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In fixing goal-scoring woes, Coyotes will look to multiple factors

Head coach Rick Tocchet of the Arizona Coyotes reacts on the bench during the NHL game against the Winnipeg Jets at Gila River Arena on February 24, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Jets 4-1. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The 2018-19 Coyotes season will be remembered as the year defense and goaltending helped carry the team to late-season playoff contention. They were so close, and fans loved them for the effort.

But as memorable as that will be, the offense was forgettable, if not unusual: Arizona had a whopping 11 players score double-digit goals, but the co-leading goal-scorers were Alex Galchenyuk (a former 30-goal scorer) and Brad Richardson (a 14-year veteran with 100 goals for his career), who tied with 19 each.

Nobody reached the 20-goal mark, the first time in franchise history that’s happened, apart from the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. The Coyotes finished 28th in the NHL with 209 goals scored, tied with Dallas and ahead of Los Angeles and Anaheim.

The league average goals per game was 2.98. Arizona went 34-4-1 in games they scored three goals or more, and 5-31-7 in games they scored two or fewer.

“I think to understand what we need to do to improve is pretty simple: we need to score more goals,” GM John Chayka said. “I think any time someone’s going through and trying to diagnose what you need to do to take that next step, that’s not the complicated part, or complex part. What I think we need to understand and work through is, how do we score more goals? How do we create more offense, while maintaining that fundamental foundation of being a good, stingy defensive team?”

The bright side is the Coyotes were very good defensively, finishing sixth in fewest goals against and tied for first in penalty kill percentage. The Coyotes will look to maintain that but still find a way to put pucks in the net, and improve a power play that scored 16.3 percent of the time — the sixth-worst in the NHL.

Assistant coach John MacLean said that having so many injuries this past season created issues with slotting players into their appropriate spots in the lineup and on special teams.

“Trust me, the power play’s nothing to hang your hat on this year, for sure,” he said. “But it’s there and you can see it, it’s just kind of getting those guys in the right positions to succeed, and that’s no different than anything else: penalty kill, power play, 5-on-5, so that’s something we’ll have to look at and work on.”

ADDING A SCORER

It’s fun to speculate who the Coyotes may or may not target, but there are lots of variables in the market and other teams vying for players’ services. Even Chayka himself, when asked whether he saw trades or free agency as a more viable option for adding pieces this offseason, said he wasn’t sure.

“I think, in order for us to be a team that takes the next step and contend, we will need some external help and that’s what we’ll look to do,” Chayka said. “Whether that’s trade or free agency, at this stage, I don’t know.”

(AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Every team would love to add a goal-scorer, and the Coyotes might be at the top of the list of teams who would really benefit from the services of free agents like Buffalo’s Jeff Skinner, who scored 40 goals this season. But with talent comes a high cost of acquisition, and Skinner might be prohibitively expensive.

Chayka addressed the matter of financial resources and ownership last week (president and CEO Ahron Cohen said the team is still exploring potential outside investors, but ownership change isn’t imminent):

“My job as the GM is to take the resources available to us and allocate them as efficiently as possible,” Chayka said. “And, can we continue to do a better job of that? There’s a lot of teams that finished below us that spent a lot more money than we have. I don’t think it’s just a resource problem in that sense, or just a capital problem. I think there’s opportunity for us to continue to grow and get better and add to our group and that’s my focus.”

A 40-goal scorer would be a big get for any team, but forwards who scored closer to 20 goals this season will also be hitting unrestricted free agency, like Jordan Eberle (19 goals), Gustav Nyquist (21 goals) or Brock Nelson (25 goals). Those players would be more affordable for any team, Arizona or otherwise.

Trading for players is another option. Last offseason, the Coyotes traded for Galchenyuk and Vinnie Hinostroza, for example.

“Everybody wants somebody,” MacLean said. “But it’s also the pieces that fit into the puzzle. That’s John [Chayka] and upper management. Us, we get who we have. The guys that we get, we have to figure out ways to put them in a position to succeed.”

INTERNAL POTENTIAL

Ultimately, the players the Coyotes already have in place will be critical for getting things right offensively. Head coach Rick Tocchet said as much when listing a variety of ways the Coyotes can score more goals in 2019-20.

“Well, I think coming in healthy is going to add some stuff,” he said. “I think some guys that did not have a good year are going to play better.

“Obviously we’re going to talk about outside help, whether it’s free agency or trades or whatever, we’ve got to get it done. We know we have to get scoring, but there is scoring in here that we know we have some guys that can score. And we’ve got to maximize those guys, for sure.”

The team expressed its belief in Galchenyuk and Nick Schmaltz, two players acquired since the end of last season who have shown flashes of scoring potential at the NHL level. Galchenyuk had 30 goals in Montreal in 2015-16, and Schmaltz had 21 goals in 2017-18 with the Blackhawks. Keller had 23 goals a year ago but only 14 in 2018-19.

“Again, I sound like a broke record, but I still think that we’ve got guys,” Chayka said. “Galchenyuk has scored 30 goals, Michael Grabner scored 30 goals before. Clayton Keller scored [23]. We got Nick Schmaltz, he didn’t play a ton for us, but he’s a 20-plus goal scorer. Derek Stepan’s a 20-plus goal scorer.”

Because of injuries, the Coyotes didn’t see their full core of offensive players on the ice together much at all this season. Galchenyuk played 72 games, but was hurt to start the year and missed part of training camp. And all of the players that Chayka listed with the exception of Keller were injured for part of the season.

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

“I think there’s a number of players that offensively, can perform better, should have performed better,” Chayka said. “We gotta do a deep dive here, and what is the impact of the injuries, not only in terms of man games lost, but chemistry? Put together lineups that are able to produce more offense. How much potential is there in young players and their development, and their trajectory?

“You go down the list and obviously, the [Christian] Dvoraks and the [Christian] Fischers and the younger guys come and we feel like there are opportunities for guys to produce more. Whether they can or whether they get there, those are things we’re gonna have to discuss and address and understand.”

COACHING ADJUSTMENTS

Part of the equation could just be as simple as the coaching staff pushing the right buttons.

“I think myself as a coach has to come up with new ideas,” Tocchet said. “The power play’s got to get better. I’ve got to get some confidence in some guys. And that’s over the summer. And that’s my job. I’ll be in contact with a lot of guys. I’ve got some out-of-the-box thinking for some of these guys.”

Merely getting adjusted to the 5-on-5 system put in place by Tocchet, though, shouldn’t be an issue; MacLean even said there’s not as much focus on that anymore with the same players being around Tocchet for two years now.

Tocchet and MacLean both pointed to the defensive effort by the whole team as one thing that can’t change in their effort to produce more in the offensive zone. And of course, the fewer goals you allow, the fewer you need to score.

“I like this team,” Tocchet said. “We can win 2-1. And we’re going to have to win 5-4 some nights, too. That has to be in your DNA. So I don’t think I’m going to devise a system: ‘Oh, we’re just going to score more but we’re going to sacrifice our defensive play,’ no.

“Now, do you activate the D a little bit more because our system’s a little bit different? Yeah, I can tweak certain things. But I’m not going to tweak our identity because I’m trying to get a guy 30 goals. That won’t happen. For sure. But if you defend well, you’ll get the puck more, and that means you’ll transpire to more chances.”

MacLean lauded the team for playing “the right way” in 2018-19.

“Would we be having the same conversation if we were 20 points out and guys scored more goals?” he said. “So, it’s a learning process as well, being on the right side, knowing that those opportunities come, how to handle those opportunities, be ready to shoot, whether it’s when to pass and when to shoot, but you’re playing the game the right way.

“To me, it’s a learning process they’ve gone through and had to go through, and now, I think the expectations will be for them to carry that experience with them into next year.”

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