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10 more questions as Coyotes open regular season

Arizona Coyotes' Mike Smith (41) and Shane Doan (19) celebrate the Coyotes' 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks in an NHL preseason hockey game Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — A whirlwind Coyotes offseason that included a complete overhaul of the hockey operations department, staff additions at the scouting and development levels, the creation of an AHL affiliate in Tucson and key free-agent signings will come to a close on Saturday when the Coyotes open the regular season by hosting the Philadelphia Flyers at 6 p.m. at Gila River Arena.

Before we get going, here are 10 more questions to ponder, following up on our 10 questions that preceded training camp.

10. Are all of the rookies here to stay?

Both coach Dave Tippett and general manager John Chayka said this week that Dylan Strome, Christian Dvorak, Lawson Crouse, Jakob Chychrun and Laurent Dauphin earned their spots on the roster in training camp and the preseason. At the same time, Tippett acknowledged that a nine-game trial is an option for the hockey operations staff with the junior-eligible players: Strome, Crouse and Chychrun.

With so many NHL defenseman still available, and Michael Stone and Kevin Connauton returning from injuries soon, Chychrun would seem to have the toughest job to stick. The Coyotes could also decide that Crouse isn’t getting enough ice time to warrant keeping him with the NHL club at such a young age. There is also the reality that Strome, Dvorak and Dauphin all play center and there are only two spots available on a nightly basis. Maybe they are comfortable with Dauphin serving as an extra forward. Maybe they are content to let Strome develop in a part-time basis with the beefed up development staff, rather than returning to juniors. Maybe they will use their nearby AHL affiliate to shuttle Dauphin and Dvorak back and forth while also giving prospects such as Christian Fischer an NHL shot. Injuries and the performance of these rookies will also play major roles.

9. Any news on an arena announcement?

President and CEO Anthony LeBlanc assured everyone at the Coyotes Faceoff Luncheon on Thursday that an arena announcement is coming “very soon” and will include a “community rink aspect” to it. What that likely means is that a practice rink or smaller playing rink will be incorporated adjacent to the main arena where the team can practice and the public can also skate. Other teams such as Columbus have similar set-ups.

As for the timing of the actual announcement, that is still a guessing and waiting game that will likely extend past the season opener. So are the partners, though it is hardly a secret that the Coyotes and Arizona State University have become close partners. ASU already plays some of its marquee games at Gila River Arena.

8. How will all these coaches impact the club?

The Coyotes promoted Steve Sullivan to Director of Player Development, they added Mike Van Ryn as their development coach, Dawn Braid as their full-time skating coach, Steve Potvin as their skills coach and Brett Stewart as their European player development coach. They hired Mark Lamb and Mark Hardy to coach their AHL affiliate in Tucson.

“It’s a little crazy with all these coaches walking around,” Tippett said. “Really, we’re just getting up to speed with the rest of the league but it absolutely helps. The ownership group has devoted the resources and finances to make sure we’re not competing at a disadvantage.”

The proximity of the AHL affiliate will clearly help in the form of collaboration, but the specialized coaches can also be called upon in an instant to correct a problem or help a player with an issue.

“If Shane Doan decides after practice that he wants to work on his skating for a half hour, Dawn Braid is right there to do that,” Tippett said. “That kind of thing has an impact on your team.”

7. Can Louis Domingue follow up his promising rookie campaign and earn more time?

The Coyotes hope so, but on the second half of that question, they may hope not. For Domingue to warrant more time, starting goalie Mike Smith would likely have to be struggling. Still, the way Domingue filled in last season gave the Coyotes confidence in his ability to backstop the team for long stretches. A repeat performance could relieve some pressure on Smith, relieve some of Smith’s workload, and perhaps eventually relieve Smith of his job.

6. When will Michael Stone be ready and what is his future with this team?

Stone has progressed well from ACL/MCL surgery 6½ months ago. He has been cleared for contact and is practicing. Tippett said he is close to returning from the non-roster injured list, but it’s been a long time since he played in a game so the Coyotes will be cautious. As for his future, Stone needs to show he has recovered fully from the injury first, but his future may also rest on what other moves the Coyotes make, and how prospects such as Anthony DeAngelo progress.

5. Are the Coyotes still in the market for a top-four, right-handed defenseman?

Yes. Conversations continue with Winnipeg about restricted free-agent holdout Jacob Trouba, and with St. Louis about impending unrestricted free agent Kevin Shattenkirk. Each presents its own challenges. The Jets appear willing to play hardball with Trouba and let him sit out the season if he wants. If he doesn’t sign by Dec. 1, he is ineligible to play in the NHL this season. Winnipeg does not appear willing to trade Trouba despite agent Kurt Overhardt’s public request for a deal. We’ll see if one side blinks before they reach the point of no return.

With Shattenkirk, the asking price is still too high. The Detroit Free Press reported after the NHL Draft that Blues GM Doug Armstrong wanted center Dylan Larkin in any package. It makes sense to ask for the moon for a top-four, right-handed defenseman, but no teams have bitten yet. There is no foreseeable way the Blues can keep Shattenkirk beyond this season with Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko already manning the right side, and Armstrong can’t afford to let such a valuable asset walk away for nothing after the season. In truth, he can’t afford to wait until the trade deadline when Shattenkirk’s value diminishes because playoff teams won’t want to give away existing NHL pieces as they eye postseason runs. Shattenkirk will be dealt. The when and where have yet to be determined.

4. Are the Coyotes still looking for another assistant GM to help John Chayka?

It’s no longer a priority. Co-owner and President of Hockey Operations Gary Drummond said Thursday that the team was deep in discussions with two candidates, but what Chayka and the hockey operations department have been able to accomplish this offseason has cooled that pursuit. “From an ownership point of view, we could not be happier with what we’ve seen,” Drummond said. “I would not say we will never hire an assistant GM because we might, but it’s not the priority that we thought it was four months ago.”

3. Do the Coyotes have a franchise center?

It was hard to miss what Scottsdale product Auston Matthews (four goals) and Edmonton star Connor McDavid (two goals, assist) accomplished in their season debuts on Wednesday. It was hard not to play the what-if game. Franchise centers are critical to winning Stanley Cups. Nobody has won without one since the 2004-05 lockout.

Right now, Christian Dvorak is a little ahead of Dylan Strome in his development and the way he thinks the game, but the Coyotes still don’t know if they have a franchise center in either player. Here’s the reality: It won’t take long to find out. Check out the numbers for the NHL’s current franchise centers. Sidney Crosby had an eye-popping 102 points his rookie season; 120 his second. Anze Kopitar had 61 points his rookie season; 77 his second. Jonathan Toews had 54 points in just 64 games his rookie season; 69 in his second. Tyler Seguin had 67 points in his second season with Boston. McDavid had 48 points in an injury-shortened, 45-game rookie season. This isn’t a slow growth story. You either have it or you don’t, and the difference between haves and have-nots is championships.

2. What will be the greatest factor in improved performance this season?

Tippett likes to divide his roster into three groups. The veteran group provides leadership, stability and consistency. The young group provides energy and enthusiasm and some production. The middle group is the one Tippett believes is most responsible for determining success or failure. Last season, that group included players such as Martin Hanzal and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. This season, Tippett wants players such as Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Jordan Martinook, Connor Murphy and Tobias Rieder to join that group.

“The key for our team right now and probably the biggest factor in our team moving ahead is that group taking the next step,” Tippett said.

1. Which teams must the Coyotes overtake to make the playoffs?

The Western Conference is a hard read for myriad reasons. How will offensive-minded coach Bruce Boudreau’s hiring impact a Minnesota team whose greatest weakness has been consistent offense? How will a coaching change in Colorado impact a talent-laden roster whose abilities were seemingly lost on Patrick Roy? How will all that youth up front impact Chicago? Was the 2016 postseason a sign that Anaheim and Los Angeles are in decline (especially if L.A. goalie Jonathan Quick misses a significant amount of time with an injury)? Did Calgary do enough in the offseason to push itself back into the playoff picture? Will Connor McDavid end the Oilers’ 10-year playoff drought? The way we see it, Dallas, Nashville, St. Louis and Chicago are locks in the Central Division, and it’s hard to fathom L.A. missing the playoffs in the Pacific after such a strong regular season last year (again, unless Quick is out a long while).

The bubble teams to watch this year will likely be Minnesota, Calgary and perhaps even Anaheim, whose Cup window has seemingly closed. Winnipeg could also jump back in the mix. In other words, it will be a tough road.

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