The Arizona Coyotes entered the 2021 season with playoff hopes thanks to the reconfigured West Division, but they are falling short of expectations so far.
It may only be a small sample size, but the Coyotes’ 2-4-1 record after their first seven games leaves them dead-last in the division and with plenty of questions that need answering.
The Coyotes’ slow start to the season sees them rank 27th overall in the entire NHL, sitting one point above the Carolina Hurricanes - who have played just three games to date.
The disappointment has been compounded by the last two games, where the Coyotes were shut out against the Vegas Golden Knights (5-1-0) and Anaheim Ducks (3-2-2) respectively.
While those games were close, both ending 1-0 to the Coyotes’ opponents, Rick Tocchet’s side are once again struggling to generate much of anything offensively, ranking 27th in Goals Per Game (2.43) and 26th in Shots Per Game (27.3).
With the additions of Tyler Pitlick and Johan Larsson, Tocchet was given players that seemed to fit his preferred style of play this off-season but haven’t been able to help the team where it really struggles - goalscoring.
With the Coyotes being shut out in back-to-back games, and slipping down to the bottom of the division rankings, questions have to be asked over the future of the current head coach.
With Bill Armstrong taking over the position as general manager, many changes have been made to the Coyotes behind the scenes, with a flurry of hirings and firings so that Armstrong can begin to build a team that he believes can compete in the league in the immediate future.
This has even seen some minor changes to the coaching staff, most notably being former Tucson Roadrunners head coach Jay Varaday promoted to the NHL team as an assistant.
But one thing that has not yet happened, is a change at the head coaching position.
Many GMs make this change after taking over a team, preferring to refresh everything and bring in ‘their guy’, but Armstrong gave Tocchet a vote of confidence when he first arrived.
How long will that confidence last, however? The Coyotes have made marginal improvements under Tocchet, making it into the playoffs last season thanks to the expanded post-season allowing them to grind down the Nashville Predators before they faced a truly deadly team in the Colorado Avalanche.
Even that Coyotes team had the help of Taylor Hall.
Arizona needs to be taking larger strides in improving the team on the ice, but the system operated by Tocchet isn’t likely going to get them there, with the team middle of the pack at best this season when it comes to the defensive side - an area the team previously sat among the best in the league at in recent years.
For Armstrong, he knows that Tocchet’s contract is up after this season and he needs to make a decision about the direction he wants the team to take, both now and in the future.
If he is content letting the team miss the playoffs and finish near the bottom of the league, without a first round pick of their own, then Tocchet will see out his contract before any significant decisions will be made.
However, seeing the team perform below expectations, even after Armstrong brought in players specifically for Tocchet’s system, could make the GM consider whether or not it’s in the franchise’s best interests to maintain this relationship.
Varaday is a promising coach that the organization clearly values enough to promote him to the majors; could there be internal interest in seeing what he could bring to the table as a head coach?
If Tocchet is relieved of his duties, Varaday could step in immediately, already familiar with a few Coyotes players that have progressed from the Roadrunners, and see what impact he could make on results.
If the Coyotes want to see what they have in Varaday at the NHL level, giving him a significant amount of games would be the best way to do so.
If they wait until their playoff situation is mathematically determined, then there wouldn’t be much of a chance for Varaday to make his mark on the team and more questions would be raised at the end of the season.
If poor results continue, however, maybe the Arizona Coyotes would be better off giving him a chance to showcase his talents, rather than keeping Tocchet in place and likely headed for another disappointing end to the season.