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In 2019-20, Coyotes must seize chance to return to the playoffs

(L-R) Derek Stepan #21, Clayton Keller #9, Oliver Ekman-Larsson #23 and Conor Garland #83 of the Arizona Coyotes celebrate after Keller scored a goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the first period of the NHL game at Gila River Arena on January 18, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Here we are again: The start of a new NHL season where the Arizona Coyotes are 0-0-0 and high expectations are a valid currency. The Coyotes have a decent amount of it this year.

Soon, that currency will no longer be accepted. Arizona will be tasked with living up to its playoff hopes on the ice, starting with the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday night at the Honda Center. It’s step one of 82 in which the Coyotes will try to match the offseason hubbub — however justified — and make their first playoff appearance since 2011-12.

The playoff expectations for the Coyotes make sense. They finished just four points shy of a playoff spot last year and then added Phil Kessel in the offseason. Kessel is one of four players in the NHL to score 20 or more goals in each of the last 11 seasons (joining Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane). That’s good for a team that really needs help on offense and the power play.

Arizona also found itself a new owner in Alex Meruelo, who excitedly proclaimed, “I sure as [expletive] want to win” in his introductory press conference. The Coyotes are up against the salary cap for the first time in recent memory.

And with so many players missing significant amounts of time last year due to injury, there’s some artificial “additions” on the basis of health alone. The Coyotes are hoping all of this amounts to a long-awaited return to the big dance.

“We feel good. This has been a build-up of a number of years now to get to this point where we feel like we’ve got a strong team, a team that has high expectations,” general manager John Chayka told the media at the beginning of training camp. “Obviously last year was disappointing, coming short like we did. But it also provided a lot of motivation. That’s what I feel with our group.

“I feel like we’ve got a group that’s got something to prove and guys that have got some chips on their shoulders and looking to take that next step. So as much as it hurt to miss, we’ve got to learn from that, too, and I think this group has.”

The Coyotes making the playoffs is not a guarantee; there are at least eight other teams in the Western Conference who are plenty capable. But it should be the goal and the standard now after several years of roster construction by Chayka and character-molding by head coach Rick Tocchet.

I asked Tocchet at the start of camp what would have to happen for him to call this coming season a success. He avoided looking months ahead to playoffs and stuck to the very thing he preaches every day to his players.

“Everybody likes to talk about playoffs,” he said at the time. “Thirty-two teams talk about that. It’s Sept. 12. That’s the wish list of everybody. But unless you … do the right things, the end result doesn’t matter. So that’s why I keep saying we’re just going to commit to our process.”

If the Coyotes don’t make the playoffs this year, the silver lining is this: There isn’t an aging core or group of key free agents-to-be that will leave the front office scrambling to give it another try.

But 2019-20 is an opportunity for them; a year in which a Gila River Arena filled with waving white towels is within reach. It’s an opportunity that should be seized.

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