Is it October yet?
Yes. Yes, it is. And that can only mean one thing – hockey season is upon us once again.
The 2018-19 regular season officially gets started on Wednesday night, but Arizona Coyotes fans will have to wait one more day to see their team in action.
As always, it was another busy offseason around the NHL, so, before we go any further in previewing the Coyotes’ 2018-19 campaign, let’s take a look back at the moves made by general manager John Chayka over the summer:
New Faces in New Places
- C Alex Galchenyuk (acquired from MTL)
- C Barrett Hayton (drafted fifth overall)
- LW Michael Grabner (signed as free agent)
- LW Vinnie Hinostroza (acquired from CHI)
- D Jordan Oesterle (acquired from CHI)
- C/LW Max Domi (traded to MTL)
- LW Zac Rinaldo (free agent – signed with NSH)
- LW Jordan Martinook (traded to CAR)
- D Luke Schenn (free agent – signed with ANA)
- D Joel Hanley (free agent – signed with DAL)
The Coyotes were extremely active this offseason, as they added multiple new pieces to their forward group.
The most significant addition was undoubtedly center Alex Galchenyuk, who was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens in a one-for-one trade that sent Max Domi to Quebec. Galchenyuk, 24, already has a 30-goal season under his belt and should be a much more productive player this season, as he’ll return to his natural position of center.
Galchenyuk lit up the scoresheet during the preseason, scoring twice against the Los Angeles Kings on Sept. 18. However, he suffered an injury shortly thereafter and will start the season on injured reserve. When healthy, Galchenyuk likely will slot in as Arizona’s No. 1 center.
The acquisitions of forward Vinnie Hinostroza and defenseman Jordan Oesterle from the Chicago Blackhawks also have the potential to be good ones for Chayka. The Coyotes took on Marian Hossa’s albatross contract in the trade and therefore didn’t have to give up much to acquire two solid young players. Oesterle, 26, had a very impressive preseason – he posted two goals and three assists in five games and should be an upgrade over Luke Schenn, who filled in on the bottom pairing last season.
Hinostroza, 24, also has a lot of upside. He recorded 25 points in 50 games for Chicago last year and will be someone to keep an eye on this season. He’s scored at every level he’s played at – Hinostroza averaged a point per game during two seasons at Notre Dame and posted 82 points in 109 career AHL contests with the Rockford IceHogs. He still needs to prove that he can be a consistent scorer in the NHL, though, and this could be the year he breaks out.
Also new to town is Michael Grabner, who came to the desert on a three-year, $10.05 million contract. Grabner, 30, is a pure goalscorer who can play on both the power play and penalty kill units. The veteran has scored 54 goals over the past two campaigns and seems like a pretty good bet to reach the 20-goal plateau again this season. He’s a low-risk, high-reward signing, and should be a solid all-around player for head coach Rick Tocchet during these next three seasons.
Sizing Up the Coyotes
Projected Opening Night Line Combinations
Brendan Perlini – Clayton Keller – Vinnie Hinostroza
Richard Panik – Derek Stepan – Christian Fischer
Lawson Crouse – Dylan Strome – Laurent Dauphin
Michael Grabner – Brad Richardson – Nick Cousins
Extras: Mario Kempe and Barrett Hayton
Injured reserve: Alex Galchenyuk, Christian Dvorak, Josh Archibald
Projected Opening Night Defense Pairings
Oliver Ekman-Larsson – Jason Demers
Alex Goligoski – Niklas Hjalmarsson
Kevin Connauton – Jordan Oesterle
Extra: Ilya Lyubushkin
Injured reserve: Jakob Chychrun
Obviously, these combinations and pairings will change significantly as the Coyotes get healthier – Keller won’t be playing center full-time this season, and it’s unlikely that promising 18-year-old center Barrett Hayton will stick around longer than nine games, either. Mario Kempe or Laurent Dauphin are candidates to be assigned to the AHL’s Tucson Roadrunners once Christian Dvorak comes off of injured reserve, and Ilya Lyubushkin might not be far behind once Jakob Chychrun returns to health.
The ‘Yotes will enter this season with a good mixture of veterans and young players. We all know what to expect from guys like Derek Stepan, Brad Richardson, Michael Grabner, and newly-minted captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson. They’ll play in all situations and will be leaders both on and off the ice for the Coyotes.
Unanswered Questions in Arizona
However, despite the veteran leadership that’s already in place, there are still many lingering questions about younger skaters such as Brendan Perlini, Christian Dvorak, and Dylan Strome, among others.
Will this be the year Strome puts everything together and becomes a solid NHL regular? Or will he be back in Tucson at some point this season?
Will Dvorak step up and show that he’s worth the huge investment (six years, $26.7 million) that the Coyotes made in him over the offseason?
Will Perlini finally break out and exceed the 20-goal mark after two up-and-down professional seasons?
Will Lawson Crouse prove that he’s an NHL player this year, or is he destined to become a journeyman in this sport?
And, perhaps most importantly, can Clayton Keller avoid the dreaded ‘sophomore slump’ that plagued Domi and Anthony Duclair following their superb rookie campaigns?
If the answers to most of these questions are ‘no’, then it could be another long year at Gila River Arena.
If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
Numerous changes were made to the Coyotes’ forward group over the summer, but Arizona’s defense and goaltending groups are largely unchanged from last season. Only Luke Schenn is missing from last year’s blue line, and both goaltenders from 2017-18 will return this season.
Clearly, there really was no reason to change things up. The Coyotes played outstanding defensive hockey over the final 29 games of last season, limiting their opposition to a paltry 2.38 goals per game. For comparison’s sake, Jonathan Quick and the Los Angeles Kings won the William M. Jennings Trophy while allowing 2.46 goals per game for the season.
A lot of the Coyotes’ success was due to Antti Raanta’s unbelievable second half, but there’s no question that a healthy and productive defensive group was a factor as well. If Tocchet’s rearguards and goaltenders can stay in the lineup for most of this season, the Coyotes will be sitting pretty come April.
Let’s Get It Started!
After having Wednesday off, the Coyotes will hit the ice on Thursday night in Texas, where they’ll take on Tyler Seguin and the Dallas Stars. The Stars are fresh off of a disappointing season in which they failed to qualify for the playoffs despite finishing with 92 points and a 26-12-3 record on home ice. Both teams will undoubtedly be looking to open 2018-19 on a high note, so this figures to be an entertaining affair. This one will get started at 7:30 P.M. local time (5:30 P.M. in Arizona) at the American Airlines Center.
The Coyotes will then return home for their 2018-19 home opener on Saturday night against the Anaheim Ducks. The game will be the first of many ‘Kachina Saturdays‘ this season, during which the ‘Yotes will wear their black throwback uniforms. The Coyotes also will reveal their new scoreboard prior to the game, and will host numerous other events and activities at the arena as well. Will you be there? Puck drop is scheduled for 6:00 P.M. at Gila River Arena.
Pacific Division Roundup
The Vegas Golden Knights enter 2018-19 as the reigning Pacific Division champions, but are they the favorites again this season? Here’s a look at how Arizona’s divisional foes stack up:
- Analysis: After failing to win the Pacific Division for the first time since 2011-12, the Ducks, the Pacific’s No. 2 seed, were dominated by the San Jose Sharks in the postseason, as they were outscored 16-4 en route to a lopsided first-round sweep. One would think that Anaheim would have upgraded the roster after their quick exit, but that wasn’t the case – they stood pat with their aging core, added role players in Brian Gibbons, Carter Rowney, Andrej Sustr, and Luke Schenn, and recently lost star forward Corey Perry to a long-term injury.
- This week: Wed at SJ, Sat at AZ, Mon vs DET
- Analysis: The Flames enter this season looking to redeem themselves after a late collapse last year. They were 10 games over the .500 mark and in playoff position on Feb. 24, but won just five times the rest of the season and ended up 11 points behind the Colorado Avalanche for the final postseason spot in the Western Conference. The health of goaltender Mike Smith will be a major factor in the team’s success or failure in 2018-19 – Smith, who will turn 37 in March, hasn’t played 60 or more games in a season since 2014-15. Will he hold up, or will the Flames be forced to once again turn to David Rittich and Jon Gillies?
- This week: Wed at VAN, Sat vs VAN, Tue at NSH
- Analysis: The Oilers arguably were the most maddening team to watch in the NHL last season – at times, they looked like a better version of the team that recorded 103 points in 2016-17. However, they also frequently appeared to be a worse version of the teams that struggled so badly from 2006 to 2016. Connor McDavid needs to get some consistency out of his teammates in 2018-19 if Edmonton wishes to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
- This week: Sat vs NJ (Game played in Sweden)
Los Angeles Kings
- Analysis: Like the Ducks, the Kings were also swept out of the first round by a divisional opponent, but, unlike their intercity rivals, they went out and did something about it. They brought in 35-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk on a three-year deal over the summer, and, although they may have overpaid, the Russian should immediately revive a stagnating Los Angeles offense.
- This week: Fri vs SJ, Sun vs DET, Tue at WPG
San Jose Sharks
- Analysis: Adding Erik Karlsson to a group that already included Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic almost seems unfair, but that’s exactly what the Sharks were able to accomplish over the summer. They instantly became the favorites in the Western Conference after the trade, and should be loads of fun to watch this season. Unless you’re a fan of the opposing team, that is.
- This week: Wed vs ANA, Fri at LA, Mon at NYI, Tue at PHI
- Analysis: Life after the Sedin twins begins this season for the Canucks, and Vancouverites might be in for a long year. General manager Jim Benning didn’t do much to improve his squad, opting instead to let his young players take on bigger roles with the club. This year will be a step in the right direction for the team’s rebuild, but the Canucks could struggle mightily on the ice.
- This week: Wed vs CGY, Fri at CGY, Tue at CAR
Vegas Golden Knights
- Analysis: Can the Golden Knights repeat the magic of last year and return to the playoffs during their sophomore effort in the NHL? The club added Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny to an already loaded roster, and Vegas appears to once again be serious contenders out West. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – if you haven’t been to T-Mobile Arena for a game yet, do it. Get there this season and experience NHL hockey in the Entertainment Capital of the World.
- This week: Thu vs PHI, Sat at MIN, Mon at BUF
As for the Coyotes, they did a lot to improve the offense this season, but their success or failure will come down to health. If players like Antti Raanta, Alex Galchenyuk, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Jakob Chychrun can stay (or get) healthy, this team has the potential to be in contention for a playoff spot all season long.
If a few big guns go down, though, the likely outcome in Arizona is another spring of playing the draft lottery simulator.