What might Coyotes’ lines, pairs look like for 2018-19 season?
Rick Tocchet’s mind never stops working. For the past couple weeks, he has kept it occupied with the NHL Draft, free agency and planning the team’s upcoming training camp with his staff. Now that the Coyotes coach has a good sense of his roster make-up, you can bet he’ll be pondering more possibilities.
“When it comes to line combinations, we haven’t had a meeting as a staff where we sat down and talked about it yet,” Tocchet said Monday. “I’m not quite sure how it’s going to play out, but it’s something that will probably be on a bunch of different napkins.”
Tocchet has a couple new, top-nine forward pieces to play with in center Alex Galchenyuk and wing Michael Grabner. He’ll also have some new depth players on the roster, with center Marcus Kruger and prospect Lawson Crouse likely making the jump from the Tucson Roadrunners of the American Hockey League (AHL) to the NHL.
Nothing is set in stone yet. It’s not even set in pencil, but here is a quick look at what might happen with the Coyotes forward lines and defense pairs (The goaltending situation is set with Antti Raanta the starter and Darcy Kuemper the backup).
Tocchet is giving great consideration to keeping his first line together with wing Richard Panik, center Derek Stepan and wing Clayton Keller.
“The last 10, 12 games, they were a pretty good line in the league,” Tocchet said. “I think you have to at least entertain keeping those guys together. Panik played his best hockey the last 10 games and he’s going to be a key for us. Can he keep that consistency and play the way I want him to play; be an established guy? That’s going to be key for that line staying together.”
On the second line, Tocchet is considering playing Galchenyuk with wing Brendan Perlini, who can stretch the zone with his speed. The other wing is still a question mark, with Dylan Strome, Mario Kempe and Josh Archibald possibilities. One of the keys to this line will be its attention to detail at the defensive end.
“If Alex wants to play center, I’m not looking for him to win the Selke [Trophy] but if he can play a solid, two-way game, he’s going to get his chances at the other end,” Tocchet said. “Conscientious defense will create opportunities at the other end and that’s what I’ll talk to him about.”
Tocchet is considering playing wing Michael Grabner, center Christian Dvorak and wing Christian Fischer on the third line.
“Grabner can fit in that third-line role,” Tocchet said. “He can chase some pucks down and stretch the zone. That’s my system. When we have possession, if we can have that one guy take off and stretch the zone, we’re more effective. That opens up our defensemen on the weak side. I like to activate that guy and that’s why we were so effective the second half of the season. He’ll help us do that.
“He’s a fast player, he’ll score and he’s a real good penalty-killer. He’s a straight-ahead guy, he’ll shoot the puck and he’ll chase things down.”
On the fourth line, the likely combination is wing Crouse, center Kruger and wing Nick Cousins, with Josh Archibald also in the mix — and perhaps Laurent Dauphin once he recovers from a knee injury that is expected to sideline him for the start of training camp. Brad Richardson’s signing gives the team another option, either at center or on the wing.
“Guys might have to move around a little bit and play different positions,” Richardson said. “If you’ve played center, you can usually play the wing.”
One puzzle piece that is hard to place is Strome. Do the Coyotes play him at his natural position, center, to bring out his greatest attributes? If so, which center does he replace? Do they consider playing him on the wing?
“Not sure yet,” is all Tocchet could say at this point.
General manager John Chayka won’t stop working to improve the roster. If a trade comes along that makes sense for a scoring wing, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to think that Strome, a defenseman or another player could become a key piece in that deal. But for now, Tocchet expects to report to camp with all five centers (plus Cousins, who can also play the position).
“If this is the group we’re going with, we’re comfortable,” Chayka said.
The Coyotes locked up defenseman Kevin Connauton on Wednesday, and defensemen Oliver-Ekman-Larsson and Niklas Hjalmarsson on Sunday, putting each of the top six defensemen who finished last season under contract (the others are Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers and Jakob Chychrun). Chayka said that one of the team’s young defensemen – Ilya Lyubushkin, Robbie Russo, Trevor Murphy, Dakota Mermis or Kyle Capobianco — would likely battle for the No. 7 defense spot.
Hjalmarsson was initially signed to pair with Ekman-Larsson, but Demers — the lone right-handed player among the top six — eventually played that role and Tocchet liked what he saw.
“They had a good chemistry and the I’m a righty-lefty guy when it comes to defense,” Tocchet said. “I know sometimes it’s impossible to find that, but I thought that worked and the thing with Nik, Chych and Goligoski is those guys could rotate in and be interchangeable. JD got better as the season went along. I call him my wild card. He knows he’s got another level in him. If he can find that next level with OEL, that could be a really good top pair for us.”
Tocchet considers the next four interchangeable, with Connauton filling a third-pair role and the other three rotating. Tocchet thinks a full year in his system will make a huge difference at the start of the 2018-19 season.
“I really like our D,” he said. “I like the way they have taken to the system. They really get it now and that has transferred to the offensive end. They understand how we play the D-zone. There’s no gray areas and there’s no learning process now. There’s no hesitation. They’re coming to camp knowing what I want.”
On special teams, the mixes are still a guess, but Stepan, Keller, Galchenyuk, Perlini, Fischer, Dvorak and Strome could all figure in the mix at forward, with Ekman-Larsson, Demers, Chychrun and Goligoski all playing bigger roles on defense. The penalty-killing unit has Kruger, Grabner, Stepan and Dvorak as possibilities, with Ekman-Larsson, Demers, Hjalmarsson and Goligoski on defense.
With the losses of Luke Schenn (Anaheim), Zac Rinaldo (Nashville), Brad Richardson (still a free agent), Jordan Martinook (Carolina) and Max Domi (Montreal) in free agency or trades, some analysts have wondered if the Coyotes have enough bite in their lineup, despite the expected addition of Crouse. Here is what Tocchet said about that.
“I don’t really care if guys fight or not. Obviously, I want guys to back each other up, but you have to be competitive on the puck. That’s bite to me,” he said. “I’m not looking for guys to run around and kill guys. As much as I like to see a guy get buried on a check, if it doesn’t happen it doesn’t happen, but you darn well better be competitive on the puck.
“We have a couple guys that I thought were below average last year and I need them to come in with a different competitiveness. When you have a guy who is 170 pounds, winning battles in the corner, that’s an attitude. The coaching staff can help you sustain that competitiveness or bite. Some players never get it and then you have to move on. Every guy that plays here has to have that Coyote competitiveness on the puck. That’s just the way it’s going to be and we have to start that in training camp.”