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Derek Stepan, Coyotes eager to take next step after successful second half

Arizona Coyotes center Derek Stepan (21) celebrates after scoring a goal against the Vegas Golden Knights of an NHL hockey game, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, in Las Vegas. Vegas won 3-2 in overtime. (AP Photo/David Becker)

If you are an Arizona Coyotes fan and you stopped paying attention after a quarter of the way into last season, you are very confused by the buzz surrounding the team heading into the 2018-19 season.

The Coyotes lost their first 11 games of the season, tying an NHL record, and didn’t win in regulation until 21 games into the year.

A dramatic flip of the switch happened in 2018, though, as the team went 20-14-7 and established at least a couple of positive steps toward becoming a legitimate threat the next season.

Center Derek Stepan, an eight-year veteran, was one of the players who went through that process in his own individual play. He had 15 points in the first 28 games of the season but closed the final 28 games with 26 of his 56 points.

“The beginning of it was certainly a whirlwind,” he said to 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s Burns & Gambo Wednesday. “A lot of guys were a little bit lost, I think I kept using that word. I think it’s a good word because I think we have a good group of guys here that want to make the thing better and get the ship turned the right way — there were so many guys trying to help that we were kind of lost within our own game. Even our head coach said he learned a lot in the last few games.

“It was certainly a roller-coaster start, but I was really happy with the way our group went through adversity. We really found our identity as a group and played a real strong second half.”

The Coyotes have their reasons to be optimistic.

Goaltender Antti Raanta had a 2.24 goals against average in his 47 games played, tied for the second-best mark in the NHL. He, along with backup Darcy Kuemper, both signed contract extensions with the team and solidified the position short and long term.

Led by new captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson, a veteran defensemen group ravaged by injuries last season will be healthy together once promising 20-year-old Jakob Chychrun returns.

Offensively, there’s some pop, with Clayton Keller coming off a 65-point rookie campaign and the newly acquired Alex Galchenyuk and Michael Grabner are bringing a goal-scoring pedigree the team has been desperate for.

There is no loss of recognition on what that process meant for the team’s trajectory, a team that is still very young and finished with only 70 points last year.

Overall, they are still seen as a team in transition, but Stepan knows the mindset needs to be changed going forward despite the progress.

“Yeah, we’re a young team — at some point you need to grab it by the horns here a little bit,” he said. “We can’t lean on that. Now we’ve got our experience, and we’ve got our lessons that we’ve learned and we’ve gotta learn quicker and we’ve gotta learn faster this year.”

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