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At All-Star’s Break: Thoughts on the Arizona Coyotes, the Season and the Future

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We’re past the All Star Break, and the Coyotes are out of it by a long ways, so where did we go wrong and where do we go from here?

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Arizona Coyotes Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

At the beginning of the season, I wrote an 8-part series leading up to Opening Night trying to amp up Coyotes fan. The ‘Hype Train’ was meant to give us hope, excite us and energize us. I like to think I made a good effort. But the team did not.

In an extreme turn of events following the tremendous offseason moves made by GM John Chayka, the Coyotes fell flat on their noses. Despite having a stronger December and an even better January, they remain cellar dwellers in the NHL standings.

I feel bad for writing those articles; I felt like I pumped people up when clearly we were not as good as we thought. I couldn’t believe that every single thing I hyped outside of Clayton Keller had been absolutely horrible. Rick Tocchet’s coaching didn’t seem to work. Antti Raanta did not seem ready to go. Niklas Hjalmarsson couldn’t stay healthy.

I intended to blog on a high note this season and find the positives, but instead I found myself dismayed like many and silent in my writing. And over this season’s poor showing thus far, I’ve been bottling up thoughts that, rather than being ‘hot-takey’, I let sit and percolate. I want to write everyone a measured point of view. And while I am often critical still on social media, I am truly realistic about what is going on with this team.

So, in a manner that may reflect Eliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts without being specific about how many thoughts, here’s my thoughts on the team, the season and where we are heading.

I was wrong, but I may still be right

Like I said in the lead-in, I wrote a whole series prepping for this season and it sank faster than an anchor in water. The team went 0-11 to start the year, Antti Raanta and Niklas Hjalmarsson found themselves on the IR quickly and we all were trying to find a tool to help us pick up our jaws from hitting the ground.

This team was legitimately bad. They were making poor puck desicions, fielding a poor defense and not stopping the puck. People were calling for John Chayka's and Rick Tocchet’s heads almost immediately.

But what many of us continued to glaze over, myself included leading up to the season and then on into the struggles, was how young this team is.

We constantly hear about how young everyone is, yet I feel like many of us let it pass in one ear and out the other. Mistakes will and did happen. Young players, even with a season under their belt, will make mistakes and good teams have the proper depth playing at the top of their game to help minimize the harm that causes. Moreover, Arizona just didn’t have that leader in the room to teach these young guys.

Shane Doan is gone, like it or not, and by season’s start it was clear that the heir-apparent Oliver Ekman-Larsson just wasn’t ready to fill those shoes. It’s by no fault of his own though; you can’t make someone transform into something they’re not.

Combine that lack of seasoning and leadership with incredibly poor luck and tons of injuries to key players and you get a 31st placed, 12-29-9 team.

But January showed signs of relief. Everything that was hyped in October seemed to be more appropriately matched to the play happening in January. And while it’s too late to change course, it certainly seems this team has overcome its initial incongruencies.

Rick Tocchet’s system can work

His head was called for. I even rolled my eyes and said “really?” after some of Tocchet’s comments to the media and decisions on the bench - whether it be his line choices or his on-bench reactions. At the beginning, you could see what Tocchet was going for; he wants to be the rebuilt Penguins.

The issue was, and it showed early on, that the Coyotes don’t have those top two centers, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. To further put his dream out of reach this season, the team didn’t have Marc-Andre Fluery or Matt Murray-esque goaltending to seize the moment and the team didn’t have the seasoning to recognize key situations or hold the line under fire.

They’re young and under-talented at the positions that Tocchet needed to suceed in most.

So both coach and player had to change. And it took time. Tocchet broke this team down to basics, coached them from scratch and blended lines constantly. It was clear he wasn’t looking for chemistry but rather he was angling for players to develop themselves by seizing the moment.

And some players didn’t work hard enough to seize it. Lawson Crouse was demoted to Tucson. Anthony Duclair was traded to Chicago. Louis Domingue was waived, then traded to Tampa Bay. These were casualties of failure.

But Tocchet’s system was a casualty too. When the authentic Penguin’s-style system wouldn’t work, he scrapped it and adopted a different style, focusing on the talents the Coyotes already had developed. The new system embraced speed, a very Eastern Conference inclination, and emphasized discipline in order to draw as many penalties as possible. Essentially, the new system focused on driving possession and opportunities that the team would naturally thrive in, rather than fit a square team into a round plan.

This change took time, but in the last dozen games it looks to be working. Arizona is outworking their opponents. They’re taking games to OT and the shootout and when their discipline fails them, they’re killing penalties too.

Chayka still isn’t wrong

After the start of the season, there were murmurs around that Chayka’s masterful asset management was no more. Suddenly, it seemed like nothing was working out.

But I feel like that was a knee-jerk. I was upset when he moved Anthony Duclair. I felt like the organization gave up too early on a guy with that kind of talent. But the return of Laurent Dauphin, who’s been great since returning to Tucson, and Richard Panik, has been incredibly beneficial considering we only parted with Duclair and Adam Clendening, who never fit with the team.

And those offseason moves were tainted early on by injury. Since getting healthy, Raanta has been amazing. When healthy, Niklas Hjalmarsson is our best defensive player. And Richard Panik’s change of scenery has brought Derek Stepan into his own recently.

Yet Stepan too is finicky. He was supposed to step in and step up on this team but so far he has just been a step up over Martin Hanzal which doesn’t speak volumes. Hanzal, by the way, is made of glass and making Dallas regret that free-agent contract.

I hyped Stepan becoming a 1C and I will say I was wrong. He hasn’t fit that. But he is developing chemistry with Brendan Perlini and that’s some chemistry that will make this team successful in the future.

Arizona High School Hockey on the way up

Hockey was always a niche sport when it came to high school athletics. Those who played did so by with club team and on a spendy dime. I know; my little brother and FFH Sun Devil Hockey beat writer Sam played for Hamilton D3 and Perry-Basha D2 before he graduated.

And now AHSHA is going to get some more legs. After partnering more in-depth with the Coyotes, the teams are getting some crucial funding and support, helping to grow the amateur game and create in roads for more young hockey fans to follow the steps of Auston Matthews.

Plus, look at how sweet those jersey updates look with Coyotes patches.

I’m personally just sitting here waiting for my alma mater Perry to get their own independent team, because that cardinal and navy color scheme is gonna look tight on a hockey jersey. Low key though, Hamilton (second row, second to the left) and Corona Del Sol (bottom right) have some pro-caliber jerseys.

Tucson bringin that heat tho...

Dylan Strome, Nick Merkley, Kyle Capobianco, Hunter Miska and Lawson Crouse have absolutely lit up the AHL, with Stromer, Capo and Merk going to the AHL All Star Game and absolutely running the show together. They put up over 15 points in total.

Right now, Tucson sits atop the the AHL Pacific and are lookng like a strong Calder Trophy contender. It’s amazing that after only two years, Tucson’s lone professional sports franchise is rolling and building engagement. Having a team down there is good for the team, but good for the development of hockey in the state.

Also, it can’t be understated what a professional hockey team can do for major amatuer clubs. University of Arizona hockey has been getting better and better and I don’t think it’ll be long before they start looking to follow Arizona State University into NCAA competition.

Arena speak

Nothing’s happening yet, and we are all antsy.

Nobody should be happy for another team’s instability, but the Flames are playing chicken with their city over a new arena and this isn’t the first time a Canadian team has fled for the Sun Belt (cough) Houston (cough). I don’t think they’ll move, but money is money and millionaire owners will do whatever costs them the least. Elsewhere, Carolina is locked in for Raleigh, the Isles are going back out to the island. Seattle is guaranteed an expansion franchise at this point (whew) and Quebec City is a Canadian media pipe dream (Suck it Quebec).

On the Coyotes front, the idea seems to be revolving around the Salt River Indian Reservation, but nothing is coming out right now. The idea would likely be near the casinos and spring training facilities along the 101. Moreover, the ASU partnership is full-stop dead with ASU announcing the development of an ice hockey-specific facility being built next to Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe.

Prospects keep making the future bright

-Tyler Steenbergen has absolutely ruled the WHL on the Swift Current Broncos and scored the WJC golden goal for Canada. What a steal by Chayka.

-The goalies aren’t doin bad at all...

-Defensemen Pierre Olivier Joseph (QMJHL/Charlottetown) is 9/25 for 34 in 42 games and Cam Dineen (OHL/North Bay & Sarnia) is 14/33 for 47 in 47 games. Both are at or near point per game, which is good news for the defensive pipeline to Glendale. Filip Westerlund seems to be progressing well in Sweden too.

-Power forward prospect MacKenzie Entwhistle (best name of the 2017 draft class) has 23 points in 32 games for Hamilton (OHL).

The defense wasn’t who we thought they were, until they became who we thought they were

Arizona sports has an elloquent way of losing. Denny Green said it best...

The Coyotes defense, on paper, looked amazing to start the season. The addition of Jason Demers and Hjalmarsson was supposed to compliment Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Goligoski and Luke Schenn. Combined with a healthy Jakob Chychrun, this team was expected to go from a league-wrost defense to a top 10 d-corp.

Well they stayed a bottom dweller defensive unit. Whatever it was (chemistry, mental errors, uncomfortability), it was bad early on. But as everyone got healthy, it’s gotten better. Demers and Goligoski had an amazing December and January. OEL is beginning to look like himself again. And Jakob Chychrun is the future of this team.

Trades or nah?

The burning question right now is if John Chayka should be working the phones. He said he wasn’t planning on it, but he also wouldn't shy away from a good move.

So where does that leave us going forward?

Well OEL could be moved, but I just don’t see it. The haul would be insane. And it wouldn’t be a good message to an already disturbed fan base. Max Domi is coming into his RFA season, and despite an incredibly poor showing this year, it’s doubtful he gets moved unless some blockbuster, tangible pieces come in return.

All the other young guys have got to be safe too. Even Dylan Strome, who literally is setting AHL records but can’t make NHL ice melt, is probably gonna get another shot. However there are some prime targets: Brad Richardson, Tobias Rieder, Luke Schenn. All are expiring contracts and all are probably on their way out long term. If there is value to be had on the market, these guys will probably be what the Coyotes offer up.

One last point is goaltending. Specifically, Antti Raanta who has ratcheted it up. if he continues to play like this, you can bet your lucky stars he gets an extension. But if he waivers or slows again, he may get moved and we could see Arizona hunting for a new goaltender in the offseason.

Also, we aren’t making a playoff push or anything, but Radim Vrbata hasn’t fit well at all in Florida... [eye emoji] ...so maybe bring him back to finish the year off strong-ish? Or maybe not.