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Season preview: Arizona Coyotes have expectations, continuity in 2018-19

Goalie Antti Raanta (32) of the Arizona Coyotes is congratulated by teammates Oliver Ekman-Larsson (23) and Derek Stepan (21) following a 2-1 victory against the Ottawa Senators at Gila River Arena on March 3, 2018 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Arizona Coyotes)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – It was a Thursday afternoon in September, the first day that the Arizona Coyotes were required to be at training camp for the 2018-19 season. The team’s media day had just ended. The roster had not been set. They had hardly even skated together yet.

Nonetheless, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the newly-anointed captain of his team, had an answer when he was asked by Bickley & Marotta on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station whether this is the year the Coyotes go back to the playoffs.

His answer: “Yes.”

“I would say so. Everybody is having a great feeling,” he continued. “I know it’s first day of camp but I think you need to have goals and I think that we need to really be pushing to make it back to a playoff spot, and that’s what we want.”

Ekman-Larsson’s answer wasn’t one rooted in arrogance or optimism bias, but instead had followed comments he made about the direction of the franchise and the building blocks put in place by general manager John Chayka and now-second-year head coach Rick Tocchet.

The belief — the expectation — that the Coyotes make it to the playoffs is substantiated not only by a strong second half in 2017-18, but by comments from opposing players and media pundits saying that Arizona is not a pushover.

Continuity helps with that. After a massive roster overhaul in the summer of 2017, this past offseason was quiet for the Coyotes by comparison. Chayka did add some key pieces — like Alex Galchenyuk, Michael Grabner and Vinnie Hinostroza — but the familiar faces that were crucial to the team’s second-half success last year are back for more.

“It’s huge. You ask any person who works a normal job or any professional, if you’re comfortable, you’re going to do your work better,” Derek Stepan, now an alternate captain, said. “Our group is more comfortable than we were last year with our coach and with the guys in the room, and that’s, I think, life. You want to be comfortable and it’s going to make a big difference.

“Our camp was, in my opinion, ten times better, just because we knew our coach. We knew our system. We knew the guys around the room.”

Not to mention, the man in charge of orchestrating systems, instilling culture and setting the lineup on a day-to-day basis, Tocchet, is no longer in his first year.

“There’s more time to get things done. Obviously guys know the system a lot better,” he said. “There’s more people comfortable in the sense of knowing where to go and what to do and kind of know who I am. I guess as a coach, you’re never comfortable, [but] you’re more confident going into this year that people know parts of the game, the system part is more defined where last year it was kind of on-the-job training.”

Of course, roster continuity doesn’t guarantee a repeat performance, for better or for worse. Galchenyuk, Christian Dvorak and Jakob Chychrun are injured to start the year. The Coyotes will need Antti Raanta to put up more numbers like the ones he had last year. Others will need to stay healthy and consistent.

Plus, the Coyotes’ chances at making the playoffs are influenced by the ability and fortunes of other teams in their division. Having a deeper roster and familiarity with your surroundings is not a guarantee of playing in the postseason. Games are not won or lost in the offseason.

A strong start — the opposite of what the Coyotes had last year — will be critical.

“Obviously history shows when you play well at the beginning of the year, you have a better chance to be in the playoffs,” Stepan said. “Our group has been focused on that from the start of camp. We understand that [the beginning of] last year obviously was a big chunk of why the year kind of was hectic. We want to make sure we’re ready to go from game one and make sure that we have a good start in the first period.”

Clayton Keller, who finished third in the voting last year for the Calder Trophy, said at the team’s media day that the team should treat its first few games like they’re playoff games.

Tocchet, meanwhile, just wants his team to live in each moment.

“I don’t want guys to think, ‘We have to have a good start, or we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do that,’ and they freeze out there,” he said. “The opportunity’s there, go get it. Go grab it, seize the moment, and just go play. And if you do the right things, you work hard, you do the right things long enough, you’ll get good results.”

THE LINEUP

In the Coyotes’ final practice at Gila River Arena on Wednesday before going to Dallas for their season opener, the lineup was as follows:

Panik-Stepan-Fischer
Perlini-Keller-Hinostroza
Cousins-Richardson-Grabner
Crouse-Strome-Dauphin

OEL-Demers
Connauton-Hjalmarsson
Goligoski-Lyubushkin

Chychrun and Oesterle were skating as an extra pairing. Mario Kempe and Barrett Hayton were the extra forwards.

KEY ADDITIONS AND SUBTRACTIONS

Additions: Forwards Galchenyuk, Michael Grabner, Vinnie Hinostroza and Hayton, and defensemen Jordan Oesterle and Ilya Lyubushkin.

Subtractions: Forwards Zac Rinaldo, Max Domi, Jordan Martinook, Freddie Hamilton and defenseman Luke Schenn.

INJURIES

–Galchenyuk: Lower-body injury, week-to-week.

–Chychrun: Lower-body injury. Began practicing with the Coyotes on Tuesday.

–Archibald: Upper-body, day-to-day. Has not yet returned to practice with the team.

–Dvorak: Lower-body injury. Has not yet returned to practice with the team.

PACIFIC DIVISON OUTLOOK

Most people aren’t expecting the Vancouver Canucks to be a playoff team. Outside of that, there’s a case to be made that all of the Coyotes’ other division rivals will be, at the very least, competitive.

The Golden Knights are coming off of a Stanley Cup Final appearance and added Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty.

The Anaheim Ducks, though they’ll have to stay afloat without Corey Perry for a while, have made the playoffs six years in a row.

The San Jose Sharks added one of the best defensemen in the NHL in Erik Karlsson to go with fellow blueliners Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

The Los Angeles Kings brought on Ilya Kovalchuk, return their key players and have made the playoffs two of the last three seasons.

The Calgary Flames added James Neal and Noah Hanifin.

And the Oilers feature arguably the best player in the world in Connor McDavid, and a roster that has a lot of the same players as the one that went to the playoffs two years ago.

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