Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2020-21, where Last Word on Hockey 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. Make 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 2020-21 Stanley Cup pick. Today the series continues with the 2020-21 Arizona Coyotes.
2020-21 Arizona Coyotes
The 2019-20 season for the Arizona Coyotes saw them qualifying for postseason play for the first time since 2012. In the pandemic shortened season, they were able to gather 74 points with a 33-29-8 record. Since 24 teams made it to the play-in portion of the postseason, the Coyotes were matched up against the Nashville Predators. If there had been no pandemic it would have been debatable that they would have qualified for the playoffs. In their last 25 games before the postponement, they went a horrible 8-13-4.
The Coyotes prevailed against the Predators in the best of five-game play-in series, 3-1. In the deciding Game 4, Brad Richardson buried the winning goal in overtime to secure a 4-3 victory. It moved the Desert Dogs to the “real” playoffs where they had the misfortune of facing the powerful Colorado Avalanche. While the overmatched Yotes managed to win Game 3 after dropping the first two games, they were decimated by identical 7-1 losses in the last two games.
Getting to the postseason was an accomplishment for the team. Whether they can duplicate that feat is yet to be determined. The team thought that they were on the verge of joining the elite team club when they acquired Taylor Hall in December of 2019. They resided in first place and adding Hall would surely seal the deal… right? Wrong, puck followers. With Hall in the lineup, the Coyotes actually never went over .500 mostly due to a two-month absence of star goalie Darcy Kuemper who sustained a lower-body injury shortly after Hall’s arrival in the desert.
The Arizona Coyotes 2020 offseason was eventful, to say the least. We could write an entire article on what transpired, but here’s a brief overview. Not long after their departure from the postseason, the rumours that Taylor Hall would be signing elsewhere began. That became fact when he signed a lucrative one-year deal with the Buffalo Sabres in October. Yet, there’s more. At the end of July right before the Coyotes were heading to the bubble in Edmonton, their general manager John Chayka decided to terminate his own contract. Talk about bizarre! So, assistant GM Steve Sullivan stepped into the GM role until a new GM could be hired.
New GM in Town
That new GM turned out to be the former assistant GM with the St. Louis Blues. Bill Armstrong took over and stepped into a hornet’s nest of challenges. The team was sanctioned for violating training rules of prospects and was stripped of two draft picks over the next year, including their first-round pick for 2020. Then, when the team did get down to drafting players they made a huge blunder in drafting Mitchell Miller 111th only to discover afterwards that he had off ice issues. Miller had been involved in bullying and racially insensitive behaviour when he was 16 years old. The team renounced their drafting of Miller and of course, lost another draft pick. Not good.
If that wasn’t enough drama to entertain everyone, the trade rumours began for Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and even goalie Kuemper. It seemed that the team was in disarray. Eventually through all the suspense of whether OEL would stay or go… he stayed. Much of that could have been due to the fact that OEL had a no-trade clause in his contract and if he was going to be dealt he narrowed down the possibilities to just two teams.
Once the smoke cleared from all the controversy, the team got down to adding and subtracting players.
Gone were Vinnie Hinostroza, Brad Richardson, Michael Grabner (whose contract was bought out), and Carl Soderberg, who is still an unrestricted free agent… and of course Taylor Hall. Those are voids which may be difficult to replace. They did, however, get tougher by signing Johan Larsson, Tyler Pitlick, and John Hayden. Scoring remains their downfall and to date, nothing has been accomplished towards turning on the red light with more frequency.
This is the Achilles heel of the team. They lost Hall, and Soderberg who between them provided 27 goals and Hall only played in 35 games. Replacing that with Larsson, Pitlick, and Hayden who had a combined 17 goals just isn’t going to do it. The Coyotes will need to do what they always have done… score by committee. The other hope is that young players like Clayton Keller, Christian Dvorak, and Barrett Hayton can make up some slack. Or, conversely that known scorer Phil Kessel can get his act together. The team desperately needs a top-line scorer but has failed to acquire one yet.
Nick Schmaltz – Christian Dvorak – Conor Garland
Clayton Keller – Derek Stepan – Phil Kessel
Lawson Crouse – Barrett Hayton – Christian Fischer
Tyler Pitlick – Johan Larsson – John Hayden
Forwards like Nick Schmaltz and Conor Garland need to continue to put up points to allow the offence to take charge of games. That ‘killer’ instinct is obviously missing and to win games in the NHL you need to put your opponent away when the opportunity arises. Lawson Crouse has upgraded his game each season and needs to continue down that path to make him a solid bottom-six player.
The Coyotes top-six looks to be strong on paper, yet the production has not appeared enough to make them a dreaded opponent. Head coach Rick Tocchet may juggle these lines a bit, but it happens every year. Garland can’t do it himself. There’s been extended discussion about Kessel’s lack of production compared to previous years before arriving in the desert. Perhaps, he was hurt last season, but he should be healthy and needs to come into camp in the best shape of his career. Keller just plainly must dominate. He has the ability, now he must use it.
The Coyotes bottom-six seems to be players who can bring the physical game to help stop the other team. If Hayton can develop into a good 30-35 point player they will be effective. Crouse is improving and that helps. Christian Fischer signed a two-year deal and must earn ice time as he was a healthy scratch numerous times last season. GM Armstrong went out and got himself an excellent checking/hitting line with Tyler Pitlick, Johan Larsson, and John Hayden. Look for them to cause the other team to seek their trainer after each game.
Oliver Ekman- Larsson – Jason Demers
Niklas Hjalmarsson – Jordan Oesterle
Extra – Ilya Lyubushkin
The Coyotes defence should be formidable again this season. They pretty much have the exact same lineup as last season where they only allowed 2.61 goals a game. They finished tied for third in the NHL in that category.
It must be mentioned that the after-effects of almost trading Oliver Ekman-Larsson could be detrimental to the locker room atmosphere. OEL and Jason Demers were a good first line combo last season, and that won’t change. The pair of Alex Goligoski and Jakob Chychrun looked good last year and Chychrun is developing into a top-notch defender with scoring potential. In fact, if OEL ever does get traded Chychrun could step into that top blueline role.
Veteran Niklas Hjalmarsson was the topic of some trade rumours and he put that to bed instantly by invoking his no-trade clause in his contract. He and Oesterle seemed to click, so there’s no reason to split them up. Lyubushkin is a good extra D-man able to fill in as needed and is quite the physical guy with 151 hits in just 51 games last season. And, he’s a right-hand shot.
Here is where the Coyotes shine. That is of course IF Antti Raanta can stay healthy. He hasn’t shown that of late, and for this team to succeed they need both goalies ready to go. Darcy Kuemper displayed Vezina-like abilities until he went down with an injury. That is where Raanta must be able to step in on a consistent basis to support Kuemper. Adin Hill could be ready for prime-time and having three goalies in the upcoming condensed season could be almost mandatory. Kuemper can carry the team on his back, but ideally, the load needs to be shared to keep him sharp and healthy.
Darcy Kuemper – Antti Raanta
Players to Watch
Much has been expected of Barrett Hayton, and this may be his opportunity to shine. He really hasn’t had much playing time and was injured for a bit. If he is teamed up with Crouse and Fischer who are both bangers, that could free up Hayton to do his thing. He’s only participated in 20 NHL games with one goal and three assists. It goes without saying that being the fifth overall selection in the 2018 NHL draft means you need to produce.
Clayton Keller will begin his hefty eight-year $57.2 million contract and to put it mildly, he needs to show his worth. He is trying to bulk up to attempt not being pushed around as much and that may help him succeed. Don’t think that new GM Armstrong wouldn’t consider trading him if he comes up short of expectations yet again. If he can perform to the level of his first full season of 2017-18 when he bagged 23 goals and 42 assists in 82 games, he will be earning his huge contract. If not… well he may be dealt.
The final player to watch for this team is goalie Antti Raanta. His injury history is worrisome to say the least. He’s been hurt so much he deserves the nickname “Glassman.” If he can determine his shortcomings in staying healthy this team has a shot to really again possess that one-two punch in between the pipes. Realistically it’s amazing that he’s not been traded except for the fact that there was an overflow of available goalies this offseason. In any case, Adin Hill waits in the shadows ready to step in if needed. Is he NHL ready? We may see.
Prediction for the 2020-21 Arizona Coyotes
As the Coyotes’ roster just seems to have been a bit depleted, it seems unlikely that they will get to the postseason in 2020-21. They just can’t score and even with the additional toughness GM Armstrong added, he has no solution for losing guys who scored like Hall and Soderberg. The entire situation has Armstrong’s hands tied due to mismanagement of the salary cap by his predecessor. They couldn’t afford to keep Hall or Soderberg or even Grabner or Hinostroza.
The team will excel again in goals against with excellent goaltending and a stingy defence. Whether that is enough to get them to the playoffs may be the huge question of the destiny of this team. They have seven UFA’s and three RFA’s on their roster who will either need new contracts after this upcoming season or be traded, or allowed to walk. That will leave them with an astounding $53,941,708 of cap space! Perhaps that will be when we see the real focus new GM Armstrong has in mind. Until then, this team is going to flounder again especially playing against tougher teams with the new realignment due to the pandemic this season. Playing the likes of Colorado (oh NO!), Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues, and Vegas Golden Knights will surely cause them some grief. How long before the 2021-22 season?