Questions abound as new era of Coyotes hockey debuts

Oct 4, 2017, 8:56 AM | Updated: 11:54 am
Arizona Coyotes center Derek Stepan, center, is congratulate by teammates on the bench after scorin...
Arizona Coyotes center Derek Stepan, center, is congratulate by teammates on the bench after scoring a goal against the San Jose Sharks during the second period of a preseason NHL hockey game, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
(AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Coyotes are a fashionable pick in some spaces to surprise this season. USA Today tabbed them for 92 points, a whopping 22-point jump from last season, and Bleacher Report said the Coyotes will be the most improved team in the Western Conference with a radically remade roster.

The main architect behind that makeover has heard the chatter. He responds with a smile that is a mixture of hope, caution and hard analysis.

“Everyone talks about expectations and that’s fine,” general manager John Chayka said. “Our position is that every game is sacred, every season is sacred and if you’re not coming to make the playoffs you’re in the wrong sport, the wrong league.

“Having said that, we have a lot of new faces, a lot of new coaches, a lot of new players. That’s going to be a process and there will be some things that come up — some adversity. How we deal with those things will probably determine our ultimate fate.”

One of those new faces, coach Rick Tocchet, has stressed the importance of a fast start for his new team to develop confidence in itself, confidence in the system he is preaching, and to avoid falling in a deep, early hole in the NHL standings.

That may be the Coyotes’ greatest challenge in a season riddled with questions. The coaching staff is new, the style of play is new, there are seven new veterans on the roster and there is youth all over the lineup. It will take time for all those parts to mesh.

“The whole league wants to get off to a good start, it’s not just us. My belief is these are tough things to judge and evaluate,” Chayka said. “I think we looked good in the preseason and we got better with each game. Does it click in Game 1? I hope so, but to me, it’s more about what happens when we hit some adversity. How are our guys going to react? How are our coaches going to keep things on the rails because eventually adversity strikes no matter how good your team is.”

The Coyotes may still be a year away from a playoff spot (or they may not be), but hope comes in many forms this season.

Chayka has constructed a defense corps that is among the better units in the league, with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers forming a formidable top four. Jakob Chychrun (when he returns from knee surgery), Luke Schenn, Adam Clendening and Kevin Connauton give the team good options for the third pair.

Only Nashville, Calgary and perhaps Anaheim can boast better blue lines.

“I don’t think they’re far behind,” TSN analyst Ray Ferraro said of the Coyotes. “Nashville has such a high end, nobody matches that. Anaheim’s strength is so young, that’s impressive. I would say Arizona is just a tiny step behind Calgary, but what was a weakness should be a real strength for them.”

Offseason acquisition Derek Stepan solidifies a center position that was in bad need of a boost, Antti Raanta has earned a shot at the No. 1 goalie gig and another wave of young players made the roster on Tuesday with rookies Clayton Keller, Dylan Strome and Christian Fischer joining a young core that already featured Max Domi, Brendan Perlini, Christian Dvorak, Tobias Rieder, Anthony Duclair and Lawson Crouse.

All that speed and skill will be on display in Tocchet’s up-tempo style.

“Obviously, I want to play a fast style of hockey,” Tocchet said. “You look at the wingers we have, they’re fast. I want to be a creative team. I want to be relentless but I do want a team to have some swagger going into L.A., Chicago, these type of places where ‘hey, the Coyotes are in town. We’re going to get this from these guys. We’ve got to be ready to play this team.’

“That’s something that we have to establish early and that’s on us to make sure we create that identity. When you play a Coyotes team, they’re on the puck, they’re fast, they’re undeterred, they don’t get bothered by the refs. They’re down by two after the first, no big deal. We can get back in the game. I think those are the characteristics of a winning team and it starts from today.”

Chayka will always be on the lookout for ways to improve his team, but for the time being, he is ready to settle in and evaluate the team he has constructed.

“I want to see where these players start off and I think they’re going to give us lot of feedback about where we’re at as an organization,” he said. “From there, we’ll look to try to make some moves and tweak some things if need be.”

There are no fancy taglines this season like Coyotes 2.0, but this is unquestionably a new era of Coyotes hockey. It is evident everywhere you look in this organization, from ownership all the way down to the roster and medical staff. The product of all those changes will take the ice on Thursday in Anaheim.

“Under Rick, they’re going to play hard, they’re going to play fast and I think we have a talented group that is going to make a lot of high-end plays that will really be fun to watch,” Chayka said. “I think we do have the talent to compete, certainly on the back end, to be an upper echelon team.

“It needs to all come together and gel at the right time and in the right way. That’s the fun part about following a team and going along that journey. We’re not the upper echelon right now but we hope to be.”

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Questions abound as new era of Coyotes hockey debuts