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Coyotes midseason report: Chayka sees hope despite dreary start

Arizona Coyotes team president of hockey operations John Chayka speaks during a news conference for the NHL hockey team Thursday, July 13, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — General manager John Chayka didn’t mince words when assessing the first half of the Coyotes’ season.

“I look at the standings just like everybody else and it sucks,” Chayka said Tuesday, “but for me, I look at it like the tip of the iceberg. It’s the part that shows, but underneath, over the last 18 months here, we’ve done a lot of good things.”

Arizona reached the 41-game mark of the season with a 9-27-5 record. That is the worst record in the league, the worst halfway mark in Coyotes franchise history and the second worst halfway mark in Jets/Coyotes franchise history.

The Coyotes rank 30th in goals against per game (3.54), 30th in goals for per game (2.27), 31st in goal differential (minus-52), 27th in shots on goal per game (30.05), 20th in shots against per game (31.95), 23rd in power-play percentage (16.7) and 20th in penalty-killing percentage (80.5).

Chayka is in his second season as the team’s GM and his first with control over the hockey operations department. While he had hoped the moves the Coyotes made in the offseason would accelerate the process to competitiveness, he knew a youth-laden roster with significant holes would require time to develop and augment.

“I’m satisfied with the way we draft, the way we develop, the way we scout, the way we coach, the way we teach,” he said. “A lot of the stuff we’re doing off the ice is important and I think those things are all trending in the right direction, but it’s like a battleship. It takes a battleship a little while to turn. Once we get things squared away and are moving in the right direction, it will move that way for a long time.”

Chayka said that in two years time, the average age of the team’s top-five scorers has dropped from 33 to 23, but he also thinks the veteran defensive corps he assembled is starting to gel. That corps will gain another piece when Niklas Hjalmarsson returns from an upper-body injury that has sidelined him since Nov. 28, perhaps as soon as Thursday.

“The goal this year was to put together a young, competitive team that had a lot of upside,” Chayka said. “We’re in pretty much every game. Our guys work hard, compete hard, but the amount of games we’ve lost in the last 10 minutes, how do you break through that?

“It’s repetition. It’s learning experiences. It’s developing resiliency, it’s learning how to respond in pressure situations. You have to go through a lot of those things as a group to get there.”

Chayka reaffirmed his belief that Rick Tocchet is the right man to shepherd the Coyotes through this process.

“I’ve never been more confident that he is,” Chayka said. “There’s a certain mindset and approach and mentality that goes into playing to win in this league and Rick is a guy who has done it at the highest level and done it for a number of years.

“In fairness to him as a manager, I think we can do a better job of getting him some more talent and putting them in the right positions to have success. Sometimes, when you look up and as a manager you’re evaluating it, there’s not a right solution to the problem you see, so he tries different things. Some of them might work; some of them might not, but in terms of his philosophy for how to play the game, I think we’re completely aligned. I do think he’s playing to their strengths and that’s something I want to see and do see. Once I get him some better players he’ll continue to be a better coach.”

Before the Coyotes begin the second half of the season in a new year, Arizona Sports took a look back at some of the good, bad and ugly aspects of the first half.

SOME GOOD

Clayton Keller: Keller’s anticipated rookie season got off to a bang. He had nine goals and 15 points in October before cooling off in November. He shook off that slump and is riding an eight-game point streak, which is his second streak of at least seven games this season and the longest rookie point streak in Coyotes franchise history. Keller is doing all of this at the age of 19, and with the entire league knowing he is one of few consistent offensive options the Coyotes boast each night. Keller leads the team with 14 goals and 32 points.

Christian Fischer: If ever a player was built to play Tocchet’s system, it is Fischer. He is big, tenacious, fearless and plays the game with pace. Tocchet wants his players to maintain puck possession in the corners to increase zone time and wear down defenses. He wants them to play between the face-off dots and go to the net. Fischer does all that well. Fischer is tied with Brendan Perlini for second on the team with 10 goals.

SOME BAD

Blown starts, response goals and late goals: The Coyotes have scored first in 19 of their 41 games. That’s normally a precursor to success, but they are 6-10-3 in those games, they have shown a maddening penchant for giving up goals within two minutes of scoring them, and they have displayed an even more frustrating penchant for allowing goals late in games, including a league-high 11 empty-net goals allowed. These are areas where growing pains are glaringly obvious.

Veteran additions: The Coyotes acquired four key veterans this offseason to help shepherd the team through the growth process: center Derek Stepan, defensemen Jason Demers and Hjalmarsson, and goalie Antti Raanta. Stepan has fared the best with 24 points (second on the team), decent possession stats for a poor team, (49.07 Corsi For percentage) and solid defensive play against opponents’ top talent. Raanta and Hjalmarsson have been hurt too often to establish any kind of rhythm. Chayka said he likes the play of Demers with Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

“I think it’s one of the better pairings in the league when you look at some different metrics and how they’ve played,” he said. “Jason has been a big part of the penalty kill evolving and growing as it has.”

Demers’ Corsi For percentage of 51.21 is the best of any Coyote who has played at last six games. Ekman-Larsson is second-best at 50.65.

THE UGLY

The power play: Arizona is 23rd in the NHL in power play percentage at 16.7 percent. The truly ugly part of that statistic is that Arizona is 0 for 12 with a 5-on-3 advantage this season. There have been a handful of times this season when a goal in that situation could have altered the outcome.

The record: Arizona is 9-27-5, 14 points behind the next closest team in the Western Conference standings (Edmonton) and six points behind Buffalo (which has two games in hand) in the overall standings. The Coyotes are almost assured of another top-five pick.

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