Challenges of Coyotes’ growth process magnified by sluggish start

Oct 17, 2017, 8:05 AM | Updated: 11:19 am

Arizona Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet, center, talks with Coyotes defenseman Jason Demers (55) du...

Arizona Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet, center, talks with Coyotes defenseman Jason Demers (55) during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Boston Bruins, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. The Bruins defeated the Coyotes 6-2. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

(AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Rampant changes and a new season created a palpable buzz around the Coyotes this fall, but general manager John Chayka has consistently maintained a measured approach when discussing his expectations for the 2017-18 season.

He knew it would be a process for the Coyotes to adapt to so many new faces in the locker room and on the ice. He knew it would be a process to adapt to a new coaching staff and a new style of play. He knew it would take time for the NHL’s third youngest team to develop consistency.

Even so, there is a stark reality staring the Coyotes in the face as they prepare to face the Dallas Stars on Tuesday at American Airlines Center. They are the league’s only winless team at 0-4-1, and they are sitting dead last in the 31-team league standings.

“It hasn’t gone as planned,” Chayka said Monday. “We want to win. We haven’t got a win yet, so that’s unacceptable.”

The easiest statistics to view suggest rampant problems. The Coyotes are allowing 4.4 goals against per game, the worst mark in the NHL. They are allowing 34.6 shots per game, the eighth worst mark in the NHL. Their penalty killing unit ranks 25th in the NHL at 76.5 percent and their 2.2 goals for per game ranks 24th.

Chayka acknowledged the importance of those stats, but he’s seeing positives signs despite the sluggish start.

“We looked at 22 key metrics and we’ve improved year over year on 19 of those,” he said. “Right now, we’re spending over a minute and half more in the offensive zone, so we’re not defending as much. When you talk about playing (coach) Rick Tocchet’s system, trying to play fast, trying to play with the puck, we’ve executed that, we just need to do it consistently and be on the end result of getting some goals, getting some bounces.

“We’re still giving up some goals and some chances and that’s got to tighten up, but our gaps have been phenomenal so we’ve done a lot of good things to push play the other way. It just hasn’t gone our way, and we’ve only done it in spurts. We haven’t done it in 60 minutes in any of our games.”

Chayka is loathe to reveal most of the statistics he analyzes for proprietary reasons, but another commonly used statistic is Corsi For percentage, which correlates to possession because it measures shot attempts for and against. The Coyotes rank 17th in the NHL at 49.37 percent. That is a dramatic improvement over last season when Arizona finished dead last at 44.45 percent.

A deeper look at his team’s numbers was part of the reason coach Rick Tocchet backed off the comments he made after a 6-2 loss to Boston on Saturday, when he suggested he might need to be harder on his team through measures such as bag skates and curfews.

“I’ve got to be careful,” he said. “You get frustrated. Boston has one shot for 13 minutes, we’ve led five of the six games this year. Statistically, analytics, we’re right up there with a playoff caliber team so we have a lot of good things.

“The negative is the crucial mistakes at the wrong time. That to me is something that is learning — that you just can’t do if you want to be a winning team. You’re more frustrated than anything when you see mistakes so crucial that they go in your net.”

The Coyotes can point to a number of what-ifs in analyzing their record. What if they hadn’t blown a lead with 1:12 to play against Vegas and lost in overtime on Oct. 7? What if goalie Louis Domingue had made a couple of saves he should have made in a 5-4 loss at Anaheim on Oct. 5, or a 4-2 loss to Detroit on Oct. 12? What if starting goalie Antti Raanta, a major part of the team’s offseason change, had played in more than five periods of the team’s first five games?

“Adversity is a great experience, even though it’s a bad one, for our players to understand what it takes to dig in and overcome it,” Chayka said. “You have to learn how to deal with losing a starting goalie and coming through those times. That’s the only way to build up resilience. You get tested, you get pushed and now you overcome it and take that experience and move on. For a lot of these young guys, it’s their first time going through this process.”

Chayka knows that what-ifs are futile. In sports parlance, the end result is what it is. One way in which the Coyotes can move forward and improve is for their best players to play better. Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a team-worst minus-9. While that statistic is often misleading, it’s a fair indicator of Ekman-Larsson’s play as he tries to adapt to new and greater responsibilities in Tocchet’s push-the-pace, push-the-puck-north style.

Ekman-Larsson’s Corsi For percentage of 48.02 ranks fifth among Coyotes defensemen and there have been glaring mistakes like his decision to pinch against Boston while trailing 3-1, with speedy wing Brad Marchand behind him in the neutral zone. Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara connected with Marchand on a pass and Marchand scored on a breakaway for an insurmountable 4-1 lead.

“Everybody wants to win so they try to do a little bit extra to get over that hump, but sometimes, that’s the wrong thing to do,” Ekman-Larsson said. “It can be a tough balance when you’re trying to make plays to help the team win, but sometimes you’ve got to take a couple steps and do the right things and don’t complicate it.”

Like other players, Ekman-Larsson said all the changes require an adjustment period.

“I’ve been playing the same system for seven years and everything is new to me so I’m trying to learn something new every single day,” he said. “It’s the same for other guys. (Niklas Hjalmarsson) has been in Chicago for 10 years so it’s something new to him.

“At the same time, you can’t say this is going to take 82 games to learn. You’ve got to turn it around quick but you can’t get too low when things are going bad. You just keep humble and keep working.”

Chayka said the Coyotes could have taken a different approach if they wanted early-season success.

“Could we have more points playing a different style if we trapped it up, slowed it down and just played safe? Yeah, maybe, but we’re not going to reach that threshold of where we want to get by playing that way,” he said. “This is the way we’re going to reach it and there’s an adjustment period. We’re going through it.”

As the Coyotes adjust to Tocchet’s style and all the new faces, they are also figuring out which players will be the team’s leaders now that their captain of 14 years, Shane Doan, is gone. Ekman-Larsson and Hjalmarsson are not vocal players and center Derek Stepan backed off criticizing the team last week because he’s the “new guy” and didn’t feel it was appropriate for him yet.

Tocchet said he spoke with Ekman-Larsson and got the same feedback — that players are loathe to speak up and lead when they haven’t been doing their own jobs. Until that leadership group emerges, Tocchet acknowledged that responsibility falls on him.

“I’ve obviously got to lead the group, and I take that very seriously, but you’ve got to be careful how hard you are,” he said. “There’s a lot of things to it when you have a young team that’s trying to find its way. For sure, they’re looking for leadership.”

Chayka said he had no problem with the way Tocchet reacted after the loss to Boston.

“We hired Rick because he is an emotional leader and he wants to win more than anything so this stretch has been tough on him,” Chayka said. “He’s up front, wears his heart on his sleeve. Those are all the reasons we hired him, but he’s not letting anything evolve past were it needs to. He’s trying to nip it in the bud. He’s trying to address it right now.

“To try to address it in January make no sense. For our players, there needs to be accountability and a respect factor for their teammates, for themselves and what it means to play for this organization. Those are all things that don’t happen overnight. They happen through experiences and time.”

While Chayka understands there is disappointment internally and externally from the Coyotes fan base, he said there will be no changes because of the poor start.

“We’re staying the course,” he said. “At some point, we knew we were going to hit adversity. We didn’t want it to be starting off the season, obviously, but we’ll see what types of people we have and I do believe we have good people here that will dig in and get us some wins.

“If we can get our starting goalie in net and we can get our systems in place, I also believe that once we get on the momentum side of things, it could take over and we could get on a roll. We’ve just got to get there.”

Coyotes at Stars

When: 5:30 p.m., Tuesday

Where: American Airlines Center, Dallas

TV: FOX Sports Arizona

Radio: ESPN 620 AM

Records: Coyotes — 0-4-1. Stars — 2-3-0.

Injury report: Coyotes — D Jakob Chychrun (knee) and F Brendan Perlini (upper body) are on injured reserve. G Antti Raanta (lower body) is day-to-day. C Brad Richardson (lower body) will be a game-time decision. Stars — None.
Coyotes scouting report: — D Oliver Ekman-Larsson will skate in his 500th career game. … The Coyotes recalled G Adin Hill from Tucson on Monday and he posted a shutout on Saturday. … Coach Rick Tocchet hasn’t decided if Hill or Louis Domingue will start against the Stars.

Stars scouting report: — Ken Hitchcock moved into third place on the NHL’s all-time coaching wins list in the Stars’ victory against Colorado at American Airlines Center on Saturday. Hitchcock passed Al Arbour with his 783rd NHL win. … Prized free-agent signing Alex Radulov has not scored in his first five games. … Goalie Ben Bishop is 2-1 with a 1.62 goals against average and a .938 save percentage. … Former Coyote Martin Hanzal has a goal in five games.

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