The Arizona Coyotes are getting better.
Sure, the team isn’t going to compete for a playoff spot. That level of excitement in the desert, in fact, is still years away. Even so, it’s easy to see why the Coyotes seem to be leaps-and-bounds ahead of their cellar-dwelling counterparts, as their 5-2 win on Monday over the Montreal Canadiens illustrated.
One huge contributing factor is the play of 25-year-old rookie goalie Karel Vejmelka, whose .910 save percentage (SV%) has single-handedly kept the Coyotes in games this season. His first career shutout, a 46-save gem over the Winnipeg Jets on Nov. 29, is a prime example of that, and “Veggie” has quickly earned his way into Arizona hockey lore.
There are other factors in play, too, and the team has looked much more comfortable over its last 10 games than it has all season. The difference starts at the very top: Head coach André Tourigny and his coaching staff.
Players Settling in to Tourigny’s Style of Play
The Coyotes are not the fastest team around, and also presently lead the league with an average of 12.6 penalty minutes per game. Even so, the team’s outlet passes seem crisper, their communication seems stronger, and that’s added up to consistent performance lately. In its first 11 games this season, in which Arizona was 0-10-1, it scored just 14 goals. The Yotes now have 12 goals in their last four games, and that even includes a 5-0 loss to the Colorado Avalanche.
The biggest difference? Look no further than the system that Tourigny, along with assistant coaches Mario Duhamel, Phil Housley, Cory Stillman, and Corey Schwab have installed since their arrival, and how the team is responding to it.
“It took a bit at the start to get used to the new systems, and stuff like that, but I think the last 20 games or so you can really see our team starting to play better and settle into our system better,” forward Nick Schmaltz said after the team’s win over the Canadiens earlier this week. “Sometimes, with a new coach, you’re thinking ‘Oh my god, am I in the right place,’ or whatever, but I think once we stopped thinking and started playing, you can see we’re playing a lot better.”
Schmaltz himself is proof of that. With just 10 points in 19 games this season, the 25-year-old was not performing to expectations. He had just one point before missing nearly two months with an upper-body injury, and but has seemed to click as of late, boasting four points in his last five games.
38 games into the season, the club has clearly collectively bought into the system, and continues to mature as a unit, both on and off the ice. Keep in mind, a good portion of the roster was brought in from elsewhere this offseason, and the club finally seems to be meshing together on the ice, just like the bond it has off it.
Duhamel was quick to deflect any credit away from the coaching staff, and back on to the team instead.
“We won’t take the credit — it’s more the players, themselves, with the great leadership,” he said. “They’re never satisfied, obviously they are all proud, and they want to be better.”
Speaking of leadership, forward Clayton Keller has essentially put the team on his back this season, especially in its most recent 5-3-2 stretch. The 23-year-old leads the team in both goals (14) and points (30), and has 13 points in his last 11 games.
The front office has taken note, as general manager Bill Armstrong recently indicated that Keller is almost certainly going to be part of the team’s long-term future. (From: Neutral Zone: GM Bill Armstrong says Clayton Keller is key piece in Coyotes’ future, gophnx.com, Jan. 16, 2022).
You’d better believe teammates have taken notice of Keller’s All-Star example, even if they give him a little razzing along the way.
“He had a little bit of a slow start, like the team, and then he leads the play, he carries on, he goes in the corner, he wins his battles, even though he’s only just five — well I don’t even know how tall he is — but he’s pretty small,” forward Antoine Roussel said. ” [He] shows up every game, and that’s the kind of commitment we want from this team.
“When you see guys doing that every night, it just gets to the next guy, and to the next guy, and so on, and all of a sudden you have 20 guys working in the same direction.”
The Coyotes Tune Out Any Outside Noise
Monday’s win against Montreal was understandably referred to as the lottery bowl, among other names, indicating the matchup between the NHL’s two worst teams could have implications in the upcoming 2022 NHL Entry Draft lottery. That’s certainly true, but frankly, the Coyotes don’t care to hear that opinion.
There’s a long-term goal at stake, after all.
“Obviously we’re both (including Montreal) not in the position we want to be in as teams, but we still want to bring it every night, and you know, set the bar high and make sure we’re not taking any nights off just because of our positioning,” Schmaltz said. “It may not be this year that we’re successful in the standings, but you want to play the right way every night, and keep building that as an organization.”
As Keller has shown, that’s exactly what the team is doing, and it’s starting to show up a bit more in the box score. Good thing, too, because other teams around the league have taken notice, even if the wins aren’t coming at a blistering pace.
“We want to be proud of ourselves every day, and that’s something that we control,” Duhamel said. “People that travel around us say that we have a positive vibe around the team, which is very flattering, and we’re happy to hear that because whatever the situation is you are in, it’s a privilege to be here, and the team can fight.
“That’s the part we’re controlling, and we want to fight every day, and get better every day, and that positiveness brings good energy.”
Talent Waiting in the Wings
The team’s two-game winning streak was fun to watch, but the reality is the road will continue to be rocky over the next few seasons. Assuming the Coyotes find a home, both for next season and beyond, Arizona fans have players like Dylan Guenther to look forward to in the future. Add to that the plethora of picks Armstrong has for the 2022 entry draft, three in the first round and five in the second round — and it’s clear the foundation is being laid right before our eyes.
If the team continues to buy in, Coyotes fans may have a lot to be excited about in just a few seasons.
A die-hard hockey fan in the desert, and proud Iowa State alum. Detroit Red Wings and Arizona Coyotes contributor for The Hockey Writers.