The 5: Questions facing the Arizona Coyotes entering the season
The Arizona Coyotes are back to work.
Following medicals, fitness testing and media day on Thursday, the Coyotes were set to take the ice on Friday at Gila River Arena to begin training camp.
After a season that started poorly but ended with a strong finish, followed by an offseason of more roster moves by general manager John Chayka, there are some heightened expectations entering this year.
But what questions about this group need to be answered before the season? Which questions will the season itself answer for us? Here are the top five unknowns facing the Coyotes as camp begins:
1. How do the Coyotes respond after an up-and-down season?
Arizona opened last season with an 11-game losing streak under a new head coach and was 9-27-5 by the end of the calendar year. Fortunately for them, they turned things around after Jan. 1 and went 20-14-7 for the rest of the season.
It’s up to them to decide which version of themselves they’re going to be throughout the year in 2018-19, and whether they can maintain consistency in all facets of their game.
“I think we treat our first couple of games like they’re playoff games,” Clayton Keller said. “If we get off to a good start, like I said, and we get some confidence and we’re playing our systems the right way — and training camp’s huge, too. I think everyone’s ready and everyone’s excited to get going.”
Their poor start wasn’t helped at all by having to adjust to a new coaching style while also playing a difficult schedule at the beginning of the year that allowed for little-to-no practice time. The beginning of this upcoming year could help gauge just how much that challenge was affecting the team last year, and how much progress was made since then.
2. What does Antti Raanta do in year two?
Starting netminder Antti Raanta was 21-17-6 last year, with three shutouts. That’s a far better record from a percentage standpoint than the Coyotes’ eventual mark, 29-41-12. In other words, there was a correlation between Raanta playing in net and Arizona having success. But he missed stretches of the year, playing in only 47 games.
Still, Raanta had the highest save percentage in the NHL (.930) among goalies who played as many or more games than he did. Only Marc-Andre Fleury of the Vegas Golden Knights had a better goals against average.
Raanta said Thursday he had improved his muscular strength in the offseason and felt like he learned more about how to take care of his body as a starter. After all, 2017-18 was his first season in that role, having served as a backup in years past.
3. Where — and how much — does Dylan Strome play?
There are two main factors that are driving some uncertainty around Dylan Strome, whom the Coyotes drafted No. 3 overall in 2015.
The first is that he hasn’t stayed consistently on the NHL roster, despite having been called up multiple times. The second factor is that the Coyotes have a lot of centers on their roster.
Derek Stepan, Alex Galchenyuk, Christian Dvorak, Brad Richardson, Nick Cousins and Strome are all candidates to play up the middle, with those first four names being the most likely to get the lion’s share of playing time. Will that push Strome to the wing?
4. Where does Alex Galchenyuk play?
The Coyotes swapped winger Max Domi to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for forward Alex Galchenyuk, who mostly played wing there but would prefer to play center.
“I know I’m going to have a chance to go out there and play center, and I’ve been training and working hard all summer for it and I can’t wait to get started,” he said.
“You can’t play that position unless you’re willing to go through the hard work and put in the time and sacrifice a little bit of your offensive game probably to be an all-around player,” Chayka said Thursday. “But once you do it, I think you get recognized for that contribution to your team, I think that’s what he’s after. I know he’s scored 30 goals, he’s been a productive player, I think he wants to be a solid all-around player, and we think that’s the case and [head coach] Rick Tocchet can help him in that regard.”
5. How big of a step forward does Clayton Keller take?
Last year, 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 April.
He won Rookie of the Month in October and March, scoring more points in those two months than he did in the rest of the season combined. Keller also had stretches where he cooled off some. Does he stay hot all year in 2018-19?
“I had a big summer,” Keller said. “Obviously everybody wants to get stronger and faster, and I feel like I did that this summer. My vertical jump went up a lot, my body fat went down, so I feel really good and put on a few pounds.”