Optimism sky-high for Coyotes on eve of ’18-19 season
Though the start was not terribly encouraging nor productive, the way the 2017-18 season ended for the Arizona Coyotes turned inspirational.
Once the calendar struck January, the Coyotes took their fortunes from gloom and doom to optimism and enthusiasm. Collectively, they embraced coach Rick Tocchet’s system and began to ride the coattails of goalkeeper Antti Raanta, who turned in a spectacular second half of the season.
By all accounts, the Coyotes were one of the better teams in the NHL over the final three months of last season, and that bodes well for the future. After a summer of changes and incentives designed to improve play at the blue line, the Coyotes hit training camp this month with a strong dose of confidence and energy.
“We talked about building some positive things over the last three months of the season that we can bring into the next season,” said Arizona defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. “I think we communicated that well over the second half.”
There is no argument with the numbers.
The Coyotes closed last season with a 20-14-7 record and went 17-9-3 in their final 28 games. In the month of March, Arizona captured 10 games and that represented only the fifth time in franchise history, including the early years in Winnipeg, for this achievement.
At the center of success was Raanta, who finished the season with a winning record of 21-17-6 and a goals-against average of 2.24. In his quest to strive among elite goalies in the NHL, Raanta was rewarded with a three-year, $12.75 million contract extension on April 6, the day before last season ended.
His performance justified the payout.
In March alone, Raanta went 7-1-0 and stopped 202 of 214 shots for a .944 save percentage. On two occasions, Raanta was named the NHL’s Second Star of the Week.
Among goalies who appeared in 25 games or more, Raanta finished second in the league in GAA (tied with the Vegas Golden Knights’ Marc-Andre Fleury) and only Carter Hutton of the St. Louis Blues (2.09) had a lower save percentage.
Raanta was not the only player rewarded in the offseason.
Coyotes general manager John Chayka and owner Andrew Barroway opened their checkbook to Ekman-Larsson, who made it clear he wanted to stay in Arizona. With one year remaining on his existing contract, the veteran defenseman inked an eight-year deal worth a reported $66 million on July 1 and remains a pillar of the franchise.
Also locked in is center Christian Dvorak, who comes off a season in which he scored 15 goals and assisted on 22 others.
In August, Dvorak signed a six-year extension worth a reported $26 million. Dvorak is expected to be a top center at a position that also includes Derek Stepan, Brad Richardson, newly-acquired Alex Galchenyuk and Dylan Strome.
The acquisition of Galchenyuk gives the Coyotes depth down the middle and he is expected to make a seamless transition from his time on the wing with the Montreal Canadiens. Dealt to the Coyotes for Max Domi this past summer, Galchenyuk is coming off a season where he was second in scoring for the Habs with 19 goals and 51 points.
The biggest reason for optimism, however, is looking at production from Clayton Keller, named to the NHL All-Rookie Team. He topped the Coyotes with 23 goals and tied with Stepan with 42 assists. Keller finished second to NHL Rookie of the Year Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders in rookie scoring.
“I learned a great deal last season and learned from Stepan, who helped me stay focused,” Keller said. “Look forward to the same again this season. Our line (with Richard Panik) had some chemistry together and it showed in the last couple weeks of the season. That’s something we’ll take into this season.”
— Mark Brown
(Oct. 2, 2018)