Arizona Rubber

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Coyotes embracing new NHL season, ‘want to keep it simple’

 

NHL: MAR 19 Flames at Coyotes

As hockey players everywhere prepare for the season ahead, there are two benchmarks applied by the Arizona Coyotes that provide a foundation for success.

Coming off a season that could best be described as half-full and half-empty, the Coyotes look ahead with energy and optimism. That is generated by the finish of the 2017-18 season in which the Coyotes went 16-9-3 over the final two months of the season.

That’s in contrast to a challenging start in which Arizona dropped its first 10 games and by the time they defeated Montreal on Nov. 16, the Coyotes had already lost 15 of their opening 21 games. After that 5-4 victory at the Bell Centre, things began to slowly turn and by the end of the season, the gloom and despair was replaced with energy and enthusiasm.

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As the Coyotes prepare for their next journey ahead, those two foundations are fundamental to every team and at any level. These could apply to Squirts, Midgets, Pee Wees, junior hockey, the minors and the NHL. Those core features of any success were not mentioned in the Coyotes’ dressing room during the recently concluded preseason workouts but remain fundamental to any successful outcome.

Above all, coaches tell players that two essential components act as strong catalysts and include playing a full 60 minutes or the time allotted at a particular level and playing a complete 200-foot game. At the NHL level, these are a given each night, but the events from early last season remain on the players’ collective radar screens.

“You just forget what happened,” said Arizona goalie Antti Raanta. “We need to follow the coach’s plans and take one game at a time. For us, we want to keep it simple.”

If the Coyotes are to break out of the gate with more than a few victories in the opening weeks of the season, Raanta will have to pick up where he left off.

Last season, the 29-year old native of Finland posted a 21-17-6 record and his 2.24 goals-against average was the third lowest in franchise history. His .930 save percentage tied Mike Smith for the highest single-season save percentage in franchise history. At the same time, Raanta became the first Coyotes player since Smith in the 2011-12 season to earn multiple NHL Star of the Week awards. That was accomplished in the months of October and March of last season.

If Raanta said players need to forget that dreadful start, coach Rick Tocchet simply dismissed any reference.

“Players don’t think about that,” he said in regard to the slow start. “You trust what you did, and they finished strong. Guys don’t even think about last year. It’s how they stuck together, which is a positive.”

The energy and drive for the season ahead could rest on the shoulders of Clayton Keller, who finished third in the running for the Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year a year ago.

Keller is coming off an outstanding first season in which the St. Louis area native became the first rookie in Coyotes history to lead the team in scoring. At the same time, he set Coyotes’ single-season rookie marks for goals, assists, points, games played, multi-point games, longest point streak (10 games) and most points in a month. Keller was also the first player in Coyotes history to win multiple Rookie of the Month awards (October 2017, March 2018) in the same season.

With production comes leadership responsibility and Keller’s importance on the wing with Richard Panik on the right wing and Derek Stepan at center could emerge as one of the NHL’s best lines. While that adulation could be left for another time, Keller is also intelligent to realize what happened during the early part of last season. His solution is direct.

“From the start, we have to treat each game as a playoff game,” he said. “Everyone will be ready, and that’s not an issue.”

Photo/Norm Hall

— Mark Brown

(Oct. 24, 2018)