There wasn’t too much to celebrate for the Arizona Coyotes before the pause on the 2019/20 NHL season, but there are plenty of things to be positive about moving forward.
While the team was looking to be on the verge of missing out on the playoffs once again, there are plenty of key pieces in place that can help the team build for a more successful future, at least in the immediate term.
Here at Five For Howling, we took a look at five players that will be crucial to the team’s immediate success.
Unsurprisingly, Darcy Kuemper is the first player listed for the Arizona Coyotes after his impact on the team was clear, even when he wasn’t on the ice.
Having a quality goaltender can be the difference between making the playoffs or not for many teams and it appears the Coyotes are no exception to that rule.
When Kuemper was healthy in the first half of the season, there was every reason to assume he could earn more Vezina Trophy votes once again, giving the team his very best and keeping them in competition for the top spot in the Pacific Division.
Losing him for most of the season seriously hurt the team and saw performances drop off a cliff, with confidence plummeting and the team’s position in the standings slipping, seeing them all-but out of the playoffs conversation.
Health is obviously the biggest concern for a player that clearly holds so much value to his team, but an off-season of rest and recovery should have him ready to go for another playoff push in 2020/21.
He is signed for two more seasons after the 2019/20 season and will remain the team’s starter for as long as he is healthy.
Having a fit and ready Kuemper between the pipes gives the team the best chances at winning and he will contribute to the team’s success for the next couple of years at least.
It’s not every day that a recently turned 22-year-old defenceman already has over 230 regular season appearances under his belt in the NHL, but that’s exactly what Jakob Chychrun has since being taken sixth-overall by the Coyotes in the 2016 Draft.
Over his first four seasons in the desert, Chychrun has struggled to remain healthy, reaching a career-high 68 appearances during his rookie campaign before back-to-back seasons of just over 50 appearances.
In 2019/20, Chychrun was looking far healthier and already had 63 games under his belt before the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic cut things short.
This season was also arguably Chychrun’s best, as he stepped up in a big way when Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jason Demers, and Niklas Hjalmarsson were ruled out for varying periods of time, showing that he can be a long-term answer to the top pairing.
He had 12 goals and 26 total points, both career highs, this season before the pause, and had been one of the most reliable players on the team throughout the season, averaging a career-high 22:26 while on the ice.
Chychrun is four years younger than the second-youngest defenceman currently on the Coyotes roster and will unsurprisingly be a crucial part of the team for many years to come, with five more years on his $4.6 million-a-year contract.
Conor Garland is a true bright spark for the Coyotes organization, considering his lengthy development process and NHL production despite still only playing a bottom-six role on the team.
While averaging 14:09 on the ice, Garland was the only player to eclipse 20 goals this season for the Coyotes, with the team unable to reach that individual accomplishment during the 2018/19 season.
His tenacity and fighting spirit has endeared him greatly to the fanbase and has seen him become one of the more reliable possession players on the team, with 55 takeaways compared to 37 giveaways and a 51.7% Corsi rating.
Even during periods of the team’s struggles, where players looked deflated and out of ideas, Garland often continued to battle and show his passion and dedication each and every night.
It’s rare for a fifth-round (123rd overall) selection to become much in the NHL, but early returns on Garland suggest that he can be a key player for the team for a number of years moving forward and potentially even become an alternate captain contender in the latter stages of his 20s.
When Barrett Hayton was drafted, many people questioned the decision with Filip Zadina still available, but the young Canadian center is proving to be a truly promising prospect that should have a better chance at earning more playing time in the NHL in 2020/21.
While struggling to feature in the big league, Hayton wore the coveted ‘C’ as he guided Team Canada to a gold medal at the World Junior Championships and even had a positive conditioning loan with the Tucson Roadrunners, where he registered a point-per-game in the AHL.
His talent is clear to see, but Hayton has been stuck this season. He’s too good for the OHL, not quite good enough to make a significant impact in the NHL but he’s also not eligible to play full-time in the AHL.
Had he returned to juniors, he would have lit up opponents but potentially not gained much else in his development, whereas he has received NHL-level coaching and been around veteran NHL players, including a couple of Stanley Cup winners, that will have helped him develop off the ice.
Hayton will be eligible to play in the AHL in 2020/21 and could find himself starting the season with the Roadrunners, allowing him to play high minutes in the minors against other professionals, furthering his development in a positive way before he can step up to the NHL team on a full-time basis.
He is clearly a key part of the team’s success in the long-run, but he will be relied upon fairly early on and could be a player that helps the team overcome its difficult offensive spells over the next two seasons.
Victor Soderstrom is a player that general manager John Chayka was determined to land in the 2020 Draft, having him top of his board and worthy of a trade so the team could select him eleventh-overall.
He spent the following season developing in the Swedish Hockey League, representing Team Sweden in the World Junior Championships and showing the NHL organization enough that it is clear he will head to North America at the earliest possible opportunity.
He will start with the Roadrunners in the AHL, allowing him time to adjust to North American ice and style of play, but it is clear that the team has something truly special in Soderstrom.
He will benefit from being close to team captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson, a fellow Swede, who can help him adjust to life in the desert and be a positive mentor during the early stages of his NHL career.
The right-handed blueliner will likely make his NHL debut at some point during the 2020/21 season and will become a focal point of the defense once he makes the jump up on a permanent basis, potentially becoming a long-term partner with Jakob Chychrun.
A long-term partnership of Chychrun and Soderstrom could be the plan that Chayka has in mind and is something the Coyotes could benefit from for many years to come.