The Arizona Coyotes are about to embark on a challenging season, this after one of the more memorable offseasons for any team in recent memory. Gone are names that were mainstays on the roster, including former captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson, forwards Conor Garland and Christian Dvorak, and goalies Adin Hill and Darcy Kuemper.
They’ve been replaced by newer faces, both young and old. Veteran players like defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere and forward Andrew Ladd have arrived in the desert, accompanied by a healthy number of young faces battling for a spot in the lineup. Dylan Guenther, the team’s ninth-overall pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, has wasted no time impressing his teammates. Liam Kirk, Ty Emberson, and Cam Crotty have made their presence felt as well.
Simply put, General Manager Bill Armstrong assembled a roster that will have a mixture of young and old, and though the projections for this season are anything but rosy, don’t tell that to anyone participating in training camp.
Jakob Chychrun, Clayton Keller Ready to Step Up
Entering his sixth season in The Valley, defenseman Jakob Chychrun is an undisputed leader on the team. The 23-year-old was second in points with the club last year, behind only forward Phil Kessel, with 41 points on 18 goals and 23 assists in 56 games.
He was sixth on the team with 20 takeaways, and though he turned the puck over a team-leading 36 times, his point share of 7.4 was tops by almost three entire points (Kessel and Alex Goligoski were tied for second at 4.5). Needless to say, he’s ready to take the next step in his career.
Despite his vast NHL experience, he recognized that there are older players coming in who can help him develop even further.
“I think as a whole, I just want to continue to grow every year in all areas of the game, and all areas of the rink,” Chychrun said. “I still feel I have a lot of room to [grow], and I think, obviously, the bigger thing for me, is to work on being a leader.”
He’s not alone in that camp. Forward Clayton Keller, entering his fifth full season with the team, was fourth last year with 35 points. He has never posted a season with fewer than that, with his best season coming in a 65-point campaign in 2017-18.
He relishes the opportunity to step up as well, and things his teammates will also answer the bell.
“It’s definitely time for us to take a bigger step, and not just talk about it,” Keller said. “I think it’s time to take ownership of it, and actually do it.”
Chychrun also said he’s ready to move forward with the new-look Coyotes, and embrace the change.
“I’m excited to work with [coach André Tourigny], and obviously a whole new coaching staff, which I think will be great for our group,” Chychrun said. “I think we have a real opportunity to turn some heads this year, and surprise some people.”
Gostisbehere, Ladd Can Reinvigorate Their Careers
Veterans like Gostisbehere and Ladd bring a winning mentality right out of the gate, but also have something to prove as the 2021-22 season kicks off. Both have contracts that run through the end of the 2022-23 season, and need to perform well in order to land a contract in the future.
Neither are exactly coming off career years, either.
Gostisbehere notched 20 points on nine goals and 11 assists in 41 games with the Philadelphia Flyers last season, and has not eclipsed 30 points since the 2018-19 season. Even then, he posted a plus/minus rating of minus-20, but the 28-year-old has the opportunity to start fresh and lead by example.
Ladd, meanwhile, is much more of a grizzled veteran, having spent the better part of 15 NHL seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes, Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets, Chicago Blackhawks, and New York Islanders. The 35-year-old winger has amassed 538 points in 950 career games, but has not played in the NHL since the 2019-20 season. Statistically speaking, his best season was with the Jets in 2014-15, after he recorded 62 points in 81 games.
Needless to say, Armstrong said they should fit in nicely with a team that seems determined to open some eyes.
“We built a hungry hockey team,” he said. “Everybody has something that they’re looking to get out of this season. They’re extremely hungry, along with a hungry coaching staff.”
That coaching staff, led by first-time NHL head coach André Tourigny, is set to kick off the 2021-22 season with a new look. Tourigny said he expects the team to compete hard, and he’s already been impressed with how cohesive they’ve been.
“We have a nice brotherhood, these guys are united,” he said. “Guys who are proud to play together, they’re proud to play here in AZ, and they want the best for the organization.”
Coyotes Embrace Underdog Mentality, Want to Surprise
Deep in the throes of a rebuild, it looks on paper as if it’s going to be a long season for Arizona. That said, the team has already wrapped a successful rookie development camp, hosted some of the game’s top youngsters in the Rookie Faceoff Tournament, and appears to be fully buying in to an underdog mentality.
And though it’s anyone’s guess how the season is set to go, forward Lawson Crouse had a message for anyone who expects to skate into the desert and leave with a win:
“Maybe it lights a fire under some of our butts,” Crouse said of the preseason projections. “Teams that are going to take us for granted, and think that it’s going to be an easy night, I think they’re in for a lesson real quick.”
Time will tell, but for now, as training camp progresses, the Coyotes sure are talking the talk.
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A die-hard hockey fan in the desert, and proud Iowa State alum. Detroit Red Wings and Arizona Coyotes contributor for The Hockey Writers.