Coyotes get boost in optimism for ’18-19 with respectable finish to ’17-18 campaign
A quick look at the final NHL standings would indicate a rough ride for the Arizona Coyotes.
In achieving 70 standing points for their 82 games, that ranked among the lowest in the league. Only Ottawa and Buffalo failed to reach the 70-point plateau.
Their 29 wins for the season tied Montreal for third-lowest and again, Ottawa (28) and Buffalo (23) won fewer games.
Plus, the start was brutal.
Of their first 33 contests, the Coyotes played only 12 games at the Gila River Arena. That prevented coach Rick Tocchet from providing adequate practice time and implementing his style and structure on the ice.
By the time the Coyotes defeated Washington 3-2 at home on Dec. 22, their record plunged to 8-24-5 and for all practical purposes, the season was lost in the standings.
Yet, don’t tell that to the players.
“We were all off to a rough start,” said Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. “I think it took some time to get used to the new coaching staff and the system we were playing. The last two, three months were really good. It was tough in the beginning, but it’s still the same game. At the same time, we played a little bit differently, and now feel comfortable with Toc’s system.”
Despite the challenging start, the Coyotes, collectively, picked themselves off the mat and pledged to themselves, their coaching staff and the fans that better days lie ahead. Over the course of the second half, a foundation was laid for success, and behind the production and future of Clayton Keller (pictured), the Coyotes manufactured one of the best records in the NHL since the start of 2018.
To that end, goalie Antti Raanta said the difference was clear.
“At the start of the season, we found ways to lose,” he said. “Towards the end of the season, we found ways to win, and that boosts our confidence for next season.”
Among the factors for the strong finish, Raanta remained an important force. Rewarded with a three-year contract, the Finland native went 7-1 in the month of March and stopped 202 of 214 shots on net. Twice during the season, he was named the Second Star of the Week and for his effort from March 26-April 1, he went 3-0-0 with a 1.00 goals-against average and posted one shutout.
At this point, the Coyotes appear set between the pipes.
Yet, the play of Keller, younger players like Christian Dvorak and Brendan Perlini and the rise of defensemen Kevin Connauton, whose 11 goals was a career-high, and Jason Demers, good things appear to be in the forecast going forward.
That was echoed by forward Derek Stepan, who contributed 14 goals and a 56-point season.
“As a player this summer, you have to challenge yourself and put yourself in a position to be better than the year before,” Stepan said. “You look at your summer training and break it down. That will allow you to have the most successful year. If you don’t challenge yourself and don’t push yourself each day in the summer, it makes it much harder to have success when you get back here in September. There’s no team that goes into the summer together, so it’s all individual.”
Despite the optimism and enthusiasm driven by winning at the end of the season, there is one dimension of the game that Tocchet and his staff will address both in the offseason and commencement of training camp in September.
Special teams failed to put up competitive numbers and the Coyotes finished among the worst teams in the league in this category.
On the power play, the team ranked 25th overall and last at home. In fact, the power play production was clearly better on the road. Away from Gila River Arena, the Coyotes scored 25 goals with the man-advantage, and only 16 at home. Their 22.1 percentage on the road was good enough for fifth-best in the league. Numbers for killing penalties were not much better. The Coyotes were 17th overall and 25th at home.
Still, the residual effort of a successful finish can only mean heightened levels of expectation and energy when the team convenes for camp in mid-September.
— Mark Brown
(June 13, 2018)