Arizona Coyotes looking to build upon strong second half
GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The Arizona Coyotes were one of the NHL’s best teams the final two months of the 2017-18 season, playing the kind of hockey coach Rick Tocchet envisioned his first season in the desert.
If only they had started rolling a few months earlier.
Plagued by the worst start in franchise history, the Coyotes finished last in the Western Conference and missed the playoffs for the sixth straight season, yet they have a glimmer of hope for the future thanks to their flourish to the finish.
“There’s a lot of good positive things and we just have to keep pushing the pedal. We can’t stand pat,” Tocchet said. “We can’t pat ourselves on the back, ‘Hey, we had a great second half.’ We’re still one of the bottom teams, which is reality, but saying that I thought we made a lot of strides.”
The Coyotes made dramatic changes in hopes of ending their postseason-less run. Arizona parted ways with coach Dave Tippett and replaced him with Tocchet. Longtime captain Shane Doan’s contract was not renewed, No. 1 goalie Mike Smith was traded to Calgary and the Coyotes brought in a new group of players they hoped would lead the franchise out of its rut.
Antti Raanta became the new top goalie, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson was added to shore up the defense and Derek Stepan was expected to be the top-line center the team had sought for years.
Little went according to plan. Raanta missed the first seven games with a lower-body injury and the Coyotes had trouble holding on to leads — when they could get them — and opened the season 1-12-1. Arizona could not escape the deep early hole, laboring at the bottom of the NHL standings throughout the first half of the season.
The Coyotes started to click after the All-Star break. Raanta was healthy and stopping shots. The defense, a detriment early, tightened up. The offense, led by a core of young scorers, started to flow instead of sputter.
Arizona went 17-9-3 over its final 29 games, finishing 29-41-12 with 70 points. The Coyotes were still last in the Pacific Division, but managed to finish ahead of Ottawa and Buffalo among the league’s bottom dwellers.
“I’ve got all the confidence in this group,” said Stepan, who had 14 goals and was second on the team with 56 points. “They’ve learned a lot this season and you’ve got to be able to carry that over into next season and continue to learn, and the older guys got to learn from the younger guys. It’s got to be a balanced group.”
RAANTA’S RIDE: Raanta had a rough ride his first season as a No. 1 goalie, battling through separate injuries. Once he was healthy, the Finnish goalie played like the Coyotes had hoped he would after trading for him from the New York Rangers.
Raanta finished the season 21-17-6 with a 2.24 goals-against average and a save percentage of .930. He was scheduled to become a restricted free agent this offseason, but the Coyotes locked him up for the next three years with a $12.75 million contract just before the season ended.
“He stops the puck,” Coyotes GM John Chayka said. “He just seems to, when he’s on, he’s locked in and he’s reading everything and making the game look easy. You put up his numbers both this season and over his career, he’s a high, high-end goaltender in terms of stopping the puck.”
KELLER’S RISE: Clayton Keller got his rookie season off to a sizzling start, went through a dry scoring spell and finished strong to put himself in the Calder Trophy conversation.
The No. 7 overall pick in the 2016 draft was the NHL’s leading rookie scorer during the season’s first month with nine goals and 15 assists before going 17 games without a goal into December. Keller closed strong with six goals and 15 assists in March and April, finishing with 23 goals and 65 points to lead the Coyotes in both categories.
SIGNING OEL: One of the Coyotes’ top offseason priorities will be trying to sign All-Star defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson as he heads into the last year of his contract.
Once thought to be a trade target during Arizona’s rebuilding process, the Finnish defenseman remained a core player for the Coyotes, finishing fourth on the team with 42 points. He wants to stay in the desert and the Coyotes want him, so it’s a matter of coming to terms.
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