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Retooled offense, day-to-day approach has Coyotes hopeful for playoff return

Conor Garland #83 of the Arizona Coyotes skates with the puck against Brad Hunt #77 of the Vegas Golden Knights during their preseason game at T-Mobile Arena on September 16, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes were 36-30-5 on March 14, in line for their first playoff berth in seven years. What followed were five straight losses, putting the team on the path to a 39-35-8 finish, four points back from the Western Conference’s second and final wild card.

As the team gears up for its first home preseason game Tuesday against the Los Angeles Kings at Gila River Arena, there is an air of optimism that is fueled by a healthy lineup, resolve, and the addition of key pieces.

“I feel like we have a group that has something to prove,” general manager John Chayka said. “Guys have some chips on their shoulders.”

Under the direction of new owner Alex Meruelo, the organization spent the offseason refining and solidifying a roster that showed dominance on the defensive side of the puck. The Coyotes don’t expect to lose 386 man-games to injury again, so the health of key players such as Nick Schmaltz, Derek Stepan and Jakob Chychrun, plus the additions of veteran forwards Phil Kessel and Carl Söderberg could be a tipping point for an offense that struggled to find the back of the net last season.

“We’ve got a lot of good, young players that we think highly of in terms of offensive approach, but ultimately, last year we didn’t score enough,” Chayka said. “We had some young forwards. We needed to add some veteran presence up front, so obviously Phil and Carl do that.”

New additions
The 2018-2019 versions of Kessel and Söderberg would have led the Coyotes in goals scored and points. Kessel had 27 goals and 82 points. Söderberg had 23 goals and 49 points. The Coyotes did not have a 20-goal scorer and Clayton Keller led them in points with 47.

Arizona’s offense finished 28th in the league with 2.5 goals per game and last in 5-on-5 goals with 132. Center Derek Stepan expects the team to see an instant impact from the two additions.

“Listen, I’m just as excited as you guys are,” he said. “I promise.”

Kessel in particular is expected to change the pace for the Coyotes on the attack. The three-time All-Star ranked 19th in assists and 24th in points in the NHL last season.

“I look at it as a kind of trickle-down effect,” Stepan said. “I think he’ll score more goals. I think he’ll take the focus from some guys, make some match-ups for some younger wingers a little bit better, and hopefully they can do the same.”

The Coyotes also hope Kessel will make a major impact on the power play, an area of struggle last season. The team ranked 26th in the league, scoring 42 goals in 258 opportunities (16.3%).

Kessel was tied for 12th in power-play goals (12), seventh in power-play assists (24) and fifth in power-play points (36) last season.

“I think I’m a decent passer and if I get a chance for a good shot I can have the ability to score and make the right play,” he said. “I think that’s my best ability, is to try to make the right play and try to get it to the guy that’s open so they can have a chance to score.”

Veteran presence
Head coach Rick Tocchet believes the experiences of Kessel and Söderberg can serve as a model for the younger players both on and off the ice.

“I love adding guys that have played under pressure. To win, you’ve got to play under pressure and those two guys have played under pressure,” Tocchet said. “[Phil’s] demeanor is going to help our team in the dressing room. How Phil reacts under those pressure situations, the young kids are going to watch him.”

Kessel has seven playoff berths under his belt, including two Stanley Cups from his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Söderberg is no stranger to tough games, with four playoff stints of his own, including a run with the Colorado Avalanche last season that ended with a Game 7 loss to San Jose in the second round.

“I watched some video of Carl last year, he played important minutes for a really good Colorado team and beat an excellent Calgary team,” Tocchet said. “Those are pressure situations.”

Stepan says Kessel is excited to take on a mentorship role, one that is unfamiliar to him.

“Talking with him, he’s motivated. He’s ready,” Stepan said. “I think he comes into a new dynamic here, being one of the older guys. He was on a team with a lot of older guys so now he’s kind of the only older winger.”

Entering his 13th season, Kessel said he is up to the task.

“I think there’s a lot of good leaders here,” he said. “I know there’s a veteran presence here, guys that have been around a long time, but there’s also some young guys. I’m willing to do whatever I can to help them grow and help their games be better.”

Tocchet sees that leadership group already making a difference for the team. It’s something the organization has worked to build over time.

“Any good coach will tell you, or any good team will tell you, your leadership group is the heartbeat of your team. And we’ve developed a really good leadership group here where they can handle a lot of the stuff I don’t have to do,” he said. “Two years ago, it was different. Now, I can kind of stay out of the way because they’ve got it handled.”

Roster consistency and commitment to the system
Leadership isn’t the only element that has improved for the Coyotes since Tocchet took over as coach in 2017. Implementing a new system takes time, but he says the team has taken to it well.

“Now everybody knows what I want, so that’s huge,” he said. “From day one, I don’t have to go over the ABC’s. We can move ahead.”

Tocchet said he initially wanted to create an identity for the team. That took effort from both the coaching staff and the players.

“I think I’m starting to understand these guys, and they understand me,” Tocchet said. “We embraced defending the puck. We did a good job last year of staying in games.”

The defense was brilliant at times for Arizona last season. The Coyotes killed 85% of all power plays last year, tied for first in the league. Their penalty-killing unit also scored 16 shorthanded goals, second-best in the league. Overall, the Coyotes were fifth in goals against, allowing 2.5 per game.

Veteran goalie Antti Raanta offered praise for the team’s defenders.

“I think it’s just try to get pucks quickly up and you know that’s pretty much how we played,” Raanta said of the team’s approach. “Every time, when we got the puck in our own end, we wanted to go forward and that’s why we were so tough to beat last year.”

“Now, when we have even more firepower in our offense, I think it’s going to be a fun season for us.”

“Two number ones” in the net
Raanta finds himself part of a goalie tandem that could be one of the NHL’s best.

Before dealing with an injury-shortened season last year, Raanta was second in save percentage (.930) in 2017-2018.

Last season, Darcy Kuemper stepped up in Raanta’s injury-driven absence to deliver a dominant performance that saw him finish fifth in the voting for the Vezina Trophy, awarded annually to the league’s best goaltender.

“Kuemps, I mean, 23 games straight last year? Tough goalies, tough games,” Tocchet said of Kuemper’s performance. Kuemper actually started 22 consecutive games, the third-longest streak in franchise history. It would’ve likely been 23 had he not asked Tocchet to let backup Calvin Pickard start the final game of the season.

“I mean, not too many goalies can do that, so I think Kuemps found himself mentally. He doesn’t have a backup mentality; to do that you have to have a starter’s mentality. So we have two guys that have a starter’s mentality. They’re very tough mentally and that’s what you have to be as a goalie.”

This year, Tocchet and the Coyotes will look to find a balance between the two and use the competition to drive them both.

“We’re lucky we have two capable guys who can go in there and do what they’ve done,” Tocchet said. “We’re excited about having that competition and they’re excited about competing, too. It helps. Competition breeds success.”

Raanta said he and Kuemper are ready for that competition.

“I feel like we both want to make the coaches’ decision hard. We want to show them we both can play and both can win the games,” Raanta said. “I think it’s going to be a fun battle.”

On watching Kuemper’s success last season and the thought of having the title of “starter,” Raanta said the team approach is most important.

“You want to see your team win, so it doesn’t really matter who’s in net,” he said. “When the team is winning, everything is good.”

Team chemistry
Raanta’s team-first mentality is an example of the chemistry the Coyotes have focused on building. More than a dozen players remained in Arizona during the summer to train, helping foster that chemistry.

“I think it’s huge,” Tocchet said. “I give our training staff a lot of credit for creating that culture. Sometimes, there were 12 or 15 guys here in the middle of July working out.”

The team’s captain, defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, was glad to see players stay in the area.

“I think it’s great that the guys are sticking around,” he said. “I know that we have an unbelievable group that loves being around each other and that’s part of it, too, right? So that’s why guys are sticking around here and want to be here working out or skating, and I think that helps.”

Ekman-Larsson, who has a home in the Valley, even offered up his space to 2019 first-round pick Victor Söderström.

“He had been living with me the last two weeks so I got to know him a little bit,” Ekman-Larsson said. “He’s a good kid and it’s a great thing that he’s asking a lot of questions and trying to get to know the state of Arizona and the system that we play in.”

Newcomer Kessel said the chemistry among the players on the Coyotes roster has been apparent since his arrival.

“I think there’s a good group here,” he said. “Seems like everyone gets along well, and they enjoy each other, and they want to have a good time. I think that helps build chemistry. Hopefully, this year is going to have success because of it.”

One day at a time
That team chemistry has also seemingly given the Coyotes a unified focus on taking things one day at a time.

“We’re building a day-to-day approach,” Tocchet said. “I use the words ‘commit to the process.’ That’s what we’re doing. Every team talks about playoffs. ‘We want to win the Stanley Cup.’ I don’t even really talk about that stuff. I just want them to commit to the process we’re doing here.”

Part of that process is constant improvement, something the organization is emphasizing from top to bottom. Tocchet said the support has been energizing for the team since Meruelo took ownership in August.

“He’s just a passionate guy who wants to own a sports team,” Tocchet said. “He wants to pass the legacy down to his kids. He wants to build something. Something like the [New England] Patriots’ type of thing, you know?”

Chayka echoed that mindset when discussing the offseason acquisitions and the eight-year extension that young forward Clayton Keller recently signed.

“I think as we evolve and grow as an organization, we’re always trying to get that extra 2% better,” he said.

The players have done the same. Tocchet said players have approached him with regrets from last season, saying they could have made a difference had they played better. He sees a mindset focused on improvement as a plus to the team.

“I hope we have a chip on our shoulder,” Tocchet said. “We didn’t make the playoffs.”

Chayka believes the 2019-2020 Coyotes are the culmination of the work of the past two years, creating a team with high expectations.

“There’s no gaping holes,” he said. “It’s not a perfect roster. I think you look around the league, it’s a league of parity. A team that has the right approach, that can catch lightning in a bottle, has a chance to win this thing. I think we’re finally at a point where we’re in that group.”

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