While the opener is always emotional, this one is especially important to the Arizona Coyotes.
That’s because the schedule is no friend. Usually, teams have a mixture of road and home contests of equal nature. Sure, teams will go on extended trips, and that’s especially true of eastern teams making western swings and the same for western teams.
After the Coyotes open their season Saturday night at home against the Philadelphia Flyers, players, coaches and team officials immediately pack their bags for a six-game trip. In fact, the Coyotes play eight of their first 12 games away from Gila River Arena, and a consequence which, at best for this team, is a challenge.
As players like to remind listeners, it’s the immediate game in front which represents the most severe test. That would be the Flyers, and two new members of the Coyotes, center Ryan White and defenseman Luke Schenn, wore the orange and black a year ago. Familiar with the style of Philly coach Dave Hakstol, White and Schenn can offer insight. Ultimately, it’s up to each player adjusting to Arizona coach Dave Tippett’s structure and, collectively, how the team keeps puck out of their net.
“(The Flyers) play a fast, checking game, and we need to be prepared for that,” White said after a recent practice in the Gila River Arena. “They play a good system, and it’s defensive-oriented. We need to be quick with the puck.”
If the Coyotes are prepared for a swift game, the five rookies which made the final cut-down should help with speed and hustle. Not that all five will dress for the opener, but the addition of forwards Laurent Dauphin, Christian Dvorak, Lawson Crouse and Dylan Strome, along with defenseman Jakob Chychrun, easily increases team speed. Add the experience of Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, from their initial NHL season a year ago, and the Coyotes seem to be skating in the right direction.
Plus, the aggregate age makes this edition of the Coyotes one of the youngest in the league. With the final roster of 23 set, Tippett has eight forwards under 24, and six under 21. Plus, three defensemen are under the age of 25, and goalkeeper Louis Domingue is 24-years-old.
Still, this team’s character will likely determinate by three players. All veterans, each brings a clear dimension to the game, and the ability to raise the abilities of players around each.
Captain Shane Doan, who turned 40-years-old this past Monday, topped the team with 28 goals a year ago. Yet, his value remains as one of the most respected captains and team leaders in the NHL. His ability to energize an important third line is an invaluable trait.
Defenseman Alex Goligoski, signed as a free agent in the offseason, brings stability and production to the blue line. Yet, his most valuable asset will be to give Oliver Ekman-Larsson breathing room. Last season, Ekman-Larsson averaged 24:46 per game. Going forward, Arizona officials hope Ekman-Larsson’s work load can be abated.
Then, there’s Ekman-Larsson. Considered one of the elite defensemen in the NHL, the native of Karlskrona, Sweden seems to play in a field of obscurity. Skating in what is considered a small market, the team’s recent history is a clear determent to his visibility. With a recent track record of failure and lack of playoff exposure, Ekman-Larsson’s skills and production are known basically to his peers, and not to fans around the NHL.
Should the Coyotes begin to rack up wins early in the season, and glide near the top of the NHL’s very competitive Pacific Division, that could all change.
For now, the immediate challenge for a team characterized as improved over last season is to break out of the gate successfully, and quickly create a winning culture.
By the time the puck is dropped Saturday (6 p.m. PDT), the Flyers will have one game played into their schedule.
With this early engagement against Arizona, it’s also an opportunity for rising Arizona defenseman Connor Murphy to play in front of his father, Flyers’ assistant coach Gord Murphy.
“With all the emotions of opening night, the fans going wild, lining up at the blue line, the anthem, and then I play against my dad,” Connor said. “It’s crazy. We’ve texted over the past few weeks, but our schedules are so different. We haven’t communicated all that often. Plus, I’m out here in the western time zone, and that’s tough for him.”
Though Gord handles the blueliners for Philly coach Hakstol, he offers little in way of instruction and advice to Connor. Of course, Gord watches his son whenever possible, and Connor admits to keeping track of the Flyers.
“If he sees something that’s recurring, he’ll let me know,” Connor added. “He knows how well-coached we are, and keeps a distance.”
Mark Brown is a former sports editor for daily newspapers in the Philadelphia and Cincinnati markets. He was named Best Sports Columnist, honorable mention 2004 by the Associated Press Society of Ohio. He is a contributor to major daily newspapers, including the Chicago Sun Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Milwaukee Journal, Arizona Republic, Nashville Tennessean and the Associated Press. He was a Featured Columnist for bleacherreport.com and covered the Arizona Coyotes.