Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2016-17, where LastWordOnHockey.com 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 2016-17 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today we continue with the Arizona Coyotes.
Puck Drop Preview 2016-17: Arizona Coyotes
After a disastrous 2014-15 season which saw the Arizona Coyotes selecting 3rd overall (Dylan Strome), the Coyotes experienced a PDO-fueled run for a wildcard spot for most of the season. They experienced near miraculous goaltending from rookie Louis Domingue during Mike Smith’s absence and the emergence of rookies Max Domi and Anthony Duclair helped propel them up the standings. Unfortunately the Coyotes landed outside the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.
Newcomers last season included Nicklas Grossmann, acquired for Sam Gagner in the Chris Pronger trade, and Boyd Gordon, who was brought in from the Edmonton Oilers for Lauri Korpikoski. They Coyotes brought back UFAs Antoine Vermette and Zbynek Michalek, who were both traded away at the previous year’s deadline.
The Coyotes possession numbers were atrocious, with their Corsi-for percentage sitting 24th in the NHL at 47.63%, and their expected goal percentage doesn’t get much better at 23rd in the NHL at 48.09%. It was incredible they managed to stay in a playoff spot for so long with such poor underlying numbers.
The Coyotes had a productive offseason, kicked off by the firing of former General Manager Don Maloney, who was replaced by the analytically-minded John Chayka. In other off-ice moves, Head Coach Dave Tippett was given an expanded front office role as executive vice president of hockey operations.
On draft day Chayka made his first big splash, trading the Coyotes 20th and 53rd overall picks with Joe Vitale (who can no longer play due to concussions), for the Wings 16th overall pick and Pavel Datsyuk‘s contract. Chayka then used the 16th pick to draft Jacob Chychrun, a highly-touted defensive prospect who some thought deserved to go within the top 10 selections. Chayka also drafted high-scoring winger Clayton Keller from the USNTDP, who projects to be a top six NHL winger.
In terms of free agent signings, Chayka stayed busy. He signed Jamie McGinn to a three-year contract worth $3.3 million annually. McGinn is likely to slot in on the second or third line. He brings a physical presence as well as a nice scoring touch.
However, his largest free agent acquisition came before July 1st, when he inked Alex Goligoski, whose rights he had previously traded for, to a six-year contract at $5.475 million. This makes “Goli” the second highest paid defender on the team, behind Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Goligoski will play on the second pair, but will likely end up with the second highest TOI on the team.
Also brought in was Ryan White, a serviceable fourth line centre, for one year and Luke Schenn, who could range anywhere from the 4th-7th defensemen on the team depending on how Tippett chooses to arrange his pairs, on a two-year contract. Chayka also brought back former Coyote Radim Vrbata on a cheap one-year deal.
Chayka also had important restricted free agents to sign, such as Michael Stone, Connor Murphy, Tobias Rieder and Kevin Connauton. All have re-signed already except for Rieder. Stone signed for $4 million on a one-year deal, which makes him eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer. Murphy signed a six-year deal paying him a tad under $4 million, after which he will also be a UFA. Lastly, Connauton signed a two-year, $2 million pact.
Chayka’s other big trade involved sending two draft picks to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Lawson Crouse and Dave Bolland. Bolland’s hockey career is currently in jeopardy due to injury, and his contract might become eligible for long-term injury reserve, effectively making his contract a non-factor should it be insured.
Crouse was the 11th overall selection in the 2015 NHL draft, and was ranked higher than Mitchell Marner leading up to the draft. Expectations might not be as lofty because of his limited offensive ability, but Lawson is 6’4” and projects to be at least a bottom six forward at the NHL level.
Last seasons offence was heavily reliant on top end young players, and this season will be no different. Domi and Duclair are both entering their second NHL season and their development will be an important factor. Both should take large steps forward and build off of impressive rookie seasons.
Strome will have lofty expectations in his rookie season and could slot as high as the number two centre. He should be expected to net anywhere between 30 and 50 points next season and could throw his name in the hat for the Calder trophy. Christian Dvorak could also make the team, though likely in a bottom six role.
Martin Hanzal should remain a fearsome two-way presence, when he’s playing. Health has consistently been an issue for the 6’6” giant, and he missed a large portion of last season due to injury. This season, with no Antoine Vermette to fall back on, there is no other veteran centre on the team capable of reliably playing first line minutes. Hanzal is more crucial than ever.
These line distributions are likely to vary plenty throughout the season, but that depth chart gives them three lines which have some scoring ability. This depth will be critical on a team without any offensive stars.
Last season’s defence lived and died with Ekman-Larsson. This season won’t be much different, but the addition of Goligoski does take some of the pressure off of “OEL.” In Goligoski they have another minute-eating defenceman who can play in all situations, something they lacked last season.
Stone played well enough last season with Ekman-Larsson to warrant a spot on the top pair. They were the only pairing on the team to post a positive possession rating, an impressive feat.
Goligoski and Michalek should complement each other nicely, as Michalek is great at suppressing shots and not much else, and Goligoski does everything else well. That could be the formation of a very useful pairing.
Connauton, Murphy and Schenn will probably be rotating in and out of the press box. However simply taking Jarred Tinordi and Nicklas Grossmann out of the mix is a major addition by subtraction. That third pair will likely be a possession black hole, and the Coyotes are best off keeping it off the ice as much as possible.
Last season when Mike Smith was hurt, Louis Domingue stepped in and provided excellent goaltending, far above what the Coyotes can reasonably expect from him next season. With Smith healthy, they’ve got a reliable starter and can afford to shelter Domingue. Smith had a great statistical season in limited games. Overall the Coyotes had great goaltending and should expect similar, if slightly worse results next season.
Smith has been wildly inconsistent over the last few season, but when he’s “on” he is one of the top goaltenders in the game. They really only need Domingue to be good enough to give them a chance to win on the nights when Smith isn’t good.
Players to Watch
Strome is not only the top prospect in the Coyotes system, but one of the top prospects in the game. If it weren’t for the fact that he played behind Connor McDavid is his draft year, he’d likely have played in the NHL last year. His points per game in the last two seasons were almost identical to Marner’s, and Strome even lead the OHL in points the year McDavid went 1st overall. If he gets the minutes that went to Vermette last season, then expect him to produce a lofty point total. His best NHL comparison is probably Joe Thornton, because of his big body and playmaking ability.
Duclair was quietly the best rookie on the team last season. He didn’t produce quite as many points as Domi, but also received tougher minutes. Duclair’s true value is his two-way ability, which far exceeds Domi’s. He could become one of the league’s premier defensive forwards, and could have a nice breakout season offensively.
After quietly being a number one for several years in Dallas, Goligoski is taking his game to the desert. He won’t be the number one but he will be a strong number two. Fans will see plenty of him, on the power play, penalty kill and at even strength. He’s one of the most talented defenders in Arizona in a long time.
Players on the Rise
His first season in the NHL he played 39 games. Not bad. He faltered towards the end, but in his defence he hasn’t played more than 40 games in a season since 2011. He is 24 years old, so this season could be the best season we see out of Domingue. He has played himself into a backup role and maybe more depending on Smith’s health/play. This could very well end up being a Petr Mrazek/Jimmy Howard situation, which isn’t ideal but there are worse problems to have. Domingue is a talented young goalie and could end up stealing a few games.
How many rookies scored more points than Domi last season? Exactly two, and one of them was in his mid 20s. Offensive players like Domi don’t come around everyday. He could become a regular 60-70 point player in the right conditions. He’s also an exciting player to watch. He brings a physical presence to his game and infuses his teammates with energy. Watch for him to build on a promising rookie season.
He’s yet to play an NHL game, but there is a lot of buzz surrounding him after his Memorial Cup run with Marner and Matthew Tkachuk. The best line in junior hockey destroyed their competition and took home the championship. If Dvorak can recreate that kind of chemistry in the NHL he’ll be a dangerous player for years to come.
Player on the Decline
Vrbata scored 30 goals in 2014-2015. That’s what happens when you get put on a line with Henrik and Daniel Sedin. When he was taken off their line, his scoring dried right up. Injuries didn’t help, but he is also a player in decline. He was brought in for cheap on a one-year deal and if he can find his scoring touch again it will have been a great investment. The most likely outcome is that Vrbata becomes solid forward depth, and maybe a reasonable trade chip at the deadline.
2016-17 Season Predictions
The Coyotes aren’t a largely different team from the one we saw last season. They definitely improved, both on defence and at the forward position. The additions of McGinn and Goligoski improve this core. The true value for the franchise from this summer was adding excellent prospects such as Crouse, Keller, Chychrun and Cam Dineen.
This a team reloading for the future. No other team in the history of the NHL has used cap space as an asset to the extent that the Coyotes have. Chayka has turned the disadvantage of having a budget team into a new way of extracting talented young players from teams which make mistakes.
Next season won’t be a successful one for the Coyotes. They aren’t ready to compete for a playoff spot, but when they are, 29 teams in the NHL should watch out because they will be scary. They have the top prospect pool in the NHL, even with Domi and Duclair in the NHL. They’ll most likely finish in the 20th-25th overall range in the NHL, and well outside the playoffs.