6 thoughts on the Coyotes as the 2019-20 season begins
The Arizona Coyotes are set to get their season underway, and the days leading up to the opener have had no shortage of activity.
The team claimed a goaltender off waivers, announced its opening night roster, made two call-ups on Wednesday and then made a big transaction, signing goaltender Darcy Kuemper to a two-year extension.
The Kuemper extension is big because Kuemper just had a career year and Kuemper was going to become a free agent after this season. Two years is fairly low-risk and maintains a reported $4.5 million cap hit on a player who was liable to further increase his asking price this season. Him walking as a free agent is no longer a concern.
That’s my thought on that. Here’s six more on the Coyotes at the dawn of another year:
1. Why Christian Fischer “didn’t make” the team
Christian Fischer not being on the team was quite the surprise, but not only did it turn out to be a salary cap formality and he was going to be with the Coyotes after all, but GM John Chayka praised the way Fischer played in training camp.
In case you missed it, NHL teams had until 2 p.m. Arizona time on Tuesday to announce their opening night rosters, and the Coyotes’ roster included only 21 players (of 23 allowed) and no Christian Fischer. That’s because the Coyotes needed to get under the salary cap, and Fischer and defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin were both waivers-exempt, meaning they could be sent to the AHL without first clearing waivers.
On Wednesday, the Coyotes were expected to put Marian Hossa — a retired player whose contract the Coyotes acquired from the Blackhawks last summer — on long-term injured reserve (LTIR). Teams get salary cap relief equal to the amount of the contract of a player on LTIR, so the Coyotes can get the necessary cap space to call Fischer back up — which they did.
Lyubushkin, however, is going to stay in Tucson for now. In his place, the team recalled Kyle Capobianco.
2. On Antti Raanta’s health
The Coyotes made a surprise move on Tuesday by claiming goaltender Eric Comrie off waivers. They can’t assign him to the minor leagues unless he clears waivers first, so his name was on the opening night roster.
That, combined with Antti Raanta getting assigned to Tucson on Wednesday for a conditioning stint, prompted some concern within the fanbase about Raanta’s health.
The team’s explanation for getting Comrie was that he’s a goalie they’ve been interested in previously and they had an open roster spot that they can use on him. Raanta just needs more time to get into game shape, something the team had said even before they sent him to Tucson on a conditioning loan.
“Obviously Antti hasn’t played a lot of games in the last 10, 11 months,” Chayka said. “So as he’s getting up to speed and getting back to where we know he can get to, this just gives us another option.”
Raanta skated with the Coyotes on Monday and Chayka said Raanta felt 100%. I don’t think they would let him play with Tucson if Raanta wasn’t fully healthy. That said, if the 14-day conditioning period ends and Raanta still isn’t playing, that would be more troubling.
3. Vinnie Hinostroza’s big season ahead
As I was jotting down my bullet points for this article, I wrote “Vinnie Hinostroza,” because I think he has the chance to be a standout player for Arizona this year. And then head coach Rick Tocchet had an interesting quote about the forward on The Natural Hat Trick Podcast on Tuesday:
“He’s come a long way for me, from when we first acquired him,” Tocchet said. “Hockey IQ … it was OK. I felt system-wise, he didn’t understand our system. But he’s probably been our most-improved player over the last year, when it comes to hockey IQ. I think he’s really increased his knowledge of what we’re trying to do here.”
Tocchet said Hinostroza will get time on the penalty kill, power play and 4-on-4 or 3-on-3 situations this coming year.
“He’ll definitely get his chances on different lines,” Tocchet said. “But right now, I do really like him with Brad Richardson and Michael Grabner. They have a good chemistry together, and if you look at that line last year, they all contribute down the stretch and had some big goals for us.”
The 25-year-old set career-highs in both games played (72) and goals scored (16) last year, the latter of which ranked third on the team. And his relative Corsi and Fenwick numbers were both top-3 on the team among returning forwards.
Hinostroza is set to become a restricted free agent after this season. If he continues taking steps forward, he could be the next player in line for Chayka to secure under a multi-year contract.
4. Which team exits?
Clearly, the big question surrounding the Coyotes going into the 2019-20 season is whether they make the playoffs. I’ve maintained for a while that they have a roster that generally speaking is playoff-caliber, but that their biggest barrier could be that there’s eight other teams in the Western Conference of whom you could say the same thing.
Of the teams that made the playoffs out of the West last year — Calgary, San Jose, Nashville, Winnipeg, St. Louis, Vegas, Dallas and Colorado — which one misses this year to open a spot for the Coyotes?
Something always goes wrong for somebody. Some team always surprises for better or for worse, a goaltender gets hurt, etc. So maybe it’s nothing to be too concerned about; they play all 82 games for a reason. But do Winnipeg’s losses on the blue line keep them out of the postseason? Maybe they’re the team to watch.
5. A tough schedule to start
The Coyotes open at Anaheim and then have to host Boston (107 points last year), host Vegas (93 points last year) and then go to Colorado (90 points last year) who are on the upswing and now have Nazem Kadri, Cale Makar and Joonas Donskoi in the fold.
Then, from Oct. 15 to Oct. 30, they have eight games in 16 days — four of those in the eastern time zone. The Coyotes could really use a fast start, but if they don’t have one, I don’t think it’s time to hit the panic button.
6. The other important Phil
Phil Kessel projects to be an important part of the Coyotes improving a power play that finished 26th in the NHL last year. But so, too, does Phil Housley, the new assistant coach the Coyotes added this offseason, replacing Scott Allen.
Housley gave a few interesting thoughts on the power play when he talked to the media at the start of training camp. First, he said the Coyotes power play can get more simplistic and establish more shots. Second, he said he wants to see the players working in unison and moving around more, and try to be unpredictable.
He also pointed to Kessel drawing attention from opposing defenses could help open up opportunities for other players, so look out for how Kessel could help the power play even when he’s not the one scoring a goal.