GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Coyotes saw promise in their core of rookie and second-year players, who helped the team close the season with a 17-16-4 record over their last 37 games.
“The second half of the season, I thought there was some real growth in our group,” coach Dave Tippett said Monday as the Coyotes cleaned out their lockers at Gila River Arena. “I think it’s sustainable growth that the organization can look forward to.”
In order to sustain that growth, however, Tippett identified an important offseason prerequisite when asked what the Coyotes need to take the next step toward playoff contention.
“We feel like we have these young players coming who are not just young players, but have a chance to be real good young players,” Tippett said. “To compete at the level we want to — there’s a way to put it and it’s no disrespect to any players we’ve had here — but we need better, good players.
“Nothing against Radim Vrbata. He had a phenomenal year, but Radim isn’t at the level that Patrick Kane is, or the top players in the league. You need top players to compete at the top level. We’re trying to foster these young players to become top players so what do we need? We need better, good players.”
General manager John Chayka identified two positions that any Coyotes fan with a modicum of knowledge can recite in his or her sleep: a top center and a top-pairing, right-handed defenseman. The problem therein is that those two positions are arguably the hardest two positions to find.
Assuming Chayka will have the budget to do so amidst majority owner Andrew Barroway’s attempt to buy out the minority owners — a big assumption — the Coyotes will try to find those pieces this summer, and perhaps others.
“Any good team has got a good mix,” Chayka said. “We’ll have to find that healthy balance. We’re no longer looking for that bridge to a bridge to another bridge. We’re kind of looking to pass this team off to a group when they’re ready and they’re getting closer to being at that time where they can step up and lead themselves and grow organically.”
The hope is that some of the young players become elite NHL players. At present, however, Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the only Coyote who fits into that category.
“You look at all the teams that are capable of winning a Stanley Cup, they have special players,” captain Shane Doan said. “That’s why you hope that the young guys become that. There’s not too many guys in the league that can dictate the game.”
There is another reason for acquiring veteran talent. If Doan retires after this season, the Coyotes will have lost three key veteran leaders who played major roles in shepherding the team’s youth to NHL manhood. Martin Hanzal wore an A as an alternate captain and even though Zbynek Michalek spent the vast majority of the season with Tucson of the AHL, he still had an impact on many of the current Coyotes defensemen, including Ekman-Larsson, Connor Murphy and Anthony DeAngelo.
Chayka noted that those three players were all homegrown, fostering an organic growth of leadership. That’s a point worth noting, and Tippett said he talked to Ekman-Larsson about assuming a larger leadership role.
Mike Smith, Murphy, Max Domi, Alex Goligoski and Jamie McGinn are also around to provide that sort of guidance, but with Dylan Strome, Clayton Keller and Christian Fischer also being added to the mix next season, the general feeling is that there is not enough.
“We need some veteran guys that are capable of taking some pressure off of some of these young guys,” Doan said.
“There are some good young players in there that have the ability to be leaders but they don’t have the experience of a Z or Doan,” Tippett added.
This was already going to be a critical summer for the Coyotes with the arena and ownership sagas revving up once again. After five seasons without a postseason, and after watching Calgary, Columbus, Edmonton and Toronto make the leap from drafting among the top six in 2016 to making the playoffs in 2017, the Coyotes see an offseason opportunity to push their youth to the next stage of growth.
“It’s tough to compete in this league, especially in our division against veteran clubs that have been together for a long time,” Smith said. “You throw a lot of kids in the lineup, even though they have improved drastically over the season, it’s tough to win on any given night with as many young players as we have in the lineup.
“I think it’s important for their development to have guys who have been around to sit next to them in the locker room and show what it takes to be a professional in this league. It’s difficult to come in as a young kid in this league.”