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Dissatisfying as 2018-19 was, Coyotes’ season showed progress

Alex Galchenyuk #17, Clayton Keller #9, Alex Goligoski #33, Nick Cousins #25 and Jakob Chychrun #6 of the Arizona Coyotes celebrate after Keller scored a goal against the Winnipeg Jets during the second period of the NHL game at Gila River Arena on February 24, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — There was something new about the Arizona Coyotes in 2018-19.

Of course, the record and points in the standings spoke for themselves. The Coyotes had one of their better seasons they’ve had in years, and while they missed the playoffs for a seventh year in a row, they were eliminated just days before the end of the season (such was not the case in preceding years).

But something more intangible was fermenting throughout the season.

“I think [the players] really established an identity, a culture,” GM John Chayka said Monday. “It was the first year we felt like there was a real team environment, everyone was pulling the same direction, similar goals, and that’s the start of something that you can really build a foundation off of.”

If you paid much attention to the Coyotes down the stretch, you probably heard the motto: Scratchin’ and clawin’. That phrase encapsulated the hard-fighting tendency of the Coyotes, a team that stayed in the race despite having many of its most key players miss time with significant injuries.

Relative to expectations at the beginning of the season, then adjusting for the injuries, maybe the Coyotes did pretty well for themselves.

“I think in a roundabout way, we kind of hit close to where we expected,” Chayka said. “Maybe we would’ve expected the point total to be slightly higher, but obviously the west was a tight race with a lot of good teams throughout.

“I wouldn’t have guessed that if we would’ve been tops in man games lost, and not only that, just the combination of key defensemen, key centermen, goaltender at those key times and the combination of those guys coming out at the same time, that was really the challenging part.”

The concept of “facing adversity” may be somewhat cliche, but it was as true as can be for the 2018-19 Coyotes. It became like a badge of honor.

“For me, it was another level for this organization. Another level where we brought ourself to,” head coach Rick Tocchet said. “We squeezed a lot from some players.

“Their attitude of whatever happened the night before, they kept bringing the energy and the attitude the next day. And I think that’s something huge in any team sport that you have to bring if you want to be successful. And they passed the grade for me. They were excellent at that.”

At practices, the mood was often light. In the dressing room, jokes were made. Players jokingly joined in on media scrums. There were always laughs.

“We were a close group,” forward Derek Stepan said. “Everyone bought in. We didn’t have an elite scorer, we didn’t have someone that was scoring every single night, so we had to buy in as a team. Off the ice, we bought in as a group, too, and we became real close. That’s the best part about it.

“Hopefully when you’re done with your career you feel like you made good friendships and you have that family sense in all the teams that you played for. We certainly had that this year.”

It’s part of the ever-important identity and culture, something intangible but palpable that the Coyotes will seek to rely on again next year.

“We took some steps forward in the right direction this year, just from last year,” Oliver Ekman-Larsson said. “‘Toc’ has done a really good job building a good culture and just having everybody show up and work hard. You guys could tell that. We were in every game and we worked really hard every night and that gave us a chance to be in games.”

Something very measurable happened, too: The Coyotes finished tied for the league’s best penalty kill and tied for fifth in fewest goals allowed. Their elite defense helped them sustain what success they did have.

Success is often relative. If this year’s Tampa Bay Lightning had missed the playoffs, that would be considered nothing short of a disaster. That isn’t to say the Coyotes are satisfied with their season, because they’ll all tell you they aren’t. But things are trending well.

“I think my definition [of success] is, were we taking positive steps forward from the year before in all walks of our business?” Coyotes president and CEO Ahron Cohen said. “Did we improve business metrics? Did our team performance improve? Were we building more fans? Were we engaging more in the community? And I can confidently say that we achieved all of those. So I do feel that we had success.

“Now here’s the beauty of sports: There’s truly only one team that you can say had absolute success, and that’s the team winning the Stanley Cup. We took great steps forward but we have a lot of work to go.”

The Coyotes’ season was not perfect.

The most obvious evidence of that, aside from missing the playoffs, is that they finished 28th in goals scored and 26th in power play percentage. That has to change.

Having healthy bodies back next season could help. Nick Schmaltz only played 17 games for the Coyotes. Alex Galchenyuk will (hopefully) have the benefit of not missing time in training camp and at the beginning of the season. Clayton Keller could take a step forward in his progression as a player. And of course, Chayka could recruit help this offseason.

Tocchet said he’ll also look at ways to think “out of the box” and come up with new ideas.

If the Coyotes make the playoffs in 2019-20, which team from this year isn’t in it? Whom does Arizona replace? And how does Arizona handle higher expectations? And does Arizona sustain the things that went right for them this year?

Those are questions that we’ll all find out the answers to with time. For now, there’s another season in the books; one that was both disappointing and very encouraging.

“We’re not satisfied here at all. We obviously don’t want to be here today,” defenseman Jakob Chychrun said. “We want to be on the ice, working at our first round of the playoffs. And unfortunately, we’re not in that situation.

“As a group, we need to have big summers, and I think we all know we’re capable of being in the playoffs, and we’re a team that we think can win. We think we can win in here. And I think we’re excited for next season and getting after it.”

NOTES

–Stepan, who missed several weeks with a lower body injury late in the season, tore his MCL, it was revealed Monday. But he played through the injury anyway after some recovery time and was playing with a brace after he returned.

–Ekman-Larsson was dealing with knee problems and a high ankle sprain.

–Goaltender Darcy Kuemper required stitches to the skin above his right eye and had scratches on his cornea, but was fine after taking a stick to the face last Tuesday. He also had an injury to his knee that he was playing through.

–There was no definite word yet on which Coyotes players, if any, would be participating in the IIHF World Championship that begins in May.

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