NHL.com is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 31 teams from Nov. 16-Dec. 16. Today, the Arizona Coyotes.
The Arizona Coyotes must figure out how to make the big plays when it matters most if they hope to evolve into a Stanley Cup contender.
It’s what coach Rick Tocchet said is needed to win important games, a new experience for the Coyotes after seven straight seasons failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs before reaching the Western Conference First Round in 2019-20.
“Eighty percent of the game is played, I wouldn’t say neutral, but it’s kind of even most of the time,” Tocchet said. “We’re trying to find that 20 percent. Tie game, late in the game, when you have a power play. Can you make that play to score the goal to win the game? Last minute of the game when you’re up by one, can you make the right play to prevent a goal? To be a team that can go deep into playoffs, that’s the next level and that’s why it’s important that these guys know how to react to it.”
If the Coyotes are to take the next step, they’ll need more from forward Clayton Keller and defenseman Jakob Chychrun. Keller hasn’t approached the 65 points (23 goals, 42 assists) he scored in 2017-18, when he was a finalist for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the player voted as NHL rookie of the year. Chychrun, entering his fifth NHL season, must build on career highs of 12 goals and 26 points last season. Forward Conor Garland (22 goals) cannot be the only Arizona player to score more than 18 goals again after the Coyotes averaged 2.71 goals per game last season, 23rd in the NHL.
Two of the Coyotes’ top prospects, 20-year-old center Barrett Hayton and 23-year-old defenseman Kyle Capobianco, will have to prove they’re ready to play in the NHL.
“When you win Stanley Cups, you have to have some guys that have excellent seasons, and we’re looking for that core group,” Tocchet said. “I don’t want to put pressure on them, that they’ve got to play unreal for us to win, but they do have to take a step up. They have some experience now, so I’m looking for them to take a real big bite of the apple here and point us in the right direction again.”
The Coyotes have trended upward since finishing 29-41-12 and last in the Western Conference in 2017-18, Tocchet’s first season as coach. A .529 points percentage (33-29-8) last season earned them the No. 11 seed in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, a four-game win against the Nashville Predators. Tocchet said he saw value in playing games foreign to the Coyotes since they advanced to the conference final in 2012, and that’s something he’s counting on his leadership group to preach to younger players coming off their first taste of postseason success in the NHL.
“I’ve talked with those guys quite a bit, and I think they’re ready to get rid of that young tag and move on to we’re ready to play and be consistent,” said center Derek Stepan, who played in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final with the New York Rangers. “In order to take that leap, it takes work, and I think they all are hungry for it and they want to do it and I think they’re looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to watching it.”
Should the Coyotes experience more success this season, it may happen by committee; that’s how the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup in 2019 when Bill Armstrong was their assistant general manager. Armstrong replaced John Chayka as Arizona GM on Sept. 17.
Shortly after Armstrong was hired, the Coyotes added needed grit by signing forwards Tyler Pitlick, Johan Larsson and John Hayden. They must provide a boost in front of goalie Darcy Kuemper (16-11-2, 2.22 goals-against average, .928 save percentage, two shutouts), who faced 334 shots in nine postseason games (37.1 per game).
Playing meaningful games was important to the Coyotes’ development. How much further they go this season and beyond depends on how quickly they find that 20 percent Tocchet is seeking.
“We’re still in the early stages of that trying to learn how to win under pressure,” Tocchet said.