As Coyotes look to finalize roster, injuries leave question marks
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes went into training camp looking to answer what few questions existed about their projected roster, but as the preseason has progressed, injuries have made it so that camp has seemingly given more questions than answers.
General manager John Chayka even acknowledged at the start of training camp that there perhaps were fewer questions about this year’s roster than there had been in years past: “That’s just a growth, development of an organization,” he said. “Obviously you’ve got a lot more veteran guys, established guys. Our youth has grown up, they’ve had a year or two years in the league, so you expect that they take that next step.”
But with injuries to Christian Dvorak (lower-body), Dylan Strome (upper-body, day-to-day) and Alex Galchenyuk (lower-body), the process of camp could force the team to use more of the cards in its deck. All three of those aforementioned players play center, suddenly creating a need for bodies at that position.
Clayton Keller, who has played on the wing at the NHL level but played center before that, played at center on Saturday in the Coyotes’ preseason game against Anaheim.
The team also has a healthy Derek Stepan and Brad Richardson, but after that, it gets murky.
After trimming their training camp roster by six players on Sunday, the Coyotes have 10 players remaining on their roster that are listed as a center: Lane Pederson, David Ullstrom, Nick Cousins, Barrett Hayton, Laurent Dauphin, and Stepan, Strome, Dvorak, Galchenyuk and Richardson.
“We’ve got to experiment right now because we’ve got some bodies hurt at center,” head coach Rick Tocchet said on Saturday. “One of those guys — maybe [Nick Cousins] — can play center. So we’ve got to throw people in and out and they like the challenge, which is nice. And here’s a time to try these things.”
After Sunday’s roster cuts, there were 43 players left in camp. Tocchet said he wanted to pare down his group to a full team for the final two preseason games, though didn’t say specifically if that meant there would only be 23 players left in camp at that point.
There are three preseason games remaining as of Sunday, all on the road. The Coyotes play the Ducks in Anaheim on Monday, then head to Canada for contests against the Oilers and Canucks. Those three games could potentially determine who will be the centers for Arizona on opening night, similar to how Keller got a shot at the position on Saturday.
“I was drafted as a centerman and I’ve played center a lot of my life, so I think it’s good to get a few reps in there and then see how it is going forward,” said Keller, who played at Boston University before making the jump to the NHL. “I know we’ve got a couple guys banged up right now, but we’ll see. I’ll play wherever to start the season.”
Keller scored 23 goals and 42 assists last season, his rookie year, playing on the wing. He finished third in the voting for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the top rookie in the league.
Tocchet didn’t seem concerned that a switch to center, albeit a likely temporary one, would hinder Keller’s ability to affect the game offensively.
“A little more responsibility defensively. That’s one thing,” Tocchet said. “But usually in the neutral zone and offense, you kind of just support the puck. You kind of go where you’ve got to go. But there’s a little bit more responsibility at center, so he’s got to be a little bit more conscious of that. But I still want him to play that style, I want him to take off, all that stuff.”
Tocchet said on Friday that Galchenyuk would be re-evaluated in the coming week. Strome was day-to-day, and while the most recent update was unclear, it sounded as though he was nearing return. An update on Dvorak hasn’t been given for some time, though he has not yet been participating in practice with the team.
Jakob Chychrun (lower-body) hasn’t yet returned to participating in team skates. If he is not available for the start of the regular season, the Coyotes would, at least temporarily, have to fill two spots on the blue line: Chychrun’s spot, and the seventh defenseman spot (with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jason Demers, Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Kevin Connauton likely being the other defensemen).
When asked after Tuesday’s preseason game who stood out to him in camp, Tocchet named Jordan Oesterle and Ilya Lyubushkin, specifically — watch for those names as potential candidates to take the open spot(s) on the blue line. He later added that Lyubushkin can break up cycles, clear bodies from the front of the net and has good passing tendencies. He also said Oesterle has good feet and a good shot with an ability to defend.
Oesterle has two goals in this preseason to go with three assists.
Tocchet revealed Saturday that Goligoski has taken a couple “maintenance days,” but it was nothing serious. For this reason, Goligoski did not play in the most recent preseason game against the Ducks but will be back soon.
The Coyotes have played four preseason games with three to go:
Sept. 16: ARI 2, VGK 7
Sept. 18: LAK 2, ARI 4 (split squad)
Sept. 18: ARI 4, LAK 3 (split squad)
Sept. 22: ANA 0, ARI 6
Sept. 24: ARI at ANA, 7 p.m.
Sept. 27: ARI at EDM, 6 p.m.
Sept. 29: ARI at VAN, 7 p.m. (in Kelowna, B.C.)