Training camp is now in full swing for the Arizona Coyotes. Veterans have reported and are on the ice practicing, and Dave Tippett’s obligations to Team North America at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey are now fulfilled after their disappointing exit in the group stage.
We should get a much better sense of where the Coyotes are at starting this upcoming week. While the consensus seems to be the Coyotes are better off than they were last year, there are still lingering issues that the Coyotes will have to deal with heading into this season.
#1: Can Mike Smith put a full season together?
Yahoo Sports’ Ryan Lambert snarkily quipped in response to our piece about Arizona’s goaltending depth that “As long as Mike Smith is their goalie their goaltending depth will always be an issue”. While that really doesn't address the substance of the article, in one sense Lambert is right: if Smith can’t keep the puck out of the net, the Coyotes will go nowhere.
Nagging injuries have made it difficult over the past couple of seasons to really figure out if Mike Smith can be at least an average NHL goaltender.
Smith can be good; his numbers this past season compare favorably to Braden Holtby in every category except high-danger save percentage. But 34 games does not a season make, and he has definitely not looked anything like his 2011-12 self over the life of his contract.
Louis Domingue should - hopefully - afford Head Coach Dave Tippett the chance to give Smith more time off this season, especially at the beginning of the year. Getting Smith back in March of last season was a confidence booster, but if the Coyotes can keep their 34 year old starter fresher, they should do it.
But it’s going to be Smith’s net this season. He will have to prove that when healthy, he can still go toe-to-toe with any other netminder in the NHL.
#2: Will Dylan Strome or Christian Dvorak be NHL ready?
The Coyotes bought out Antoine Vermette - a good veteran presence whose productivity admittedly had taken a major step back in the past couple of years - specifically to make room for their most talented center prospects. It was going to happen eventually, but it leaves the Coyotes with relatively little room for error.
Dylan Strome is unenviably stuck in the CHL/AHL “donut hole”: too good for major-junior play but not yet eligible for the AHL, which makes his training camp all the more crucial. If he simply is not ready, then the Coyotes are going to be mighty thin at center. Brad Richardson, Tyler Gaudet, Ryan White, and Laurent Dauphin are all decent players in their own right, but none of them scream top-six pivot.
And the additional question mark is of course Martin Hanzal. When Hanzal’s on the ice, he's great. His white-hot start to last season demonstrated just how good he can be with talent on his wings. But as has been discussed to death across the Coyotes’ universe, he’s not always on the ice.
If Hanzal’s hurt, who plays down the middle if Dvorak is already on the Coyotes and Strome has been sent back to the OHL? If Hanzal misses only a few games, the Coyotes can probably survive without much difficulty. If he is out for longer, it is not clear where the Coyotes go to replace his offense, his puck play, and his size.
Make no mistake: Martin Hanzal makes the team better when he plays. Demanding a pair of rookies to anchor the top two lines of an NHL team is a big ask, especially in the Pacific Division. But that may very well be what the Coyotes have to do at some point this year.
Will Arizona’s young talent be up to the challenge?
#3: Will Tobias Rieder be in Sedona Red on opening night?
It seems bizarre that the Coyotes and Tobias Rieder could reportedly be within $500k of each other and still be at an impasse. It’s stranger still that the Rieder camp seems to think $500k a year is worth bolting to the KHL for.
This is now the second time this summer that Coyotes management is having trouble getting a roster mainstay under contract, for reasons that don’t seem to add up. That doesn't necessarily mean there's bad blood between Rieder and the Coyotes, but training camp is extremely valuable for building chemistry and adjusting to new teammates, which Rieder is all but guaranteed to have. Missing time because of a contract dispute helps neither Rieder nor Arizona reach their true potential.
Ultimately, it makes too much sense for the two sides to get something done for Rieder to not play for the Coyotes this year. But if Arizona wants Rieder at 100% from night one, they need to move on this, and soon. And if Rieder wants to avoid comparisons to another highly talented young forward that Arizona struggled to come to terms with, he needs to decide if what he would give up by signing is really worth what he would gain by holding out.
#4: Has Arizona’s right-handed defense improved enough?
Over the summer, virtually all of us have salivated over the possibility of adding a Kevin Shattenkirk, Travis Hamonic, or Jacob Trouba to Arizona’s right side after the Coyotes went out and acquired Alex Goligoski to be the middle pairing LD. As of now, all three of those players are still on other rosters (though Trouba still needs a contract, hint hint). Arizona supplemented their right side with Luke Schenn, who will likely be in the bottom four.
Arizona seems set to carry eight defensemen again for this year, with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Goligoski, Kevin Connauton, and Klas Dahlbeck on of the left, and Connor Murphy, Michael Stone, Schenn, and Zbynek Michalek on the right. That’s not tremendously different from last season, when the Coyotes gave up just under three goals per game.
Connor Murphy is locked in for the next six years, while Michael Stone should have less responsibility than in seasons past. But how much better will Connor Murphy continue to get this season? And where do the Coyotes turn if they can't stop the bleeding in the defensive zone?
There will be a lot of pressure on Murphy to take the next step, especially if he’s playing with someone as talented as Ekman-Larsson. And if Stone is truly in his final season as a Coyote, then he's going to have to prove his value heading into free agency.
The Coyotes took a big step in addressing the left side with Goligoski. With no corresponding move on the right side, it remains to be seen how much of a difference Goligoski will make.
#5: Will the Coyotes possess the puck more?
We can argue over the value of puck possession until the Coyotes come home, but it is an incontrovertible fact that teams that finish in the Top 10 of the league in Corsi tend to go further in the postseason than teams that don't. Arizona has been in the latter category for the past few seasons, and their results reflect that.
Arizona was 29th out of 30 teams last year in shot attempt percentage at even-strength when the score was within one, with just 45.4% of attempts on net taken by the Coyotes. The Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins were third-best with 53.3%, while the Western Conference champion San Jose Sharks were sixth-best at 52.5%.
Yes, being the best at taking shot attempts does not guarantee a Stanley Cup (looking at you, Los Angeles). But neither is it controversial that the team that takes more shots when the score is close tends to score more.
The Coyotes simply didn’t have the puck enough when the stakes were highest. They need to improve in that respect if they really want to hang with the powerhouses of the NHL.
There’s no shortage of optimism among Coyotes fans, players, and management. And there's no reason really for doom and gloom. The Coyotes took a pretty large step forward last year from the disaster that was the 2014-15 season.
But there still are lingering questions the Coyotes need to answer. And still lingering doubts the Coyotes will have to put away. How the Coyotes answer these five questions this season will go a long way to determining whether Arizona misses the postseason for the fifth straight year or whether the White-Out comes back to the Valley next April.