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Assessing The Coyotes’ Options at Center For Opening Night

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Injuries are testing the team's newly acquired center depth early this season.

NHL: Anaheim Ducks at Arizona Coyotes
With Alex Galchenyuk out of the lineup, this could be Dylan Strome’s moment in AZ
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

With the start of the Coyotes’ season now just four days away and preseason in the books for 2018/19, the countdown is reaching high gear for the start of a season that looks very promising in the desert. There is one big issue facing the Coyotes to start the season, who they’re going to place as pivots up the middle for, at least, the first few games.

Christian Dvorak and Alex Galchenyuk are both unable to start their season on opening night thanks to injury. Arizona is a squad reaching deep into the back of the cupboard when it comes to center depth this opening night, with a problem that can be addressed but may include roster shuffles that will cause ripples all down the lineup. So just how could they solve a problem like two injured key centers?

What do we know for sure?

We can safely assume that Derek Stepan will start the season where he finished the last one - centering the Coyotes’ top line. Brad Richardson will likely be the other slice of bread in the center sandwich, filling in the fourth line role he played with such effectiveness last season. The problem for Rick Tocchet is twofold - how he puts the meat in the middle of this lineup, and perhaps even more importantly still, how he compensates for the movement of players to form that meat while still leaving a strong lineup. While there are a whole lot of permutations, here’s a consideration of the three most likely options, with their pros and cons.

1, Moving Clayton Keller to the middle.

On the face of it, this is probably the option that’ll have the least major impact on the Coyotes’ lineup, which seems strange when talking about taking a 20-goal scorer away from the center with whom he was most effective last season. However, the Coyotes can fill Keller’s spot with Michael Grabner, a similarly-speedy, shoot-first forward who will be the perfect complement to Stepan’s pass-first mentality. Grabner also has an understanding to build on that was formed when the two played together for the Rangers in 2016/17, when Grabner picked up 27 goals and Stepan 38 assists. Here’s how well Grabner and Step can combine.

This of course means that the Coyotes will need to find a similar relationship or creative partner for Clayton Keller on the second line, and with his performances in preseason, Vinnie Hinostroza has certainly made a case for that job, at least in the short term. The Coyotes aren’t lacking for speedy, skilled wingers to place around their center depth. Keller parking himself through the middle will potentially change the way opponents have to consider their strategy, with the NHL still traditionally seeing centers as creators/multitalented and wingers as pure scorers rather than the other way around. It slightly shifts the creative emphasis depending on which line is on the ice, never a bad strategy to have. With Dylan Strome and Brad Richardson behind Keller and Stepan this is a group that continues to provide depth down the middle without compromising too much in other positions.

2. Hand Dylan Strome The Top-Six Keys

This is a move that could potentially pay off in a big way for both Strome and the Coyotes but only if Strome is indeed the top-tier playmaking C that his play in the OHL and in Tucson shows he’s capable of achieving. Throwing him in and giving him a chance to prove it at the NHL level right off the bat is a move that at best gives him further incentive and opportunity to develop in an increased role while showing what he can do after another development season, and at worst fills a gap before allowing him to return to the perhaps more sheltered environs of 3rd line time. It also allows Keller and Stepan to keep their connection going without missing a beat, frees up Grabner to provide secondary scoring in a more sheltered lineup role and provides second-line-level wing players like Richard Panik and Brendan Perlini with the playmaker they need to be most effective. It also means that nobody plays out of position with Brad Richardson able to step up a line and Laurent Dauphin, both natural C’s, take the slack left by Strome, or if they do, they’re in the sheltered environs of the bottom six rather than the high-pressure pressure cooker of the top six.

The bust proportion of this, though, is that if Strome does take the role and flames out, then it could set his development back further. However, there’s a strong argument that now is the time for Strome to step beyond the “development” phase and start showing his top-six credentials, and the only way that’ll happen is if he’s given the chance. Sometimes, necessity breeds something pretty special, and Strome’s breakout could be that this season.

3. Move Someone Not Named Keller To The Middle On Line 2

There’s been talk of this happening with Vinnie Hinostroza, but that would seem to be a brave decision, despite the former Blackhawk’s impressive start to life as a Coyote. He hasn’t played as much as Keller up the middle, it would potentially cause ripples further down the lineup, too. While Brad Richardson is an excellent player, he’s maybe not the player you want to move into a top-six role in order to move Hinostroza further down.

So, which one is the best? The most logical, certainly, is to move Keller into that spot. The option with potentially the biggest upside, however, is to give Dylan Strome an early chance to be baptised in fire, and show just what a year in Tucson has done for him. The “play another player in C” option is one that isn’t going to pull up any trees, but could provide a surprise breakout player that the Coyotes never expected to find this early in the season.

With Alex Galchenyuk on the IR, though, maybe, just maybe, this is Dylan Strome’s time to shine.