Arizona Coyotes, still afloat, looking for post-holiday push
The Arizona Coyotes are no stranger to injuries this season.
Center Christian Dvorak hasn’t played a game yet. Goaltender Antti Raanta could be out the rest of the season. Defenseman Jason Demers is out indefinitely. Penalty kill specialist Michael Grabner has had an eye injury sideline him since Dec. 1. And while forward Vinnie Hinostroza is working his way back, he’s been out since Dec. 6.
And with all that, the Coyotes aren’t in an ideal spot in the standings — but they’re not out of the picture.
At the conclusion of the three-day holiday break on Thursday, the Coyotes are in Los Angeles to face the Kings. Arizona is second-to-last in the Pacific Division, three points ahead of the last-place Kings, but also just five points out of the second wild card spot in the Western Conference. This comes after back-to-back wins before the break, beating Colorado in a nailbiter at home and winning in San Jose in the shootout.
“I think you’re always looking at the standings just gauging where your team’s at and where you’re headed,” Coyotes GM John Chayka said Wednesday to Luke Lapinski and Rudy Carpenter, who were filling in for Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station. “Yeah, there’s been some injuries to kind of premium positions and that’s hindered our ability to really grab it here and find that consistency and move forward into a playoff spot. But there’s still more than half a season left here and I think some of our young guys are coming on.”
One of those young guys is forward Alex Galchenyuk, a 24-year-old for whom the Coyotes traded Max Domi to Montreal this offseason. Galchenyuk had three goals in 25 games this year before scoring two in San Jose on Sunday, and also had a goal in the shootout in that game.
“Alex Galchenyuk’s starting to find his role. […] We got him because he can put the puck in he net,” Chayka said. “Hopefully the Montreal media coming through [last week] reminded him of life here in Arizona and how he can play. He doesn’t have to worry about if he doesn’t score for two games that he’s going to be getting killed. He can go out, play, relax and be himself. That’s what we want him to be.
“When he’s playing his game, he can be an elite player in this league. I think he’s just starting to find his rhythm and certainly being healthy’s a big part of that. I thought he skated as well as he has all year in San Jose and he was rewarded with a few goals. If he gets going, that’s a good boost our whole group.”
If that game serves as a turning point for Galchenyuk — a former 30-goal scorer — and if the Coyotes get healthier, the team could find itself making a push as the second half of the season comes around.
“Clayton Keller, I thought that was his best game, against San Jose, of the year,” Chayka said. “So, a lot of positive signs and things moving in the right direction. Vinnie Hinostroza’s getting healthy here and hopefully join us for practice out of the break. Michael Grabner’s progressing well. Early on, I thought you could make a case he was one of our most valuable pieces, certainly on the penalty kill, and just bringing that elite speed.
“If you start getting some guys back here and [head coach Rick Tocchet] continues to push the right buttons and keep these guys on track, certainly it gets interesting.”
A surprise hero for the Coyotes this season has been not Keller — who led last year’s team in goals — or Galchenyuk, but center Brad Richardson. The 14-year veteran has a team-leading 10 goals this year, three of them shorthanded, and scored two on Saturday night against Colorado to lift the Coyotes to a 6-4 win.
“Brad Richardson’s come in, he’s done the same thing he’s kind of always done for us which is stabilize down the middle, he’s matching up against other team’s top lines and so far leading us in goals,” Chayka said. “That’s a pretty good recipe for him. And credit to him, he works pretty hard at his game. Obviously he’s not in his 20’s anymore but he still gets out there and works on his shot and works on his offensive game and I think you’re seeing some of the fruits of his labor this year.”