GLENDALE, Ariz. — Very little went right for the Arizona Coyotes last season — or offseason. For starters, they managed just 56 points, the worst total since the franchise moved to the Valley from Winnipeg in 1996.
They finished last in the Western Conference. They missed the playoffs for a third straight season. Their coach and captain both questioned their futures with the club. They lost the NHL Draft Lottery and the right to choose one of two franchise centers. They lost out on the player they wanted most in the offseason, defenseman Dougie Hamilton, and they lost the 15-year arena lease and management agreement they had with the City of Glendale less than two years into the deal.
The feeling around Gila River Arena — for now, the home of the Coyotes — is that things can’t get any worse. The 2014-15 season was rock bottom.
“We want to put last season in the rearview window and never ever think about it again,” general manager Don Maloney said Thursday.
With a multitude of talented forward prospects in the system and a revamped blue line, the goal is to compete for a playoff spot in the deep and talented Western Conference this year. There are many rivers to cross in that chase, but before the Coyotes can begin the arduous task of convincing their fan base and themselves that they can compete again, a few questions have to be answered in training camp, which opens Friday.
Here are our top 5 questions:
Which rookies will make the team? Coach Dave Tippett offered the classic coach’s stance when he said, “nobody has made the team yet” during rookie camp. If 2013 top pick Max Domi doesn’t make it, however, there just might be a riot among the season ticket holders. Domi did his time in the Ontario Hockey League. He improved his game away from the puck and he improved his decision-making with it. His elite stick skills are plain to see and he is exactly the kind of shot in the arm the Coyotes need.
Forward Anthony Duclair is less certain, but probably still a safe bet. He played 18 games with the New York Rangers last season and also brings a high level of skill. He still has to prove to Tippett that he can play the game the right way to succeed at the NHL level. That means being detail oriented, defensively responsible and capable of making good decisions with the puck with far less time to make them.
Wing Brendan Perlini is a darkhorse. The team’s 2014 first-round pick missed 25 games last season at Niagara (OHL) due to a hand fracture suffered in training camp. That set back his development so the Coyotes may want him to get more time away from the NHL pressure cooker, but he’s a natural goal scorer who had two goals in the team’s two rookie games in Los Angeles where Maloney called him “arguably our best player.” The Coyotes don’t have a lot of offense so Perlini intrigues.
Coyotes development coach Steve Sullivan said the team still views Christian Dvorak as a center which could make it difficult to crack the lineup this season with Antoine Vermette, Martin Hanzal, Brad Richardson and Boyd Gordon all slated to play that position. On the other hand, Maloney was talking up center Dylan Strome, the No. 3 pick in this year’s draft, at Media Day on Thursday. He’ll still need to blow the coaching staff away in preseason games to avoid another year in juniors, but Strome is off to a good start.
Forward Henrik Samuelsson has to show better skating skills — a longstanding problem — and better hockey sense from the top of offensive circles back to his own goal line, but the 2012 first-round pick is at a point where it may be time to give him a look.
What will the defensive pairings look like? Without Hamilton to pair with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the Coyotes still don’t know who will man the right side on the team’s top pairing. Veteran Zbynek Michalek makes more sense from a balance standpoint because he’s a solid defender who can protect Ekman-Larsson’s rushes. On the other hand, assistant coach Jim Playfair believes the team is better off if Michael Stone can grab that spot and allow Michalek to tutor the younger players.
The problem with sliding Michalek down is whom does he play with? If Nicklas Grossmann plays with Connor Murphy on the second pairing, Michalek would pair with Klas Dahlbeck, giving the Coyotes two players not terribly adept at puck movement.
The Coyotes acquired Stefan Elliott last week to add depth and another right-handed shot, but at this point, he looks like the seventh defenseman in the rotation.
What will Shane Doan’s role be? Doan is the unquestioned leader of this team and that won’t change. Maloney noted Thursday that Doan is exactly what the Coyotes franchise wants to be, on the ice and off it. He’s the perfect mentor for the team’s young players.
The main question for Doan is will he be placed in a lesser role on the ice, with fewer minutes as he enters the final year of his contract and turns 39 (Oct. 10)? Tippett has floated the idea of a line with Richardson at center and Doan and Tobias Rieder on the wings. Tippett won’t call that the third line because matchups could alter which players play more minutes, but dropping Doan away from the team’s top two offensive centers (for the moment, Vermette and Hanzal) could be a signal that the Coyotes aren’t expecting Doan to provide as much offense as he has in the past.
How will the Jon Elkin-Mike Smith arrangement pan out? Elkin has been Smith’s goalie coach since he was 12 so there is a comfort level there that Smith could not have found with any other hire after the departure of goalie guru Sean Burke. Nobody has said it aloud, but you have to believe this move was made in part to protect the Coyotes’ investment — and to remove any excuses for Smith, who signed a six-year, $34 million deal after the 2012-13 season.
Elkin won’t be with the club every day. He estimates he will spend 18-20 days each month in the Valley working with Smith and backup Anders Lindback. On the other days, when there is limited practice time during the season, he will remain based in Toronto, where he will watch tape of the games and send his analysis to Smith and the coaching staff.
“He’ll be here enough that I get enough good work in and hopefully, the rest can take care of itself and I won’t need him too much,” Smith said.
Is the entire 2015-16 roster in camp? Maloney said the team wanted to go into camp and evaluate its young forward prospects before filling the final roster spots with existing NHL veterans. What if the preseason proves that enough of those prospects aren’t ready? What will the Coyotes do for depth on a blue line that right now, sports just seven defenseman including Stefan Elliott on a two-way contract?
Maloney said Thursday he would continue to comb the waiver wire and look at other players that might still be available in free agency. There is also the possibility the Coyotes could swing a trade if they feel the need. There are still some holes to fill. One way or another, they will be filled.