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Despite missing NHL playoffs, Coyotes find positives to ’18-19 season

 

Chicago Blackhawks v Arizona Coyotes

By all standards, hockey teams need to fulfill three criteria for success: scoring, great goaltending and stellar defense.

For the Arizona Coyotes, the franchise touched two of these critical factors, and the one outstanding (scoring) will likely be the focal point of offseason transactions.

For the recently-completed season, the Coyotes scored 213 goals and averaged 2.59 goals per game. To exacerbate the scoring dilemma, the Coyotes were the only NHL team not to have a 20-goal scorer, but four players scored 15 or more.

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While there can be the argument that the Coyotes achieved to a greater level than in recent seasons, no member of the organization can be satisfied creating tee times now instead of practice times in preparation for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Once the season ended, there was the usual, “I’m proud of these players,” from coach Rick Tocchet and words of encouragement for the future. Yet, the bottom line was the inability to put the puck in the net during critical times.

“Obviously, we wanted to get in the playoffs and felt we played well enough to qualify,” said Coyotes forward Brad Richardson, who scored a career-high 19 goals. “It’s disappointing, but we can hang our hats the way we battled. It just came down to where we didn’t quite score enough goals.”

If the Coyotes lacked scoring at critical times, that may have resulted from a few trades made by general manager John Chayka.

Last offseason, he dealt forward Max Domi to Montreal for forward Alex Galchenyuk. Domi responded by leading the Canadiens in scoring with a team-high 28 goals and 44 assists. By contrast, Galchenyuk, who missed 10 games with an assortment of injuries, tied Richardson for the team lead in goals and finished third in scoring with 41 points behind Clayton Keller (47) and Oliver Ekman-Larsson (44).

In a mid-season transaction, Chayka dealt forward Dylan Strome to Chicago, Arizona’s first-round pick (third overall) in the 2015 NHL Draft. Strome responded by scoring 17 goals and 50 points in 57 games with the Blackhawks. In return, Chayka picked up forward Nick Schmaltz, who picked up 14 points in 17 games before his season ended on Dec. 31 with a torn meniscus.

The Coyotes then signed Schmaltz to a seven-year contract on March 30. In the process of acquiring Schmaltz, Chayka also dealt forward Brendan Perlini to the Hawks. In 22 games with the Coyotes before the deal, Perlini scored two goals and assisted on four others. Appearing in 45 games for Chicago, Perlini scored 11.

While Chayka’s transactions cannot be the main reason why the Coyotes did not make the playoffs, injuries were an important consideration.

First, goalie Antti Raanta played in only 12 games before an injured knee finished his season on Nov. 29. Forward Christian Dvorak, who signed a six-year extension last summer, missed the first 62 games with a pectoral injury. Defenseman Jason Demers missed 47 games with a knee injury, forward Michael Grabner missed 41 games with an eye injury, Richardson missed 16 games with a hand injury and forward Derek Stepan, who went down on March 28 with a torn MCL, missed 10 games but played the final eight games of the season with that injury.

Still, the Coyotes finished with 86 standing points in the Pacific Division and that was a 16-point improvement over last season.

Now, there is the arduous task of offseason conditioning, but when the Coyotes assemble at Gila River Arena for training camp in September, there will be a carat dangling in front of each player.

“We made huge strides this season,” Richardson said. “Last year, I think we were out of the playoffs by Nov. 1. It was all there this time and we thought we would get in. It was heartbreaking.”

At the same time, the Coyotes, as a collective group, realize they came very close to postseason play. Now, a few more goals at opportune moments could have this team competing next April in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Photo/Norm Hall

— Mark Brown

(May 3, 2019)