With training camps opening around the league and the new season less than three weeks away, we continue our series of team previews with a look at the Arizona Coyotes.
Last Season: 35 – 39 – 8 (78 points), fourth place in the Pacific Division. Missed the playoffs.
Key Newcomers: Alex Goligoski (D) – trade with Dallas; Jamie McGinn (LW) – free agent from Anaheim; Luke Schenn (D) – free agent from L.A. Kings; Radim Vrbata (RW) – free agent from Vancouver; Lawson Crouse (LW) – trade with Florida.
Players to Watch: Mike Smith and Goligoski. The Coyotes allowed the third most goals in the entire league which was a function of substandard goaltending and a mediocre defense corps. GM John Chayka addressed the defense, dealing a fifth-round pick to Dallas in exchange for the negotiating rights to Goligoski and subsequently signed the veteran puck-mover to a five-year contract.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the Coyotes #1 blue liner but Goligoski adds a reliable veteran to the mix who can play in all situations and will strengthen the team’s top-four. Last season he tallied 37 points for the Stars and has averaged 40 points for every 82 games he has played during his career. Goligoski was a horse on the back end in 2015-16, averaging nearly 24 minutes a game for the Central Division champs.
Meanwhile, the team is hopeful Smith will be healthy and provide steady play between the pipes for the Coyotes. The team finished 23rd overall in goalie save percentage with Smith appearing in just 32 games. On a promising note, Smith led all NHL goalies with 15 or more games played in 2015-16 in High Danger Save % (HDsV%) with a mark of 87.4% and has stopped at least 84% of those high quality chances in three of the last four seasons.
Smith was superlative in 2011-12 – the last season the Coyotes qualified for the playoffs – winning 38 games and finishing with a Sv% of 93.0%. He has the ability to single-handedly keep the Coyotes in games and if Goligoski can help clean up the defensive end, the Coyotes will be a contender.
Storylines: The John Chayka experiment and the development of the kids. Chayka is not only the league’s youngest GM but he’s also the first to come from a more analytically-oriented background. Fair or not, how the Coyotes perform with the roster he has assembled will have a major impact on how analytics and advanced stats are perceived in the league. If he can build a winner in Arizona with a limited payroll, it might encourage more clubs to actively embrace the role of analytics in the game.
By all accounts Chayka is a bright guy and most of his offseason moves were met with positive reactions from hockey pundits. His actual reliance on analytics in roster construction may be overstated but there is no question old school managers and coaches will be watching with interest.
Although improved goaltending and more contributions from the club’s blue liners will be important, perhaps the key to this upcoming season is the continued development of its young talent. Max Domi and Anthony Duclair are already well on their way to becoming stars in this league but the team does lack an established #1 center. Fortunately, they do have Dylan Strome, the third overall pick in the 2015 entry draft and one of the game’s top prospects. Strome has been among the most explosive scorers in junior hockey, totaling 240 points in 124 games with Erie of the OHL, averaging nearly two points per contest. No one expects the young pivot to immediately fill the void at #1 but if he can establish himself as a legitimate NHL regular it will take some of the pressure of the team’s returning centers. Assuming Duclair, Domi and the team’s other young players take the next step in their development and Strome proves to be ready for the NHL, Arizona has a realistic shot at playoff contention.