The Arizona Coyotes are hoping 2019-2020 could be their year to end a significant playoff drought, but they’re also hoping a key roster acquisition will breathe some new life into their offence.
That acquisition is, of course, Phil Kessel. We’ve detailed the expectations placed on the 32-year-old already, but you really can’t talk about the Coyotes in 2019-2020 without talking about Kessel.
“I think Phil’s one of the best scorers in the league in the past decade; the stats back that up,” general manager John Chayka said. “We think we’ve got a lot of good young players that can score more, but to have a guy that’s experienced, that we know going in that can score, he’s been durable, he’s been dependable in terms of putting up point production, that gives a lot of confidence to the entire group.”
Arizona scored just 209 goals in 2018-2019, tying them for third fewest in the NHL. Brad Richardson and Alex Galchenyuk led the way, each scoring 19 goals. Kessel, meanwhile, has scored at least 20 goals in 11 straight seasons and put up six seasons with at least 30 goals.
It’s almost all about Kessel. The winger should lead the team in scoring. He’s coming up his second consecutive point-per-game season and should be skating on up front with Clayton Keller and possibly Nick Schmaltz. That’ll create a potent offensive punch for the ‘Yotes, even if it does give Kessel a step back in terms of overall numbers.
Keller will be another big piece of Arizona’s offence. His production dropped last season when compared to his rookie season, but that doesn’t mean the 21-year-old won’t generate at least 60 points. If he’s next to Kessel and seeing top power play unit time with Kessel, Schmaltz and defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Keller should be in position to break out big time.
Schmaltz may well centre that top unit and that would be solid. The 23-year-old joined the Coyotes in November thanks to a trade that sent Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini to Chicago. Schmaltz had 14 points in 17 games before a season-ending knee injury took him out of action at the end of December.
“This is a huge year for Nick in the sense of what is Nick Schmaltz going to be,” coach Rick Tocchet said. “I think he can be one of the high-end guys in the NHL. I think he is a point-per-game guy, his rush talent with the puck is as good as anybody in the League…Where Nick can go, the sky’s the limit, no question, because he has that skill set to be able to do stuff I’ve seen other high-end players do that I’ve coached.”
The centre position also got a boost with the acquisition of Carl Soderberg. He scored a career-high 23 goals last season, but he is versatile enough to slide to the wing position if necessary. After all, the Coyotes do have a pile of potential pivots in Schmaltz, Soderberg, Brad Richardson, Christian Dvorak, and prospect Barrett Hayton.
Defensively, Arizona was strong. They allowed 220 goals against, same as the Cup-winning St. Louis Blues. Blueliner Larsson had a good year offensively, reaching the 40-point mark for the fifth time in the past six seasons. He should pile up more points from the back end this season with Kessel in the lineup.
Jakob Chychrun is another blueliner worth watching. He put up 20 points in 53 games, scoring three goals on the power play. Chychrun was rewarded with a six-year contract extension in November of 2018, carrying a $4.6 million annual cap hit.
The rest of the defensive unit fleshes out well, even if it is a touch on the older side. Niklas Hjalmarsson, Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers are all north of 30, but they’ll provide veteran presence.
It should be a thrilling year for the Coyotes in goal, as both Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta are healthy and ready to start. Raanta was limited to just a dozen games last season thanks to a lower back injury, so it was up to Kuemper to fuel Arizona to defensive supremacy. He did just that, posting a 2.33 goals against average and landing him sixth overall in the category.
Raanta, meanwhile, might be limited in starts in 2019-2020 thanks to Kuemper’s quality play. His loss could be Arizona’s gain, especially if he returns to the form of 2017-2018. That year, he finished with a .930 save percentage in 47 games.
The Coyotes have at least two exciting storyline threads for 2019-2020: Phil Kessel and the goaltending duel between Raanta and Kuemper. Both provide compelling reasons for Arizona’s success on the ice and both could fuel the club to the post-season once again.
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