilliant 2011-12 season which saw him finish 4th in Vezina Trophy voting and carry the team to the Western Conference Final seems like a distant memory now. Every year people wonder if Smith can bounce back, and every year his numbers have gotten worse. Last season he posted a very mediocre .904 SV% and a 3.16 GAA with just 14 wins and zero shutouts in 62 games. At 33 years old, we’ve already seen the best Smith has to offer, and while it’s likely he won’t post numbers nearly as putrid as last season, he’s surely on his way down.
The ghost of Auston Matthews is going to haunt the club all season long. On the one hand, there’s plenty to be excited about for Arizona next season with a world-class talent on the blueline and a number of highly-rated prospects ready for a taste of NHL action. On the other is the fact that the team, as currently constructed with a mix of too-old or middling veterans and inexperienced youth, is clearly not yet on the upswing of its rebuild. The team will almost certainly finish in the bottom five again, and has a very real chance of finishing 30th overall – which is exactly what they are hoping for if they want a shot at projected 2016 1st overall draft pick Matthews, a Scottsdale, Arizona, native.