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Since part 2, the Coyotes have promoted Tucson head coach Jay Varady to the Coyotes staff under Rick Tocchet. In Varady’s two seasons behind the bench for the Roadrunners, the team compiled a record of 70 W-45 L-6 OTL-5 SOL – a pretty impressive resume. This move also adds a layer of intrigue with Tocchet being in the final year of his contract.
Also quick side note – John Farinacci sure looked good for Team USA in the World Junior Championship. Ok back on the Coyotes front:
Oddly Barret Hayton missed most of training camp with no known reports floating out there as to why. Quarantined? COVID exposure? No real answers out there which is not all too surprising considering how teams are able to keep things close to the vest. For Hayton to be off the ice it does not seem to bode well. Also missing camp due to continued immigration issues is Ilya Lybushkin who was loaned to the KHL and will be a big absence on defensive depth if he is not ready to go.
Now as we get into more of the meat and potatoes of our final part in this 3 part special on the Coyotes season, here we are going to talk about the goaltending, coaching and finally where I think things may fall as the season progresses and ends.
First, the Coyotes have one of the best goaltending duos in the NHL as well as depth in the system. With Darcey Kuemper there is no denying he is establishing himself as a top goaltender in the NHL. I would argue that if he was on a higher competing team, stayed healthy, he would be a regular Vezina finalist at this point. For full time starters last season, only Anton Khudobin and Tuukka Rask posted a better SV% and only Rask posted a better GAA. The season prior, Kuemper was right in the thick of the top 10 on both. The one nagging issue for Kuemper has been the injuries and it took its toll partly last season. Even with that, Antti Raanta posts respectable numbers as well in support.
If there is one recurring theme of issue with goaltending here, it is injuries and that is largely on the inability to stay healthy, most notably Raanta who seems to tweak or injure on a weekly basis. For the Coyotes to have any shot at cracking the 4th spot in the West, they need BOTH to be healthy for the majority of this season which may be a tall task. Fortunately, they do have Adin Hill in Tucson who can and has stepped in to fill in as support.
On the contract side, Raanta is a free agent at season’s end. With the injury history and having a solid depth in goaltending down in Tucson there are a couple of options at play here. Do the Coyotes re-sign Raanta on a short, team friendly deal, trade him by the deadline, use the short term deal to expose him for the expansion draft or allow him to walk? I lean towards either a trade (if he’s healthy during the year) or him walking and Adin Hill becoming Kuemper’s backup. Remember in this shortened season, there are other teams out there with no or limited goalie depth. Injuries may open the door for GM Bill Armstrong to make a move here. With Adin Hill having NHL time under his belt and showing he is capable of being in a support role right now, the options are wide open. Moving Hill up also allows Ivan Prosvetov to develop more in Tucson as the starter for the Roadrunners who is tracking to be the Coyotes starter down the road.
On the coaching side, this is where things can become really interesting. Rick Tocchet is on the final year of his contract and there is always the rumblings of “new GM, new coach” but we have not seen that just yet. There is the alleged captaincy rift between Tocchet and Oliver Ekman-Larsson which almost led to OEL being traded that is hanging over the season. There is denying that OEL and a few other pieces do not seem to fit the system Tocchet has in place for the Coyotes.
Under Tocchet, the team has excelled defensively but the majority of that appears to be the work of the goaltending duo as only 7 other teams gave up more shots on average per game than the Coyotes. In Part 2, we looked at the defensive stats and putting these together show the duo is truly a standout tandem. Kuemper and Raanta both mask deficiencies outside of the likes of Jakob Chychrun and Ilya Lyubushkin. To collectively be top 5 in fewest goals allowed shows that on the back side the system is solid with their tandem in net.
While on the backend the system appears solid, the scoring side it is woeful. Multiple players including OEL have regressed in the system including Clayton Keller prior to the playoff run, Phil Kessel (who had one of his worst career years) now departed Taylor Hall, among others who have dropped off offensively under the system. The Coyotes were right in the middle for shot generation last season but were in the bottom 10 for goals for. In that list, only two other teams were playoff bound. On the flip side, players like Chychrun, Dvorak and Crouse have seen solid growth in their games. One area of note, the Coyotes could potentially take a look at throwing a waiver claim in for a player like Josh Ho-Sang who needs a fresh start away from New York. Whether Ho-Sang can move past the problems with the Islanders or not is another story but he has talent and can potentially help put the puck in the net more than the other acquisitions made outside of Brassard.
For the Coyotes to have any sort of success in this shortened season going up against the likes of Colorado, Vegas, and St. Louis for 24 of the 56 games, they need to jumpstart the scoring and get the powerplay fixed. This too may be too tall a task.
While the season appears daunting, the Coyotes have brought in depth energy players and a hopeful shot of offense in players like Derick Brassard to replace Derek Stepan and the other departed players. Truthfully, there was not much of an offense lost in the players who exited albeit Carl Coderberg in his depth roll might be a sting. If the Coyotes can keep Keller rolling like he did from the postseason, Kessel return to form, Brassard kick in his typical point production, Schmaltz stay healthy and get back to his 2017-2018 season production as well as OEL come back to his form, the power play to magically right itself, there is no reason the Coyotes will not be a fight for the 4th spot.
From there, making any sort of magical run here going up against the likes of the Colorado or Vegas seems to be too daunting.
Realistically the 4th spot in the division is not a far fetched notion but even in that regard there is enough competition to make it interesting. Minnesota for instance, always finds a way to be in the playoff mix. Maybe the subtractions of Staal, Koivu etc… hurt more this go around but I would not be surprised if they sneak in. Will San Jose be as bad as they were last year? It is hard to imagine but then again not so much. Maybe with the addition of Dubnyk behind Jones that can help solidify the net. Will Los Angeles go heavy on youth and try to ride the energy that could provide? If I had to put my money on it, I would lean towards the Coyotes because of the goaltending. Out of that rest of the division, the Coyotes have the best goaltending group and one could argue 2nd behind Vegas. If they are on, the Coyotes can snag the 4th. If there are injuries and too much inconsistency in scoring, they will fall to the 5th or 6th spot.
By season’s end, there is going to be a ton of movement off this roster and a new look defense going into next year and probably some surprises up front. Even though it is a COVID shortened season there could be changes on more than just the roster by the end of the season. Depending on how this season plays out and with the disappointing limp to the finish last year minus the Nashville round it could mean the end to Rick Tocchet’s tenure as head coach if things go south. Before that, let us all buckle up for what is going to be a wild ride this season!