Ultimate Underdogs! Coyotes Look to Prove Pundits Wrong in 2020-21

This season marks 25 years in the Grand Canyon State for the Arizona Coyotes, and while many may not like the club’s chances in 2021, there is certainly reason for optimism. After a seven-year drought, Arizona made the Stanley Cup Playoffs last year. The Coyotes finished with a mark of 33-29-8, good enough for 74 points. Although that only added up to fifth place in the Pacific Division and 11th in the Western Conference, the Coyotes punched their postseason ticket thanks to an expanded COVID-19 field. 

The Coyotes enjoyed being back in the playoffs so much, they even won a series in 2020, downing the Nashville Predators three games to one in the Western Conference Qualifying Round. Arizona was then ousted by the Colorado Avalanche in the next round, four games to one.

Last season, Conor Garland led the way for Arizona with 22 goals. Nick Schmaltz was the top overall scorer with 45 points.

Nick Schmaltz Arizona Coyotes
Nick Schmaltz, Arizona Coyotes (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

This year, the Coyotes have new leadership. First-year general manager Bill Armstrong looks to make his mark after replacing the controversial John Chayka. It will be challenging for sure, considering the club’s make-up and financial position, but Armstrong has repeatedly said he is committed to bringing a winner to town. The lack of respect the Coyotes have received from pundits and prognosticators may give Armstrong the luxury of playing with house money this season.

Arizona has been picked to finish near the bottom of the standings before. This season, the team hopes they can use skating under the radar to their advantage. Unlike other sports, it is not uncommon to see multiple surprise teams make the playoffs in the NHL. With a shortened sprint of a season, any team can have a shot if they get hot out of the gate. 

Players from the 2020 team, including Taylor Hall, Carl Soderberg, Michael Grabner, Brad Richardson, and Vinnie Hinostroza, all left the desert through free agency. Meantime, Derek Stepan was traded to the Ottawa Senators. The Coyotes have added some new blood, however, picking up free agents Tyler Pitlick, Johan Larsson, Drake Caggiula, Derick Brassard, and John Hayden.

Plenty Of Net Worth

If the Coyotes are to compete this season, they will need outstanding play in net. Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta may provide just that. Kuemper shined in goal last season before getting hurt, but Raanta took over with poise and the club didn’t miss a beat. When Kuemper returned, he picked up right where he left off. As far as goaltender is concerned, Arizona should be A-OK.  

Arizona Coyotes Darcy Kuemper Oliver Ekman-Larsson
Arizona Coyotes goaltender Darcy Kuemper celebrates his shutout Oliver Ekman-Larsson (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

While stopping the puck should be a strong suit, the Coyotes will also have to put the biscuit in the basket if they want to have team success. Eight Coyotes scored 30 or more points last season, and seven of those players are returning. The team ranked in the middle of the pack in 2020 in both scoring and power play. 

Oliver Ekman-Larsson tallied 30 points last season, and despite much trade speculation, he is still skating with the team. The defenseman has been hammered in the press and many have painted him as an underachiever. Like the team as a whole, look for Ekman-Larsson to come out with something to prove to the hockey world this season.

Led by Ekman-Larsson, the Arizona defense was one of the best in the business last season. The Coyotes gave up the third fewest goals per game and they were fifth in penalty killing. Veteran Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jakob Chychrun are both back, as are Jordan Oesterle, Jason Demers, and Alex Goligoski. Tough guy Ilya Lyubushkin is expected to be back as well, as soon as he resolves some immigration issues.  

Doan Sweet Doan

In a move that has brought smiles to Coyotes fans faces, the team brought back “Mr. Coyote” Shane Doan this week. The former captain has been named Chief Hockey Development Officer. Doan will report directly to president and CEO Xavier Gutierrez and serve as a consultant to owner Alex Meruelo and general manager Armstrong. In a statement, Gutierrez said Doan is on the “Mount Rushmore of athletes in Arizona.” His presence alone can only prove positive for the team. 

Shane Doan
Phoenix Coyotes’ Shane Doan (Rob Grabowski-US PRESSWIRE)

Many are picking the Coyotes to have a rough season, but with goalies like Kuemper and Raanta, you never know. Sneak in to the playoffs and Arizona could be a tough out. Will the Coyotes have enough fire power to stack up enough points to make the postseason? That is the big question. 

The revamped West Division has some tough customers like the Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights, and St. Louis Blues standing in the way. Arizona coach Rich Tocchet will rely heavily on Schmaltz, Ekman-Larsson, Kuemper, Phil Kessel, and Clayton Keller. Could that be just enough to finish fourth or better and qualify for the playoffs again? We will start finding out on Thursday night when Arizona opens their season at home against the San Jose Sharks. The tight-knit Coyotes are gunning for lots of victories this season, looking to make their silver anniversary celebration even sweeter, no matter what the outsiders say. 

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