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Forget momentum, Coyotes must take steps to build on success

(AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — I don’t believe in team momentum from one season to the next. Despite his team’s 20-14-7 record in 2018, neither does Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet.

“I think it’s important that we’ve established something, but we’ve got a long way to go,” Tocchet said before the Coyotes lost to the Anaheim Ducks, 3-0 in the season finale at Gila River Arena on Saturday. “I don’t know if the momentum is going to carry into next year. It’s four months off. That’s a long time so you’ve got a lot of work to do if we want to compete for the playoffs.”

There are plenty of examples of teams that finished one season strong and fell flat the next. There are plenty of examples of teams that finished strong and then carried that play into the following season. To draw conclusions from those facts alone is obtuse analysis. The Coyotes won a lot of games without any playoff pressure and they faced a lot of backup goaltenders. Those facts offer a sobering counterbalance to the late-season excitement the team has generated.

If you’re looking for reasons for optimism, however, there are strong indicators lurking just below the surface.

For starters, the Coyotes won’t come into next season with so many new faces, a new coaching staff and a new playbook. Most of the core will return and they understand Tocchet’s system now.

“There’s a cost to change and I think you saw that early on,” general manager John Chayka said. “It was one of those things where maybe it was a step back to take two steps forward but now we’ve invested the time and invested the energy and the resources into getting our group up to speed. We’ll certainly start ahead of where we started this year.”

In signing goalie Antti Raanta to a three-year extension, the Coyotes brought back the single biggest player in the team’s success over the second half. When the final stats were in, Raanta finished second in the NHL in save percentage at .930 and second in goals against average at 2.24. Since Jan. 1, Raanta has led the league in save percentage (.942) and goals against average (1.84) among goalies who have played at least 12 games.

“It’s so nice to have him back there,” defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson said. “He was hurt at the beginning of the season but when he got back he played unbelievable.

“Even if you screw up or have a bad turnover, you know that he’s going to be there and bail you out. I think that’s a big reason why we have been playing good, because we know that he is going to be there and we have confidence in him and maybe trust him a little bit more.”

On that note, the same can be said of the Coyotes blue line. If the Coyotes can sign Ekman-Larsson to an extension this summer (both sides appear willing), they could bring back the top five defensemen that helped drive the team’s success as much as Raanta: Ekman-Larsson, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers and Jakob Chychrun, whom Chayka expects to be ready for the start of 2018 training camp.

“There will be some changes next year but our core is really strong right now and our D has been really good,” Raanta said. “That’s how you can build on this going into next year.”

There are question marks aplenty with the Coyotes roster. Will Raanta be able to build off this season, stay healthy and start more games? Who will replace free-agent defensemen Kevin Connauton and Luke Schenn if they leave? Do the Coyotes believe Dylan Strome is ready to move into a top-six role or do they need to swing a trade to acquire that critical center piece? Can they add more scoring on the wing? Will their young forwards — Clayton Keller, Max Domi, Christian Dvorak, Brendan Perlini and Christian Fischer — take another step forward?

Those are big questions and they will help determine if the Coyotes are ready to become a playoff contender, but given the pieces Chayka has added in two seasons on the job, given the success the coaching staff has extracted in the past three months, given the presence of Raanta and that deep blue line, and given the fact that most of those aforementioned young players have now shown signs of progress, it’s OK to say the Coyotes are moving in a positive direction on the ice.

It’s critical that they do not rest on that feeling now. They need to build upon it with tangible moves.

“I have a grocery list,” Tocchet said. “We’ve just got to keep pushing the pedal. We can’t stand pat. We can’t pat ourselves on the back, ‘hey, we had a great second half.’ No, we’re still one of the bottom teams.”

“It’s an important summer.”

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