It is a given that at least one of the playoff teams in 2018-19 will be one that was watching this past postseason from the golf course.
The NHL’s 16 playoff teams are never exactly the same from one year to the next and there is always some level of turnover.
Sometimes, it is a team that is making up a deficit of just a few points in the standings. Sometimes, like in the case of the Devils and Avalanche this past season, it is a team that made significant strides and improved by more than 20 points.
For New Jersey and Colorado, there were a lot of things that worked in their favor. They both had cornerstone players take major leaps forward (Taylor Hall with the Devils; Nathan MacKinnon with the Avalanche). They both had young players take big steps in their development (No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier with the Devils; Mikko Rantanen with the Avalanche). In the case of the Avalanche, they had a major improvement with their goaltending.
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If you are looking for a team that might be able to make a Devils- or Avalanche-like jump in the standings in 2018-19, there is a compelling team being constructed in Arizona that — at least on paper — has some of the same elements in place and a lot of the same potential.
From a big-picture, full-season outlook, the Coyotes were a bad team in 2017-18. They finished in eighth place in the Pacific Division. They were last in the Western Conference. They were were 28th out of 31 teams in the overall standings. Their point total (70) was exactly the same as the previous season and continued a run of four consecutive years in which they have failed to top 78 points.
But when you dig a little deeper into the Coyotes’ rebuild and look at the moves that have been made this offseason, there is a lot of reason for optimism that things could turn around very, very quickly.
The number one reason: They have — or at least seem to have — the goalie in Antti Raanta.
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The Coyotes acquired Raanta along with center Derek Stepan in a blockbuster trade with the Rangers before the 2017-18 season in exchange for the No. 7 overall pick in the draft and defenseman Anthony DeAngelo. Prior to joining the Coyotes, Raanta had been one of the league’s top backup goalies in Chicago and New York, where he played behind Corey Crawford and Henrik Lundqvist. He almost always put up strong numbers in that role, and was so good in his final season with the Rangers that he actually started taking some playing time away from Lundqvist at one point during the year.
He continued that strong play in Arizona — when he was healthy — and finished with a .930 save percentage in his first season in the desert. That was the best mark in the NHL among goalies who appeared in at least 40 games (Carter Hutton had a .931 mark for the Blues, but he only played in 32 games).
Expecting him to repeat that performance exactly and be a .930 goalie every season is obviously too high of an expectation, but even if you assume a slight regression is coming this season his overall career numbers still paint a promising picture because he has been among the most productive goalies in the league. For example: Since the start of the 2012 season, 44 goalies have appeared in at least 140 games. Out of that group, Raanta’s .922 save percentage is tied for the second best in the league (along with Sergei Bobrovsky and Crawford) and just .001 behind John Gibson. His .928 mark at even strength is the sixth-best in the league out of that same group.
There is nothing that can speed up a rebuild or quickly change the fortunes of a team the way a goalie can, and if Raanta maintains the level of play he has shown throughout his career, that is going to make a huge difference.
So, why did Arizona struggle so much in 2017-18 with Raanta on its roster and playing at that level? The key phrase in all of that up above is “when he was healthy.”
Keep in mind Raanta played in just three of Arizona’s first 14 games, and in one of them he exited due to injury after stopping all nine shots he faced. With Raanta sidelined, the Coyotes won just one of those games. He missed another eight-game stretch in late November-early December when the Coyotes won only two games. Their backups during those two stretches were a revolving door of Scott Wedgewood, Adin Hill and Louis Domingue, none of whom were able to play at an NHL level.
When Raanta was in the lineup, Arizona was a respectable 21-17-6. That is a 90-point pace over 82 games.
Without him, they were only 8-24-6 — a 47-point pace over 82 games.
In February, the Coyotes addressed the backup spot behind Raanta by acquiring Darcy Kuemper from the Kings and then signed him to a two-year contract extension, giving them a capable backup option.
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It is not just the goaltending that is reason for optimism.
For the second year in a row, the Coyotes made a significant offseason trade by acquiring Alex Galchenyuk from the Canadiens in exchange for Max Domi. While Domi is a solid young player and was once thought to be a building block for the Coyotes, his development had stalled the past two years after a promising rookie campaign.
In Galchenyuk, the Coyotes are getting a top-six center who has proven to be, at worst, a lock to score 20 goals and 50 points over an 82-game season while still having the potential for even more. Keep in mind he scored 19 goals during the 2017-18 season in Montreal (his worst goal-scoring season in four years) despite finishing with a career-worst 8.9 percent shooting percentage, far below his normal career level.
If that percentage rebounds this season to normal levels, there is every reason to believe Galchenyuk will be a 25-30 goal scorer this season. When combined with Derek Stepan, that gives the Coyotes a pretty solid 1-2 punch down the middle. It’s not Sidney Crosby-Evgeny Malkin, Nicklas Backstrom-Evgeny Kuznetsov, or Auston Matthews-John Tavares … but it’s not bad, either. You can absolutely go to the playoffs with those two players centering your top two lines.
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The criticism of Grabner is going to be that his goal numbers are boosted by the fact he’s scored 11 empty-net goals during that stretch. But even if you take away every single one of those empty-net goals, he still has 40 even-strength goals (top-30 in the league) and still scores at a 20-goal pace. A 20-goal winger who can kill penalties and create chances because of his speed is a pretty valuable asset.
They also have a pretty lengthy list of young players that could be on the verge of a breakout.
They have been extremely patient with Dylan Strome, the No. 3 overall pick in 2015, and after dominating the Ontario Hockey League scored at a point-per-game pace in his first AHL season last year. When he was recalled to the NHL over the final month of the season, he started to show what he is capable of in the NHL when he finished with eight points (three goals, five assists) in 10 games. He does not turn 22 until March, still has big-time potential and just seems like he is waiting to erupt offensively.
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If he does that and becomes the game-breaking top-line center the Coyotes hoped he would be when they drafted him after Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, that would be a huge game-changer for the rebuild.
Clayton Keller, who turns 20 this month, is coming off a breakout rookie season that saw him finish third in the Calder Trophy voting with 23 goals and 65 points as a 19-year-old. He is one of just 12 players over the last 25 years to record at least 20 goals and 60 points before his age 20 season, joining a list that includes only Sidney Crosby, Patrik Laine, Marian Gaborik, Patrick Kane, Anze Kopitar, Ilya Kovalchuk, Vincent Lecavalier, Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews, Jeff Skinner and Steven Stamkos. Certainly promising, when thinking about his upside.
Then there is defenseman Jakob Chychrun, the second of two Coyotes first-round picks in 2016 (nine picks after Keller), who could be the foundation of their blue line alongside Oliver Ekman-Larsson for the next decade. He missed the first two months of the 2017-18 season recovering from an injury.
Obviously, there are a lot of “ifs” here, especially when it comes to the young players like Keller, Strome and Chychrun, as well as Raanta staying healthy and matching what he has done throughout his career. But this is a team that in the second half of the season — after a disastrous start where they had significant injuries, a young team trying to find its way, and no goaltending — played at a pretty high level.
With a healthy Raanta and Chychrun in the lineup, along with Strome finishing strong over the final month of the season, Arizona went 17-8-3 over the final 28 games of the season. It is also a team that is playing in a division without a truly dominant team anywhere in it, especially if you believe Vegas is due for a regression (it almost certainly is), especially after losing a couple of its top scorers this summer in James Neal and David Perron.
The Coyotes are not ready to win the Stanley Cup this year, but they have a lot of the ingredients in place to take a huge step forward and perhaps shock the hockey world and make a big jump in the standings — the same way New Jersey and Colorado did this past season.
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