The Arizona Coyotes have been making significant improvements year after year, but the 2020-2021 season may be the time they finally take a big leap forward.
Under head coach Rick Tocchet, the Coyotes have trended upward. They were last overall for his first season, but last season they posted a .529 points percentage and finished as the 11th seed in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. They defeated the Nashville Predators in four games before meeting the Colorado Avalanche and losing four games to one.
The lessons learned in the bubble were vital, but Tocchet knows something more is required to win the games when they matter most.
“80 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?”
Making those plays how the ‘Yotes will turn the page from being the sort of team that misses the playoffs for seven straight tries and becomes an actual playoff team.
The desert dogs averaged 2.71 goals per game last season, 23rd overall. Only Conor Garland scored more than 18 goals, while Taylor Hall’s brief stint in Arizona is over and done.
Clayton Keller is due for a bounce-back campaign after reaching 23 goals in 2017-2018. Last season he reached just 17 goals for a total of 44 points, a career low. Keller was shooting the puck frequently, plus he led Arizona in points in the post-season. He’ll see more ice time without Hall in the fold.
The best player on the team is arguably goalie Darcy Kuemper, who has a 2.29 goals against average over the last two seasons combined. That’s second-best in the NHL behind Ben Bishop across that time frame. Kuemper was 16-11-2 with a .928 save percentage in 29 games last season and he faces a large volume of shots, which means he makes a large volume of saves.
Last season, Kuemper was third overall in save percentage. You could argue no goalie in the league does more to bail out his team. The Coyotes finished fourth overall in five-on-five save percentage, behind only the Bruins, Stars and Avalanche. That’s pretty elite company.
Goalie Antti Raanta had slightly more starts and finished with a .921 save percentage in 33 games, with a 2.63 goals against average.
If some pieces fall into place and if Kuemper keeps playing at a high level, the Coyotes have a chance of not only returning to the dance but asserting themselves as a contender. They still have a way to go, but there are lessons to be learned along the road.