Arizona Rubber

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After parting ways with Tocchet, Coyotes looking for new coach to ‘take us to the next level’

 

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Tom Landry, the legendary coach of the Dallas Cowboys, once said, “There is only one winner in this league, and the rest are losers.”

For over the past two decades in the desert, the then-Phoenix Coyotes and now-Arizona Coyotes appear to fit neatly into that category of underachievers.

At a time when general manager Bill Armstrong gave the club a solid vote of confidence by not breaking up the team nor dealing at the recent trade deadline, the response was timid. Through the final weeks of the season, the Coyotes failed to come out strong in critical contests, and quickly created a mountain of intimidating proportions.

What happened in 2021 was a repeated pattern for recent seasons lost. In the last full NHL season of 2018-19, the Coyotes flirted with first place in the Pacific Division at the midway point, only to fail at the end. During the recently-completed season, the club again began strong and by midseason, the word “playoffs” began to enter their collective vocabulary.

Alas, the conversation was premature, and the disastrous final one-third of the season sealed another gloomy fate.

“We don’t have any excuses,” said Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun after the season ended. “We had plenty of opportunities down the stretch. We could have strung some wins together. We were unable to do that.”

Welcome to an offseason of inevitable change.

The clock barely displayed movement to commence this off-season and that’s when the first salvo was fired. The day after the Coyotes packed their collective bags and headed for the golf course, Armstrong, just finishing his first full season as the club’s GM, dismissed coach Rick Tocchet. After guiding the Coyotes for four seasons, compiling a mark of 125-131-34, and only qualifying for a marginal playoff spot after the COVID-influenced 2019-20 season, Armstrong pulled the plug.

After the usual “Rick is a great guy and he’ll have no problem landing in the league,” Armstrong told reporters a fresh, clean direction is mandatory.

“We’re looking for a young coach who will push us to the next level,” Armstrong said. “There was a combination of factors which led to the coaching decision. The fact we did not make the playoffs was important, but like I said, we’re looking for someone who will take us to the next level.”

The current offseason will be critical for several players, Armstrong pointed out. Of a particular player, Clayton Keller needs to come out strong when the 2021-22 season begins and prove why he was a first-round pick back in 2016. After a celebrated rookie season, the St. Louis native has not been terribly productive, and Armstrong signaled out Keller as one player who needs to significantly raise the level of his game.

Influencing movement in the offseason will be free agency. Simply, the Coyotes do not have a first-round pick in the upcoming draft of amateur players (set for July 23-24). The NHL found the Coyotes in violation of the combine testing policy during the 2019-20 season and took away their 2021 first-round pick. They also forfeited a second-round selection in the 2020 draft.

“In improving the team, we need to be creative,” Armstrong said. “We don’t have that first-round pick and so we need to search everywhere we can.”

The Coyotes also face the prospect of losing several players to free agency, including defensemen Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jordan Oesterle and Jason Demers, forwards Derick Brassard and Michael Bunting, and goaltender Antti Raanta. The NHL free agency bidding wars begin on July 28 and the Coyotes will also expose players in the NHL expansion draft to help stock the Seattle Kraken.

Going forward, Armstrong appears set between the pipes. Acknowledging that Darcy Kuemper “did not have a great year, but a good one,” the Arizona GM lauded praises on Adin Hill, who made a significant leap from the minors to nearly elite status in the NHL.

For now, the free-market pathway appears to be the most significant route for improvement.

Then again, the new Coyotes coach needs to find ways to squeeze greater production from Christian Dvorak, Christian Fischer, Barret Hayton, Tyler Pitlick, Nick Schmaltz, Keller, and whoever remains from an expected roster purge.

Photo/Norm Hall

— Mark Brown

(May 13, 2021)


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