Is the future of the Arizona Coyotes now?
This is the belief of front office executives, who will watch the team open its season tonight in Anaheim.
“I think you (the fans) should and deserve to raise your expectations of how this team should perform on the ice,” said owner Andrew Barroway at a recent town hall held by the team that also featured play-by-play announcer Matt McConnell, general manager John Chayka and CEO Steve Patterson.
The Coyotes finished 30-42 last season and have not advanced to the playoffs since 2011-12.
Barroway said the organization made a significant effort this offseason to win now.
Chayka had a busy offseason trying to integrate veteran leadership into a young roster. Key acquisitions include center Derek Stepan, defensemen Jason Demers and Niklas Hjalmarsson and goalie Antii Raanta.
“No move was made in isolation, no move was made independently,” Chayka said. “It was all for a bigger picture we’re after here – to build a championship caliber team.”
Chayka believes the biggest addition to the team is new coach Rick Tocchet.
The organization spoke with approximately 35 different candidates ranging from junior coaches to coaches across Europe, Chayka said.
“We realized he (Tocchet) was the best candidate by far,” Chayka said. “He expects nothing short of excellence.”
This offseason the Coyotes wanted to find a coach that knew what it took to get to the next level.
They found that in Tocchet.
Tocchet won a Stanley Cup as a player with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1992 and won two more as an assistant coach with Pittsburgh during its recent back-to-back championship season run.
Tocchet will have an instant impact on the young Coyotes team, TV analyst Tyson Nash said.
“He’s won a Stanley Cup as a player and two as a coach,” Nash said. “How are you, a young kid in the locker room, not soaking up everything Rick Tocchet is talking about?”
Chayka and Barroway believes Tocchet brings a different standard coming into this season.
In addition to new leadership at the head coach position, Chayka believes the offseason moves that brought veteran experience to Glendale could solidify the team as a playoff contender.
One player Chayka is particularly excited to have on the roster is Hjalmarsson.
Hjalmarsson has spent his entire career with the Chicago Blackhawks up to this point, winning three Stanley Cup titles with the organization.
“I sat down with Oliver (Ekman-Larsson) and posed the question who he thought would be the best partner for him in the NHL,” Chayka said. “Hjalmarsson was at the top of his list.”
Chayka said adding both Hjalmarsson and Demers to Tocchet’s repertoire creates one of the better blue lines in the NHL.
In addition to strengthening the Coyotes defense, Chayka believes the departure of goalie Mike Smith and the arrival Raanta will create better chemistry on the ice.
“When you go from a Mike Smith to an Anttii Raanta, that age group lines up a bit better for us,” Chayka said. “Obviously we can allocate our capital better so we can go out and get a Derrick Stepan, that frontline center we haven’t had for over a decade.”
Stepan is a player Chayka believes can bring guidance to players such as Anthony Duclair, who played a stint for the AHL Tucson Roadrunners last season.
McConnell reminded fans at the town hall that Raanta has a lifetime record of 16-4 and a 1.99 goals against average while playing against Pacific Division teams.
The young artillery of the Coyotes has also progressed this offseason. Chayka said the team’s first-round draft pick, Pierre-Olivier Joseph, has exceeded expectations.
Additionally, Jakob Chychrun has made great strides during knee rehabilitation although Chayka doesn’t believe Chychrun will appear on the ice for at least a few more weeks.
The Coyotes have a lot to be excited about off the ice as well.
Steve Patterson introduced the team’s new mobile ticketing concept in addition to new concessions and updates to both the BMW lounge and Fox suite.
Patterson, however, did not have a lot of news regarding a new arena for the Coyotes.
“Right now, we’re really focused on the start of the season and getting off to the best start we can,” Patterson said. “When we have something to announce in the future, we’ll do that.”
Jimmie Lister, a 21-year season ticket holder, respected the team’s decision to not comment on the arena situation.
“In a way, by them not delving too much into that, that’s probably for the better,” Lister said. “There’s been a lot of disappointment in the past just the way things unfolded.”
Lister was referring to a new arena announcement in partnership with Arizona State University that wound up not happening.
Lister said he can see the team performing above expectations this year based on the new attitude that has made its way around the organization.