The Arizona Coyotes have officially been eliminated from playoff contention, and now have some key questions that need to be answered sooner rather than later.
The 56-game 2020-21 season brought plenty of hope to the Arizona Coyotes fanbase, who had seen the team make the playoffs last year thanks to a strong play-in series against the Nashville Predators.
It was expected that the Coyotes would compete for the fourth playoff spot in the West Division, which is what the team did throughout the campaign, ultimately falling short after some disappointing results along the way.
Now that the team’s season is effectively over, the attention should now immediately turn to what comes next this off-season, with a number of crucial questions needing answers as soon as possible.
Undoubtedly, the biggest question the team needs to answer this summer is where head coach Rick Tocchet’s future lies - with his contract expiring after the current season.
At the time of writing, in 288, Tocchet’s Coyotes hold a regular-season record of 123-131-34, making the playoffs just once in his four years at the helm.
That playoff appearance came in large part due to the NHL’s expanded play-in series, with the Coyotes on a downward trajectory and expected to miss out on the post-season before the Coronavirus pandemic gave them a reprieve.
A hard-fought series victory over the Nashville Predators enthused fans before two crushing 7-1 defeats to the Colorado Avalanche brought everything back down to Earth.
Had an ordinary season played out in 2019/20, it’s likely that Tocchet’s tenure behind the Coyotes’ bench would have seen the team miss the post-season every year - not exactly impressive when considering whether or not to offer him a new deal.
Continuity could be important to GM Bill Armstrong, but so could the opportunity to hire his own people and begin to build a team in his own image - without the need to pay compensation for a firing.
This is likely to be something that is resolved early on, with some free agent head coaching candidates in Gerard Gallant and Bruce Boudreau likely to gain plenty of interest this off-season.
Something that must start to emerge this off-season is general manager Bill Armstrong’s true vision for the direction of the team.
In his debut season with the Coyotes, Armstrong went all-in on Tocchet and his brand of hockey, bringing in free agents that were expected to help the team push for the playoffs, and even doubling down by not making any trade deadline moves with the team still within reach at that point.
Now that the team’s season is done, bar the final, meaningless games (except for opportunities for some prospects), Armstrong must begin to forge ahead with how he wants to build a team and how he envisions the team playing.
Armstrong’s decision over Tocchet’s future with the team will be a clear indication of how he hopes the team to be, with the incumbent coach preferring a tight defensive effort over offensive rewards.
If Tocchet goes, then hiring a group of coaches that can work together towards a shared idea and style is an absolute must. The Coyotes need clear direction, and hiring a particular style of coach can go a long way to establishing that right out of the gate.
No half-measures should be accepted, and targeting people that can build a philosophy and style that can bring improved results in Armstrong’s preferred image needs to be made.
Going hand-in-hand with a clear philosophy and style of play will be how the team’s numerous impending free agents are handled.
Players that have been stalwarts for the team under Tocchet may no longer suit a new coach’s style or may be too old to justify a new deal - unless they come at a markedly lower price.
Plenty of players have become fan favorites in recent years, in all positions on the ice, so making those tough decisions need to be addressed as early as possible, further pushing the team towards a clear direction.
This could also involve considering whether or not a player should be re-signed to expose them for the Seattle Kraken’s expansion draft, but it is not something that Armstrong can dwell on for too long.
The Arizona Coyotes are entering a period of true unknowns, with plenty of questions hanging over the organization and what comes next.
Making moves and addressing these questions early will do much to enthuse the fanbase and provide stability to the team, during what could be an interesting rebuilding/retooling period.