Coyotes add Kessel, confidence ahead of ’19-20 season
Before commencement of free agency on July 1, the Arizona Coyotes were well on their way to addressing a significant point.
No need to go the free-agent route. Just ask an old friend and highly-skilled player if he would like to skate in the desert.
As the Coyotes opened training camp at Gila River Arena, the offseason emphasis was simply to improve the offense. By acquiring forward Phil Kessel, who has that history with head coach Rick Tocchet, in a deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins and picking up center Carl Soderberg in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche, the Coyotes believe they are on the way to a markedly improved season.
A quick look at numbers from last season shows the incentive to move quickly and decisively.
Last season, the Coyotes were the only NHL team without a 20-goal scorer and Alex Galchenyuk, who tied Brad Richardson for the team-high in goals with 19, was sent to Pittsburgh in the Kessel deal. Over the course of the season, the Coyotes scored 213 goals and only Dallas, Anaheim and Los Angeles scored fewer goals.
The presence of Kessel should help immediately. Last season, the Madison, Wis., native pumped in 27 goals for the Penguins and for an 11-year NHL career, Kessel has scored 357 goals in 996 games with Boston, Toronto and Pittsburgh.
Despite having the Coyotes included as no-trade team, Kessel waived that clause and agreed to reunite with Tocchet, his former assistant coach in Pittsburgh. That’s where Tocchet, Kessel, Sidney Crosby and a dominant Penguins team won Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017.
The benefit of bringing Kessel to the desert served two purposes. First, the trade brought an elite scorer, but more importantly, the acquisition of Kessel did not break the bank. In 2013, Kessel signed an eight-year, $64 million contact with Toronto and has three years left on that deal.
“To add a scorer was the primary need for our group,” Coyotes general manager John Chayka said. “We needed a horse up front and a guy who has scored consistently. We were looking for a veteran player who had a history of doing it. We have several guys who score but going into the season, we need a 20-, 30-plus goal guy. Phil has been one of the best offensive producers in the league for a sustained period of time. We think he will come in motivated and ready to go. We have some good offensive players, but not as good as Phil. He comes in to augment our core and help take us to the next level.”
While Chayka describes the Coyotes as an elite defensive team, Kessel and Soderberg now provide a necessary offensive spark. As the season progresses, Chayka sees Kessel as an important part of the power-play unit, and Soderberg as a steady, stabilizing force at center ice. Together, they are expected to bridge the Coyotes into the promised land.
Last season, Arizona missed qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs by four points. With a season mark of 39-35-8, that registered 86 points and fell short of the 90 achieved by the Avs as the final Western Conference playoff qualifier.
Complementing Kessel and Soderberg, Chayka hopes for a healthy Christian Dvorak and Nick Schmaltz to be offensive factors and Clayton Keller to regain the production achieved as a rookie two years ago. The Coyotes also expect big seasons from forwards Lawson Crouse and Vinnie Hinostroza.
Perhaps the most competitive issue for Tocchet throughout camp is resolving the goaltending question. Antti Raanta was coming off a great 2017-18 season but spent most of last season out. He is now back healthy. Then there is the play of Darcy Kuemper, who turned in a 27-20-8 mark last season with a 2.33 goals-against average, .925 save percentage and five shutouts.
— Mark Brown
(Oct. 11, 2019)