10 questions as Arizona Coyotes open training camp

Sep 12, 2017, 11:47 AM | Updated: Sep 13, 2017, 11:37 am
John Chayka, left, president of hockey operations for the Arizona Coyotes, poses for a photograph w...

John Chayka, left, president of hockey operations for the Arizona Coyotes, poses for a photograph with the NHL hockey team's new coach, Rick Tocchet, during a news conference Thursday, July 13, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Coyotes underwent so many changes this summer that it felt as if there were no offseason.

Andrew Barroway completed a buyout of the team’s minority owners. General manager John Chayka traded goalie Mike Smith to Calgary. The team parted ways with captain Shane Doan, coach Dave Tippett and right wing Radim Vrbata.

They traded the No. 7 pick in the NHL Draft and defenseman Anthony DeAngelo to New York for center Derek Stepan and goalie Antti Raanta. They traded defenseman Connor Murphy and center Laurent Dauphin to Chicago for defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. They traded forward Brendan Warren and a fifth-round draft pick in 2018 to Philadelphia for forward Nick Cousins and goaltender Merrick Madsen.

They signed free-agent defenseman Adam Clendening. They named Steve Patterson their new team president and CEO and they hired Rick Tocchet as their new coach.

The Coyotes’ 21st season in the Valley gets underway when they open full training camp on Friday at Gila River Arena. Here are 10 questions about this remade roster.

10. Who will be the next Coyotes captain?

Coach Rick Tocchet has not decided when the captains will be announced (perhaps after training camp), but it is widely expected that defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson will assume the captaincy held by Doan for 14 years. It is unclear which players will assume the alternate captain spots with Martin Hanzal and Vrbata gone. Among the candidates: forward Max Domi, defenseman Alex Goligoski, Hjalmarsson, Stepan and center Brad Richardson.

9. What will the left wing and right wing depth charts look like?

The Coyotes are thin at right wing and deep at left wing. Tocchet insists he doesn’t have any preconceived notions about who plays where, but left wing Tobias Rieder had some success on the right last season and is likely to remain there.

Jamie McGinn is a strong candidate to play the right side as well, and has some experience doing so. Clayton Keller is also a possibility, but he played primarily on the left side last season at Boston University. It might make sense to keep him in a position of comfort as a rookie to put him in the best position to succeed. Anthony Duclair and Christian Fischer are the other likely right wings.

On the left side, Domi, Brendan Perlini, Keller and Jordan Martinook are the likely top four, with Lawson Crouse also in the mix. General manager John Chayka said he prefers Martinook on the left side.

8. How will the Coyotes replace Jakob Chychrun?

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Chayka has not set a timeline for Chychrun’s return from offseason knee surgery, only saying that the injury is not season-ending and that Chychrun will miss the start of the season. For argument’s sake, let’s say Chychrun returns after the All-Star break. The Coyotes would need more than a stopgap replacement for him.

Ekman-Larsson and Hjalmarsson will play on the top defensive pair and Goligoski, once thought to be moving to the right side, will likely remain on the left side with Luke Schenn alongside him on the second pair. Kevin Connauton and Clendening would be the third pair, but rookie power-play specialist Kyle Wood, a right shot, is pushing for a spot as the seventh defenseman along with veteran Andrew Campbell.

The Coyotes also signed veteran Tyler Strachan to a professional tryout. He will be the only player on a PTO in camp.

7. Which rookies will make an impact?

The Coyotes hope that Keller, Fischer and center Dylan Strome will all make an impact. All three have the offensive upside that the Coyotes need.

Keller is a creative force who can play with pace. He had 21 goals and 45 points in 31 games at BU. Strome’s ability to play at NHL speed will be the thing to watch. He dominated the Ontario Hockey League last season, scoring 22 goals and 75 points in 35 games. Fischer had 20 goals and 47 points in 57 games with Tucson of the American Hockey League last season.

Wood is also a possibility.

6. How will the Coyotes look different under Tocchet?

Tocchet said last week that he wants his young players to go out and play; not think too much. The style he brought with him from Pittsburgh is predicated on pace and creative license. That doesn’t mean the Coyotes won’t have defensive structure. They will. The truth is that most NHL teams play similar systems. The talent level dictates how much freedom coaches allow.

Tocchet won’t likely start implementing the special teams systems until several days into camp, but it’s a safe bet that the power play will run through Ekman-Larsson at the point and the Coyotes’ more creative players (Domi, Keller, Stepan) on the half wall.

5. Can Duclair regain his scoring touch?

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Duclair signed a one-year, $1.2 million deal on Sept. 2 with the belief that Tocchet’s style would benefit his game. He had 20 goals his rookie season, but just five last year. He was demoted to Tucson and struggled there as well.

“I just wanted to prove this year that I can play at an elite level like I did my rookie season and hopefully have a better contract next summer,” he said.

The Coyotes want Duclair to create more of his offense by using his speed to get in on the forecheck and create turnovers. To a lesser extent, they’d like to see him develop the ability to carry the puck through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone on occasion, maintaining possession.

4. Is Derek Stepan a true No. 1 center?

Stepan logged an average of 18:36 of ice time last season with the Rangers, second among forwards to Mats Zuccarello. He was third on the team with 55 points and second with 38 assists. Typically, No. 1 centers drive the best shot differentials of all the team’s centers and Stepan did that as a plus-31, but some teams use their No. 1 centers in a more defensive role and that was also the case with Stepan, who typically drew top assignments.

The latter duty may take away some of Stepan’s offensive potential, or he may not be capable of putting up more than the 55 points he has averaged the last four seasons. Stepan is not an elite No. 1 center in the mold of Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Tyler Seguin, Ryan Getzlaf, Mark Scheifele or Ryan Johansen, but he is a strong two-way center who provides good production. If Christian Dvorak continues to make strides this season, the Coyotes could have a solid 1A/1B combination, but the Coyotes still would like to see Strome climb to the top of the center depth chart.

3. Can Antti Raanta be a No. 1 goaltender?

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Only time will tell. Raanta has never been in this role before, but the Coyotes weren’t the only team that thought he was ready. Although he shies away form all media requests, Rangers goalie coach Benoit Allaire, once with the Coyotes, also believes Raanta is ready for this step.

Raanta posted a .922 save percentage last season with New York and averaged a .921 mark in two seasons with the Rangers. His even-strength save percentage was .936 last year. That was fifth in the NHL, but his power-play save percentage was just .839. That was 42nd in the league.

The team in front of him had much to do with it, but Smith didn’t post a save percentage higher than .916 in his last five seasons with Arizona. Smith’s even-strength save percentage last season was .923, 20th in the NHL.

2. What is Domi’s ceiling?

Domi averaged .64 points per game his rookie season, and .64 points per game last season when he missed 23 games due to a broken hand. He played long stretches with Martin Hanzal, who helped clear space, but the complexion of his linemates will change this season.

Stepan, Dvorak and Strome are all more creative with the puck than Hanzal, but none clears space, creates net presence and does the type of board work that Hanzal did. It will be interesting to see how that style impacts his game, but the Coyotes believe more creativity and more freedom in Tocchet’s system will lead to an increase in Domi’s production.

1. Can Ekman-Larsson be an elite defenseman again?

(AP Photo/Richard Hartog)

Ekman-Larsson played last season with a heavy heart (not to mention a broken thumb for about six weeks) due to his mother’s 10-year battle with cancer, which took a turn for the worse before the season began. Annika died two weeks before Ekman-Larsson took a leave of absence to be with his family for the final three games of the season.

“I’m going to have to live with this every single day,” he said in an interview with Arizona Sports in May. “It’s not going to go away tomorrow, or next year or in two years. It will always be there, but at the same time, it kind of feels good to put that behind you and know she’s not in pain any more. I’ll be ready for training camp. I’ll be ready to play.”

The Coyotes hope so. They need Ekman-Larsson to play like a franchise defenseman again. In 2016-17, he had his least productive season (39 points) since the 2012-13 lockout season. To help, they signed his brother, Kevin, to a minor-league contract and they signed Hjalmarsson to offer what Chayka called the “perfect partner” on defense.

Ekman-Larsson is eligible for a contract extension next summer and the Coyotes have every intention of re-signing him. Ekman-Larsson said that is also what he wants.

“I love being in Arizona,” he said.

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