Let’s be honest: it’s not easy to be an Arizona Coyotes fan. They’ve had nothing but trouble with the city of Glendale, going so far as to file a restraining order against the place. Glendale has been trying to terminate their lease agreement by citing a host of excuses, which remains an issue to be sorted as the summer carries on.
The Coyotes finished last season with a 24-50-8 record and sat at a dismal seventh place in the Pacific. They had 56 points, good for second from the basement. Only the Buffalo Sabres did worse in the 2014-2015 regular season. And the discomfort in Glendale was apparent, what with the Coyotes going 11-25-5 at home.
It’s hard to imagine things getting much better in the near future, although the club was busy during the free agency period. General manager Don Maloney signed Antoine Vermette, Steve Downie, Brad Richardson, Zybnek Michalek, Dylan Reese, and Anders Lindback to flesh out the lineup.
This is a team in full rebuild mode and the forward group reflects Maloney’s path ahead. The Coyotes are betting an awful lot on a group of young prospects, including Max Domi, Brendan Perlini, Henrik Samuelsson, and even Dylan Strome. But management is in no mood to rush the prospects, which could mean the new blood could be waiting in the wings for one or two more years.
That means the action still starts with Shane Doan, Kyle Chipchura, Martin Hanzal, Mikkel Boedker (who just signed a one year deal to avoid arbitration), and Vermette. The leading forward scorer from the 2014-2015 season was Sam Gagner, now a Philadelphia Flyer.
The Coyotes are banking on physical play to get the job done. If some of the forward prospects do see the light of day in the desert, they’ll have plenty of protection on the ice with Downie, Chipchura and the newly-acquired John Scott in the fold.
What this means for how the team shapes up in 2015-2016 remains to be seen, but early wagers aren’t great. The Coyotes will hope for balance and grit in the long run, which means this rebuild won’t be over in a hurry. But it does mean that the right pieces are in place if Maloney can work his magic.
The bright spot on the roster comes from the blueline, with Oliver Ekman-Larsson leading the team in scoring in 2014-2015. The 23-year-old Swede has tremendous upside and had 23 goals in 82 regular season games. He’s the jewel in the desert crown and the team has shown tremendous faith in him, inking him to a big contract in 2013.
Unfortunately, one of the moves saw Keith Yandle traded to the New York Rangers and that has to hurt. Getting Michalek back via free agency is a step in the right direction. The defenceman posted a dozen points last season between the Blues and Coyotes.
Michael Stone and Connor Murphy round out the top four, but both defenders are lacking in the physicality department despite boasting considerable frames. After that, things taper off. Swedish veteran Nicklas Grossman is a solid shutdown option, plus we could see Klas Dahlbeck and/or Brandon Gormley step in.
Once more, the picture in the desert is interesting – to say the least. Mike Smith will once again handle the majority of the workload in Arizona. He played in 62 games last season and won just 14 of them, posting a goals against average of 3.16 and a save percentage of .904. Smith is still the man for the Coyotes, at least for now. He gives them a chance to win and is quality puck handler, so there’s that.
In Lindback, Maloney’s picked up a big guy. He’s 6’6, 210 pounds and has five years of experience under his belt. Unfortunately, that’s been long enough for most observers to write the book on the Swedish goalie. Drafted by Nashville in 2008 (207th overall), Lindback has been bounced around between various NHL and AHL clubs. He’ll back up Smith and could play the part, but the Coyotes have to be hoping for Louis Domingue to tackle more games.
The future looks bright in Arizona, so that’s one thing to hang your hat on if you’re a fan. At this point, Domi is the brightest of the future stars and that’s a very good thing. He’s got a good shot in the depth chart for 2015-2016, having been drafted by Phoenix in 2013 (12th overall). Domi has gone through all the right paces and is a creative and aggressive player.
Arizona picked Strome third overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft and they have a lot riding on him. The upshot on the 18-year-old is that he creates his own luck and makes his own opportunities. He’s a resourceful player and a born leader, which will come in handy in approaching years. They’ll need a leadership core once Doan and Co. ride off into the sunset. Maybe Strome will be that guy.
The Path Ahead
Hold on tight. The Coyotes won’t do much of anything in the 2015-2016 season because so much is riding on the future. They’ve invested in big bodies to protect up-and-comers and are sticking to that game plan, no matter what. Maloney is a fan of long-term investments and he won’t rush anyone to the main roster.
Goaltending will also be an issue, especially if Smith once again struggles under the workload. He’s been given a lot to handle in the desert and may not have the backup to weather the storm. Smith could be in for a very long season, as could the fanbase.