It was another long, hot Arizona summer, but the temperatures are finally cooling off, the calendar has flipped to October, and the Arizona Coyotes’ first regular-season game of 2019-20 is now just a few hours away.
We’ve made it! It’s hockey season once again!
With that said, a lot has happened since the Coyotes last took the ice six months ago. Let’s dive right into it:
Comings and Goings
- RW Phil Kessel (acquired from PIT)
- C/LW Carl Soderberg (acquired from COL)
- C Barrett Hayton (recalled from Ontario Hockey League)
- RW Josh Archibald (signed with EDM)
- LW/RW Richard Panik (signed with WSH)
- C/LW Alex Galchenyuk (traded to PIT)
- C/LW Nick Cousins (signed with MTL)
- C/LW Mario Kempe (signed with LA)
- LHD Kevin Connauton (traded to COL)
The Coyotes didn’t make too many additions to their roster over the summer, but those players, in addition to the many who are returning from season-ending injuries, should have significant impacts on the club’s fortunes in 2019-20.
First and foremost, Phil Kessel. The man needs no introduction. Two Stanley Cups. 357 career goals. 823 career points. He became Arizona’s best forward the instant in which the trade that brought him to the desert was finalized, and he’s arguably the most talented player the franchise has seen since the early days when Keith Tkachuk and Jeremy Roenick lit up the scoreboard at the old America West Arena in Downtown Phoenix.
General manager John Chayka also made a savvy move in acquiring veteran center Carl Soderberg from the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for defenseman Kevin Connauton and a 2020 third-round pick. Connauton didn’t have a place on Arizona’s roster in 2019-20, so the Coyotes essentially flipped an unneeded asset and a draft pick for a 482-game veteran who posted 49 points last season and can play on both special teams units.
This trade looks even better now, considering Connauton was waived and sent to the AHL earlier this week.
Another newcomer is Barrett Hayton, the club’s No. 5 overall pick in 2018. He has officially made the Coyotes’ opening night roster, but the role he’ll play for head coach Rick Tocchet remains to be seen.
Hayton looks to be ready to play at the NHL level after averaging nearly 1.7 points per game in the Ontario Hockey League in 2018-19. He might not put up Clayton Keller-esque numbers as a rookie, but he should help the club as a 19-year-old.
Although they’re not new to the team, we’ll mention Christian Dvorak and Nick Schmaltz in this space as well. Why? Well, because both players missed the majority of the 2018-19 season – Dvorak was unavailable for the first 62 games of the year, while Schmaltz played in just 17 of 60 possible contests after being acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks on Nov. 25 due to a season-ending lower-body injury sustained on Dec. 30.
Schmaltz, who posted 14 points during those 17 games last season, figures to be Arizona’s No. 1 or No. 2 centerman after being signed to a seven-year, $40.95 million contract extension over the summer. Dvorak, who could play on a wing this year due to Arizona’s crowded center group, posted seven points in 20 games after making his return to the lineup on Feb. 26.
Both players will undoubtedly be looking to bounce back from their injury-shortened 2018-19 seasons.
Kessel Headlines Forward Group
We already touched on how much of an impact Kessel should have on the Coyotes, but let’s dive deeper into the numbers:
Kessel had 82 points last season. No Coyote has posted 80 or more points in a season since Keith Tkachuk did so in 1996-97.
Kessel collected 36 power-play points (PPP) in 2018-19. Only Shane Doan has recorded more PPP in a season in franchise history, tallying 41 PPP in 2005-06.
Kessel has played in 996 of 1032 possible NHL contests since starting his career, with Oct. 31, 2009, being the most recent occasion he missed a game. This is a key stat, especially when considering Arizona finished with the third-most man-games lost in 2018-19. They need durable players.
It’s safe to say that Coyotes fans haven’t seen a player of Kessel’s caliber suit up for the franchise in over two decades. They can’t wait to see him on the ice in a black Kachina jersey, and neither can we.
Kessel isn’t the only forward capable of putting up big numbers in Arizona – look for 21-year-old Clayton Keller to rebound from his sophomore slump and post another 65-point campaign, as he did as a rookie in 2017-18. If Keller spends a lot of time on the ice with Kessel and Schmaltz, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him reach 70 points in 2019-20.
The dynamic duo of Brad Richardson and Michael Grabner will also be coming to an NHL arena near you – they seemingly generated a shorthanded goal every time they were killing penalties together last season, and they’ll be looking to pick up where they left off on the PK. Look for the pair to build solid chemistry with whoever plays on their line at even-strength as well.
When it comes to candidates for a bounce-back season, Derek Stepan has to be at the top of the list. Stepan scored 44 or more points in his first eight NHL seasons before failing to reach that mark for the first time in 2018-19, finishing with 15 goals and 20 assists for 35 points. He’ll be looking to get back on track in 2019-20.
In addition to the veterans we’ve mentioned, the Coyotes also have a number of young players that will be looking to make a mark on the league in 2019-20. Among them are guys like Lawson Crouse and Conor Garland.
Garland played 47 games for the Coyotes last season, scoring 13 goals and adding 5 assists. He notably scored a goal with his face in the second period against the Edmonton Oilers back on Jan. 12, then buried the game-winner in the third after getting stitched up:
Garland, who posted 257 points over his final 129 games in the QMJHL, scored at a 22-goal pace in the NHL last season. Can he reach that 20-goal mark while also adding in some assists in 2019-20? If he can, the former fifth-round pick will be well on his way to becoming one of 2015’s best draft-day steals.
Crouse was the recipient of a three-year, $4.6 million contract extension over the summer after producing 25 points in 81 games in the 2019-20 season, his third as a pro. Now, with some job security for the first time as a pro, Crouse will be looking to take that next step in his career this season.
Projected Opening Night Line Combinations
Clayton Keller – Derek Stepan – Phil Kessel
Christian Dvorak – Nick Schmaltz – Vinnie Hinostroza
Michael Grabner – Brad Richardson – Conor Garland
Lawson Crouse – Carl Soderberg – Barrett Hayton
Extra: Christian Fischer
Coyotes Defense Remains Intact
While the Coyotes had a busy summer overall, there wasn’t much movement to report upon when it came to the defense and goaltending. And that’s probably a good thing – Arizona finished tied with the Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues for the fifth-fewest goals against in 2018-19, allowing an average of just 2.68 per night.
Obviously, the defense was playoff-quality last season. There were some shortcomings in the offensive zone and on the power play that were addressed over the summer, but keeping the defensive core intact should help matters significantly as Tocchet looks to guide his club back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 season.
As always, captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson leads the blue line. At age 28, and with arguably the best supporting cast of his career around him, “OEL” could be primed for a breakout year in the desert.
Ekman-Larsson has long been touted as a player who could contend for the Norris Trophy on a regular basis once he reaches his potential, and that time could soon be arriving. Expect Ekman-Larsson to see a significant increase from the 19 PPP he recorded last season, and look for him to break the 60-point mark for the first time in 2019-20.
The only lineup change we foresee from last season to this season is an increased role for fourth-year defenseman Jakob Chychrun, at the expense of Alex Goligoski. Goligoski turned 34 over the summer, and has seen his point total slowly drop off over the past few seasons, from 37 in 2015-16 to 27 in 2018-19.
Goligoski is still a serviceable defender, and he’ll likely continue to handle a lot of penalty-killing duty (as he did last season), but it’s time for Chychrun to step up into a top-four role, especially now that he’s entered the regular season fully healthy for the first time since 2016-17.
Injuries have significantly slowed Chychrun’s development, but, now that he’s healthy, there’s no question that he’s capable of handling tougher minutes. Kevin Connauton played 137:53 on the penalty kill last season – the second-most among all Coyotes defensemen behind only Niklas Hjalmarsson. With Connauton now in Colorado, expect Chychrun to pick up some of these PK minutes as he begins the first year of a $27.6 million contract extension.
Projected Opening Night Defense Pairings
Oliver Ekman-Larsson – Jason Demers
Jakob Chychrun – Niklas Hjalmarsson
Jordan Oesterle – Alex Goligoski
Extra: Kyle Capobianco
In 2018-19, the Coyotes boasted the league’s No. 1 penalty-kill (at 85.0 percent), but their power-play unit left a lot to be desired, finishing 26th in the league with a 16.3 percent conversion rate.
It would be unreasonable to expect the Coyotes to once again finish with the No. 1 penalty kill in the league, and it’s highly unlikely that the unit will generate 16 shorthanded goals again, but there’s no reason why Arizona can’t finish with a top-five PK unit in 2019-20. Five of the Coyotes’ six most-used penalty killers (in terms of shorthanded time on ice per game) from last year return this season, with the lone exception being Connauton. This unit should once again have a lot of success.
The biggest change we’ll see on special teams in 2019-20 will be the additions of Kessel and Schmaltz to the top power-play unit. Although he only played 17 games last season, Schmaltz contributed seven PPP during that time – a 33 PPP pace over an 82-game season. In Pittsburgh, Kessel recorded 36 PPP in 82 games in 2018-19.
Obviously, he won’t be playing with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang in Arizona, but Kessel, along with Schmaltz, should elevate the Coyotes’ power-play unit into the top half of the league.
A few more timely power-play goals here and there would have made a world of difference for the Coyotes last season. If they can continue to kill penalties while making opposing teams pay more often when they go to the box, Arizona will be a playoff team come April.
Kuemper or Raanta?
With the defense and forward groups mostly set in stone, the question of who will receive the majority of the starts in goal really is the only hot-button issue facing Tocchet and Chayka.
Will Kuemper Keep his Spot?
On one hand, there’s Darcy Kuemper. When it comes to recency bias, Kuemper wins this argument in a landslide.
Following a season-ending injury to Raanta in November 2018, Kuemper took over Arizona’s crease full-time and posted absurd numbers – in 55 starts, the Saskatoon native went 27-20-8 with a .925 save percentage and a 2.33 goals-against average. Among goaltenders who made 40 or more appearances last season, Kuemper ranked fourth in GAA, fifth in SV%, and tied for sixth with five shutouts.
Simply put, Kuemper frequently was the best player on the ice for the Coyotes last season, and he didn’t miss a beat in the preseason this year, playing 164 minutes of hockey across three games while recording a .943 SV% and a 1.83 GAA.
Raanta Makes His Return
On the other hand, there’s Antti Raanta. He began last season as Arizona’s unquestioned starting goaltender after signing a three-year, $12.75 million contract extension at the end of the 2017-18 season. Raanta was very deserving of that money he was paid – was absolutely unbelievable down the stretch for Arizona two seasons ago. From Jan. 4 through the end of the 2017-18 campaign, the Finland native posted a 16-6-4 record with a .942 save percentage and a 1.82 goals-against average in 27 games.
Some might disagree with this, but I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway – Raanta was the best netminder of the 2017-18 season. Among goaltenders that played in 40 or more games, Raanta’s .930 SV% and 2.24 GAA were tops in the NHL. For comparison’s sake, 2018 Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne finished the season with a .927 SV% and a 2.31 GAA.
However, those league-leading numbers came more than 18 months ago – Raanta played just 12 games in 2018-19 due to a lower-body injury he suffered in November, and he suffered another lower-body injury during training camp in 2019. In his limited time on ice for the Coyotes last season, Raanta posted a 5-6-0 record along with a .906 SV% and a 2.88 GAA.
We haven’t seen much from Raanta lately, and Kuemper might be the leader in the clubhouse as a result.
1a and 1b?
With two solid goaltenders on the roster, the solution for Tocchet in 2019-20 could be to utilize a platoon system, similar to what the St. Louis Blues utilized with great success with Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak from 2011 to 2014.
Kuemper deserves to be the starter based on his solid body of work down the stretch last season, but Raanta should get an opportunity to build upon his outstanding 2017-18 campaign as well.
Perhaps a tandem situation is what Raanta needs in order to be successful – his numbers have been among the league’s best when he’s healthy, but those healthy moments have been few and far between. He’s played 30 or more games in a season just once, and he’s already 30 years old. Time is running out for Raanta to prove that he can be a full-time starter in the league.
Kuemper, on the other hand, proved that he’s capable of carrying the load in 2018-19, starting 22 consecutive games from Feb. 19 to Apr. 4 as the Coyotes fought for a playoff spot.
Both goaltenders need to play in 2019-20, but perhaps a 65/35 split in Kuemper’s favor would be best, until Raanta proves that he can stay healthy.
The Opening Week
The Coyotes, as they were last October, were inactive on the season’s opening night on Wednesday. Instead, they’ll once again begin their regular-season slate with a Thursday night road game, this time at the Honda Center against the Anaheim Ducks.
New head coach Dallas Eakins will have his work cut out for him behind the bench – Anaheim failed to qualify for the postseason in 2018-19, finishing sixth in the Pacific Division and 13th in the Western Conference. This should be a winnable game for the Coyotes – puck drop is scheduled for 7:00 P.M. local time at The Pond.
After completing their first “road trip” of the season, Arizona will return home to the Valley of the Sun and will host the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins at Gila River Arena on Saturday night. Boston has dominated this series as of late – Arizona’s last win over the Bruins came on Oct. 9, 2010, in a game played in the Czech Republic. Since then, the Coyotes are 0-13-1 against Boston and have been outscored 55-19 over that span.
A win here could jumpstart the Coyotes to a successful month of October – the puck will drop at 6:00 P.M. in Glendale in this marquee matchup.
Pacific Division Preview
As we enter the 2019-20 season, it appears as if the Pacific Division may not have an elite team. It truly could be a four or five-team race out West this season. Here’s a look at how Arizona’s divisional foes stack up as we get started.
For the record, we project the Coyotes to finish in third place in the Pacific with a 44-32-6 record and 94 points.
- Analysis: There’s no question that the 2018-19 season was an unmitigated disaster in Anaheim. The Ducks led the NHL with 484 man-games lost to injury, and suffered through a 2-15-4 stretch from Dec. 18 through Feb. 9 that essentially torpedoed the season after a solid 19-11-5 start. The Ducks rebounded nicely from that brutal stretch of hockey, though, finishing 14-11-1 over their final 26 games. I don’t think this team is good enough to be a playoff team in 2019-20, but they should be competitive if they’re healthy.
- Prediction: 38-38-6 (82 points, 7th in Pacific)
- Analysis: The Flames won the division last season, but they might be hampered in their efforts to repeat due to their failure to adequately address the goaltending position over the summer. This team will once again score a ton of goals, but replacing Mike Smith with Cam Talbot in the backup goaltender role seems like a lateral move. David Rittich was fine last season, posting a .911 SV% and a 2.61 GAA, but he was overtaken by Smith down the stretch and did not make an appearance in Calgary’s five-game first-round playoff series loss at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche. One of these guys needs to step up and be the solution in net, or another first-round loss could be in Calgary’s future.
- Prediction: 45-30-7 (97 points, 2nd in Pacific)
- Analysis: The Oilers were golfing in April for the 12th time in the last 13 seasons in 2018-19, but there are some reasons for optimism entering the 2019-20 campaign. First, they cleaned house – gone are general manager Peter Chiarelli and interim GM Keith Gretzky. Gone are head coach Todd McLellan and interim coach Ken Hitchcock. In are Ken Holland and Dave Tippett as general manager and head coach, respectively. Both are well-respected throughout the league, and they should be the right men to guide Edmonton out from the league’s basement in due time. However, despite all of the personnel changes, this is a team that could struggle to keep the puck out of their own net in 2019-20, especially if they’re going to lean on Mike Smith and/or Mikko Koskinen in goal.
- Prediction: 42-35-5 (89 points, 5th in Pacific)
Los Angeles Kings
- Analysis: Last season was nothing short of a nightmare for the Los Angeles Kings. Head coach John Stevens was fired just 13 games in after his club got off to a 4-8-1 start, but interim bench boss Willie Desjardins didn’t fare much better, guiding LA to a 31-42-9 overall record and a last-place finish in the Pacific. Todd McLellan is now running the show, but it’s hard to see the Kings being in postseason contention, especially with most of the team’s key players entering the twilight of their careers. Ilya Kovalchuk, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, Jonathan Quick, and captain Anze Kopitar are all age 32 or older – things likely will get worse in Los Angeles before they get better.
- Prediction: 28-44-10 (66 points, 8th in Pacific)
San Jose Sharks
- Analysis: After adding Erik Karlsson last summer, San Jose entered the 2018-19 season with sky-high expectations. However, horrendous goaltending from both Martin Jones and Aaron Dell significantly hampered the Sharks’ efforts, and general manager Doug Wilson elected not to make any changes to this position over the summer, while also losing franchise icon Joe Pavelski to the Dallas Stars in free agency. There’s still enough here to make the playoffs, but the Stanley Cup contention window in San Jose might be closed.
- Prediction: 41-32-9 (91 points, 4th in Pacific)
- Analysis: Following the retirements of the Sedin twins at the conclusion of the 2017-18 campaign, Vancouver’s 2018-19 season served as a bit of a rebuilding year. Young players like Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser played big minutes for Jim Benning’s club, and the team finally may have found the reliable starting goaltender they’ve lacked in Jacob Markstrom, who made 60 starts last year. Throw Thatcher Demko and Quinn Hughes into the mix, and this is a group that should contend for a playoff spot in 2019-20. Head coach Travis Green has his club moving in the right direction in British Columbia.
- Prediction: 39-36-7 (85 points, 6th in Pacific)
Vegas Golden Knights
- Analysis: The Golden Knights took a step back in 2018-19 after winning the Western Conference during their inaugural season – call it a sophomore slump, if you will – but they should be poised to rebound in 2019-20 during their junior season in the NHL. Top-six forwards Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, Paul Stastny, Alex Tuch, and Mark Stone all return, while the defense will continue to be led by Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore, with Marc-Andre Fleury once again between the pipes for head coach Gerard Gallant. It’s hard to find a weakness here – injuries were a factor in Vegas last season, but if they can stay healthy in 2019-20, this should be a division-winning club.
- Prediction: 48-28-6 (102 points, 1st in Pacific)
The Final Word
The Coyotes aren’t receiving much love from the national media outlets when it comes to 2019-20 season predictions, but don’t be fooled. This team finished four points out of a playoff spot last season despite six players – the starting goaltender, two top-nine centers, two starting defensemen, and the club’s top penalty-killer – missing 25 or more games due to injury.
With all of those players returning to the lineup, plus the additions of Kessel and Soderberg, the Coyotes should return to the playoffs in 2020. As we mentioned earlier, we project Arizona to capture the Pacific Division’s No. 3 seed this year.
However, as we’ve seen in the past, things can go sideways quickly when injuries strike. Will the Coyotes stay healthy this season and reach their full potential?
We’ll soon find out.
It’s opening night, folks. Enjoy it!
A lifelong Phoenix resident, Louis has been following hockey since 2010, has covered the Arizona Coyotes since 2015, and has been playing hockey since 2020. So far, Louis has visited eight NHL cities, and one of his personal goals is to eventually make it to all 31 NHL arenas. For any questions or concerns, contact the writer via Twitter @LouisPannone.