Summer’s over: Arizona Coyotes return looking to take next step
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Coyotes have waited longer than they’d have liked to get back on the ice for the upcoming NHL season.
“Obviously it was a longer summer than everybody wanted, and we don’t want to do that again,” veteran center Derek Stepan said Thursday.
There is cautious optimism heading into the season by observers of this team, with pundits asking the question of whether the Coyotes will get over the playoff hump in 2018-19. The improved expectations, combined with a hot finish to last season, has Arizona’s players chomping at the bit to start the campaign.
Wait no longer: The Coyotes arrived at Gila River Arena on Thursday for medical and physical testing, as well as media day, prior to the first day of formal skates and the start of the team’s training camp on Friday.
“We’re ready to get back to the formal skates and get into the swing of things, and continuing to build what we started last year,” Stepan said.
The Coyotes underwent an abundance of change last offseason, replacing their head coach, letting go of their longtime captain and making overhauls to their roster. They opened the year with an 11-game losing streak and were 9-27-5 when they got to the end of December last season.
Then, after New Years, they went 20-14-7.
“I think we kind of hit the rock bottom there in December when we played lots of games at home and we didn’t find the ways to win the games, we found the ways to lose the games different ways,” goaltender Antti Raanta said. “We got a little time, after New Years I think we practiced three or four days in a row and I think everybody was just sick [and] tired of losing but also everybody wanted to get that next game to show that we are not that bad of team.”
Stepan credits health of the team and strong goaltending as the reasons for the stark improvement, but also realizes the momentum may not necessarily carry over through the offseason.
But it helps that the team has more experience now.
Forward Clayton Keller enters his sophomore season with a better picture of what the NHL is like. In 2017-18, Keller had 32 points in the first three months of the season. In January and February he had just 12 total, before tacking on 21 more between March and an abbreviated April.
“I expect myself to be ready for all 82 games,” he said. “You learn that after your first year, just how hard the schedule is. So this year I kind of know what to expect and how to take care of my body. You learn things in your first year, so I expect myself to be ready for all 82 and I think I’ll be fine.”
Raanta, the team’s starting goaltender, now has a year of experience under his belt as a starting netminder, having only been a backup before last season. He set a career-high in games played in 2017-18, but nonetheless missed time due to injury. Raanta will look to stay on the ice in 2018-19 after improving his muscular strength in the offseason and learning how to take care of his body as a starter.
The head coach, Rick Tocchet, is no longer unfamiliar to the group. And the general manager, John Chayka, yet again made several offseason moves to give a new look to the roster — namely adding forwards Alex Galchenyuk and Michael Grabner to improve the offense of a team that finished 30th in the league in goals last season.
“It’s been fun, it’s been great so far,” Galchenyuk said. “I came down here last Friday. So I get to meet the guys and adjusting well. I love the heat, it’s definitely a different environment and I’m enjoying it so far.”
Galchenyuk scored 19-32-51 last year and had 30 goals in 2015-16. Grabner has scored 27 goals in back-to-back seasons.
“I think we have a lot of talent, especially young talent coming up. I just remember from playing the Coyotes last year, come in here, it was a pretty tough game,” Grabner said. “They had some good speed up front, a couple good young D-men that can play pretty hard. So it was not a fun to play here, so hopefully I can come in and help them out a little bit.”
With new faces, more experience and a reset on the injury bug, the Coyotes will skate on Friday at Gila River Arena starting at 9 a.m. The 63-player training camp roster will be divided into Team A, Team B and Team C.
The first preseason game is on Sunday, with the season-opener taking place in Dallas on Oct. 4.
The Coyotes named 27-year-old defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson as the 16th captain in franchise history on Thursday, filling a year-long vacancy left by former captain Shane Doan.
“I’m probably going to be running around a little bit out on the ice for the first couple of games to get used to it, but I know we have a really good team and I know that we’re going to need everybody to be successful, and I also know that we have a lot of good leaders in the room who’s going to help me to realize our goals,” he said.
Ekman-Larsson was given an eight-year contract extension in July, worth a reported $8.25 million.
When asked what he likes about Arizona: “Everything,” he said. “I’ve been here for eight years now and it feels like home. Every time I come back here, it feels like home. I have my place here and I have lot of friends here off the ice, too. So I like everything about it.”
You can read the full story on Ekman-Larsson’s captaincy here.