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Pacific Peeks: Arizona Coyotes

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Watch out, the ‘Yotes could be the dark horse of the Pacific Division

Apr 3, 2018; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Arizona Coyotes goaltender Antti Raanta (32) guards his net against the Calgary Flames during the third period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Arizona Coyotes won 4-1. Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Coyotes were abysmal last season, not winning their first game until the end of October. It was a little better from there on out, but nothing could dig them out of the hole they fell into at the start of the season. The Coyotes finished last in the Pacific Division (yes, even behind the Vancouver Canucks) with a 29-41-12 record (70 points).

The Sharks and Coyotes will play four games this season, with the first meeting on December 8. They meet once more in December, once in January and wrap up the regular season series in early February.

For Sharks fans, there’s really no reason to mark these games on your calendar. The Sharks-Coyotes rivalry is nonexistent at best. It’s been a very, very long time since Arizona has been a Stanley Cup contender and as we know, it’s those long, brutal seven-game series that truly breed contempt between two fan bases.

Where we left off

Still, the Sharks should not discount the Coyotes.

When we last saw Arizona, they were finishing the 2017-18 season strong. The team finished the season with a 17-9-3 record. Goaltender Antti Raanta was getting hot. Since January 4, he’s had a 1.83 goal against average and .942 save percentage, one of the best records in the league over that time span.

Another bright spot for the Coyotes was rookie Clayton Keller. The young forward was one of three Calder Trophy finalists, though he ultimately lost to Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders.

The Coyotes finished out the season without young defenseman Jakob Chychrun. The 20-year-old suffered a knee injury, his second of the season. He decided to have knee surgery before the end of the season in the hopes of being ready for this season. As of September 20, he is not skating with the team, but is reportedly ahead of schedule in his rehab process.

In terms of leadership, when the Coyotes entered the off-season, they were still captainless. Long time Coyotes captain Shane Doan retired in the summer of 2017 and the team chose to run with five assistant captains in the following season. The mourning period is now over. At the start of training camp earlier this month, Coyotes Head Coach Rick Tocchet handed Oliver Ekman-Larsson the “C.”

2018 Entry Draft

The Coyotes had plenty of picks in the 2018 Entry Draft and they chose to use them instead of trading them away for proven NHL players. With the fifth overall pick of the draft, General Manager John Chayka selected 18-year-old center Barrett Hayton. Hayton isn’t NHL ready, but he is expected to make the jump this season to the Tucson Roadrunners, the Coyotes’ AHL affiliate.

Arizona picked up eight more prospects in the draft, four defensemen, two forwards, and two goaltenders.

Roster

While the draft was good for the Coyotes’ future, the real story for the team is what happened in the time surrounding the draft.

Chayka didn’t even wait until draft day to trade forward Max Domi to the Montreal Canadiens for Alex Galchenyuk. Most pundits will tell you the Coyotes got the better end of that deal. Given that Domi was suspended for the rest of the preseason for sucker punching the Florida PanthersAaron Ekblad in a meaningless preseason game, I’d say the Coyotes won as well (Habs fans aren’t pleased either — you can check out Habs Eyes on the Prize for more of that mess).

Chayka made three big moves at the start of free agency. He signed star defenseman Ekman-Larsson to an eight-year, $66 million contract extension. According to Cap Friendly, the deal doesn’t kick in until next season and finishes up in 2026-27. That same day, Chayka also signed top-four defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson to a two-year, $11 million extension.

The only free agent he added was right-winger Michael Grabner, who signed a three-year, $10 million contract.

In mid-July, the team traded away Marcus Kruger and a few prospects to the Chicago Blackhawks. Arizona received Vinnie Hinostroza, Jordan Oesterle, a draft pick and ate up Marian Hossa’s salary hit in return.

What can we expect in 2019?

What this means is the Coyotes will once again be a young team heading into the 2018-19 season. They started to show signs of cohesiveness at the end of last season, so I don’t expect to see another abysmal start.

There are a lot of if’s for Arizona, but if they all fall into place you could be looking at a playoff team.

That’s if...

...Raanta picks up where he left off last season and offers the Coyotes the goaltending they have so desperately needed.

...Galchenyuk really can be a center. The young forward wanted more while on the Canadiens roster, but was relegated to the wing. The Coyotes are open to giving him a shot at the center position, we’ll see if he makes it.

...2015 first-round draft pick Dylan Strome builds on the way he ended last season and takes a large step toward becoming a top-six player.

...back-up goaltender Darcy Kuemper isn’t a hindrance. Kuemper was not good last season. During his 10 games with the Coyotes he had a 3.22 GAA and .899 SV%. He’ll need to do more if the Coyotes are going to survive in the Pacific.

...Chychrun recovers. Ekman-Larsson and Hjalmarsson are the anchors of the blueline, but as we Sharks fans know, you need supporting players to really have a solid defense. Chychrun will be essential to making a play for the playoffs.

The Coyotes have plenty of cap space and a whole load of draft picks in the next three years, so if Arizona finds itself in the playoff mix, the team has the ability to make a trade for a key piece.

Set Your DVR: The Sharks pay a visit to Gila River Arena on December 8. Game time is 5 p.m. PT.

Also, you’ll want to try and catch the Coyotes February 24 game against the Winnipeg Jets. That’s when they’ll retire number 19 in honor of Shane Doan. Doan played 21 seasons for the then-Winnipeg Jets before moving with the team to Arizona where he finished out his career.