It has been four years since the Arizona Coyotes last saw postseason hockey. In that time, the Coyotes went from a Western Conference Finalist to the last-place finisher in the Western Conference.
Now, with a new GM and a prospect pool loaded with talent, Coyotes fans have reason to hope for better days again. After a 20 point improvement on a disastrous 2014-15 season, how much further can the Coyotes climb?
As part of SB Nation’s 2016-17 NHL Season Preview, we were asked to identify the biggest issues facing the Coyotes. Arizona’s ability to compete for the playoffs will largely depend on the answers to these three questions.
Will the Coyotes have enough talent on defense to match their large group of talented forwards?
Max Domi and Anthony Duclair brought an element to the Coyotes that they had largely done without for almost a decade: skill. Yet their successful rookie campaigns overshadowed a porous defense with little short or long-term help in sight.
The Coyotes took a couple of big steps to try and address their issues on the back-end. They boldly traded for Alex Goligoski’s negotiating rights - a move that surprisingly paid off - and they traded up at the 2016 NHL Draft to select Jakob Chychrun 16th overall.
As a result, Arizona’s defensive corps stands to look quite a bit different past Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Goligoski is natrually suited for the power play, and Chychrun is on the inside track to the make the Coyotes straight out of the OHL this season.
And that doesn’t even mention the other bevy of defensive prospects Arizona added. General Manager John Chayka acquired Anthony DeAngelo from Tampa Bay, and then drafted Cam Dineen from Thunder Bay in the early 3rd round.
Now suddenly, the Coyotes have a bevy of young defensive prospects. Most will not reach the NHL this season, but several stand a good chance of making it soon.
Is Mike Smith an NHL caliber goalie when healthy?
Mike Smith comes in two forms. There’s the Mike Smith who does this:
And then there’s the Mike Smith that does this:
In five games in December, Smith never finished a game with a save percentage above .900. He then underwent surgery that kept him out until March. When he came back, he gave up three goals or fewer in nine out of ten appearances, along with a pair of shutouts.
Dave Tippett has always ridden his starters hard in Arizona; Ilya Bryzgalov never played fewer than 65 games as the full-time starter with the Coyotes, while Smith never played fewer than 62. The best way to keep Smith healthier is to keep him rested. Hopefully with Louis Domingue on the bench, Tippett will be able to do that.
Will the skill of Arizona’s young prospects translate to NHL success?
Arizona’s forwards are undoubtedly highly talented, but they all also have at least one significant question mark in some facet of their game.
Dylan Strome has the frame and the offensive potential to be a #1 center in the Western Conference, but can he create opportunities for himself and fight his way into high-percentage chances? Christian Dvorak absolutely torched the OHL, but is he large enough to play down the middle in the NHL?
Similarly, can Conor Garland translate his remarkable scoring touch in the QMJHL to the NHL? Will Lawson Crouse defy expectations among analytics commentators? Will Nick Merkley rebound from a debilitating injury? Can Brendan Perlini turn his fortunes around?
Arizona missed out on both Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. They then watched as Auston Matthews went to Toronto. The Coyotes have loaded up on plenty of talent in their own right, but do they have enough to become an elite team in the Western Conference?
We won’t know the answer to this question for a little while, but we will get our first glimpse of the answer next Saturday.