Few teams have a legacy as strongly associated with one player as the Arizona Coyotes do with former captain Shane Doan. Whatever your opinion on the player or the way the organization handled their parting of ways, Doan’s contribution to the team and his impact both on and off the ice cannot be overstated. Even if he does return in an off-ice capacity, his departure from the ice is a signal that the team is changing. Thus, the 2017-18 season has the potential to be a defining one for the Arizona Coyotes.
We know the Coyotes will start the season facing a number of challenges. Chief among them is the question of the captaincy.
The team may choose to keep the position vacant, at least for now. Shane Doan has left some big shoes to fill, and there will be questions about leadership in the locker room and on the ice. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, as the longest tenured member of the team and an alternate captain since 2015, seems like the most likely candidate. Either way, Doan’s departure and the circumstances faced by the team will pose challenges for whatever leadership emerges in the locker room over the course of the season.
The team has lost a significant amount of experience beyond Shane Doan, such as long-time Coyote Martin Hanzal, the recurring figures of Zbynek Michalek and Radim Vrbata, plus veteran goaltender Mike Smith, all of whom could have offered valuable tutelage and guidance to Oliver Ekman-Larsson and the rest of the team during the up and downs of a long 82-game season. This is especially true given that the team is one of the youngest in the league, with 10 of the currently 22 signed players aged 24 or under, while the oldest, Brad Richardson, is still a chipper 32.
Not only is the team young and lacking the established veteran presence of previous years, there are a number of new faces on the team, including a new coaching staff. There is likely to be some growing pains with any regime change, and with so many new players attempting to adjust to a new system at the same time, on ice cohesion may take some time to build. In addition to new faces like Niklas Hjalmarsson, Derek Stepan, and Antti Raanta, there are returning players like Alex Goligoski and Anthony Duclair whose performances over the past season raise cause for concern. The serious injuries to Richardson and now to Jakob Chychrun may also pose problems for the team.
The departure of Doan and other veterans may provide the emerging team unique opportunities and advantages as well as challenges. Ekman-Larsson has already served several years as an alternate and has benefited from Doan’s example for several years. Ekman-Larsson also has international experience and success at both the Olympics and World Championships. He may, in fact, be in a perfect position to take up the reins, and a vacant captaincy may give him the space to forge his own style of leadership on his own terms. Some of the additions made to the team during the off season, most notably Hjalmarsson and Stepan, also bring valuable leadership and playoff experience.
The changing of the guard opens up roster spots for the Coyotes deep prospect pool, giving an opportunity for greater minutes and responsibility to more familiar players such as Christian Dvorak and Brendan Perlini as well as newer faces like Clayton Keller. A more flexible roster may finally mean Dylan Strome can find a place for himself with the Coyotes. New faces, new leadership, and a new coaching staff might be the ‘clean slate’ the team needs to find their feet to fully buy into Rick Tocchet’s new system and make the most of the opportunities available to them.
The team’s ability to rise to the occasion presented by the situation remains to be seen. The effects of a legacy as long and influential as Shane Doan’s, and the potential for a leadership vacuum, will probably be unclear until at least the 2018 off-season, if not later. Nevertheless, the team has the opportunity to take advantage of a ‘clean slate’ and turn around the Coyotes on-ice performance and forge their own team, with its own identity, while building on the legacy and lessons of those that went before.