GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Coyotes could not have rung in the New Year any better than they did on Thursday at Gila River Arena.
Shane Doan had a pair of goals to break Dale Hawerchuk’s franchise record for goals in a career. He scored Nos. 380 and 381 against the team with which he played his first NHL season. Oliver Ekman-Larsson scored his fifth game-winner of the season and the Coyotes turned the page on 2015 in second place in the Pacific Division with a 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets.
“The symbolism is pretty cool and I recognize that,” said Doan, who tied Hawerchuk’s mark with a hat trick on Tuesday against the Chicago Blackhawks. “It was nice just to get it quickly and not dwell on it.”
The Coyotes won’t have time to dwell on their early accomplishments since they hit the road on Friday for a three-game swing through Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary.
We have time, however, and it was impossible to walk out of the arena feeling anything but hopeful for what lies ahead in 2016. Without further ado, here are 16 reasons to feel good about the Coyotes heading into the new year.
1. The Captain is rolling: Shane Doan has nine goals and 11 points in his last 10 games and he is also poised to break Dale Hawerchuk’s franchise record for points (929). Doan has 917. In 28 games, Doan has a team-high 13 goals with 19 points in total. Those stats don’t reflect a player who is ready to retire.
2. Domi is the real deal: The Coyotes’ 2013 first-round pick may have finally hit that rookie wall that Tippett expected him to hit with just four assists in his last 11 games, but that’s a necessary part of Domi’s development and what an assist Domi had on Doan’s record-breaking goal on Thursday. It is already clear that Domi can both play and thrive at this level. It is also clear that he has the requisite understanding and respect for the game and his elders — qualities that have already made him a popular teammate.
3. OEL’s offensive abilities: Few expected defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson to reach the 20-goal plateau for a second straight season. It’s no small feat for a defenseman, but Ekman-Larsson already has 10 goals this season — five of them game-winners. He is well on his way to becoming the best defenseman this franchise has ever seen.
4. The guy behind the bench: Dave Tippett is still one of the best in the business. If you doubted it due to three straight non-playoff seasons, take a look at what he has accomplished this season with a roster still full of flaws. Tippett has his critics, who expect him to continually squeeze wine from water. We just can’t abide those opinions in light of the challenges the Coyotes coach faces every night.
5. The less heralded young’uns: While Domi and Anthony Duclair garner most of the attention, the Coyotes have a trio of forwards who should be able to contribute in numerous ways for years to come. Tobias Rieder and Jordan Martinook made names for themselves at the last two training camps and recent waiver claim Viktor Tikhonov is a coach’s son with a firm grasp of the details that Tippett demands. Those less heralded pieces could be just as important to the success of this team in the coming years.
6. Murph’s maturation: When Tippett benched defenseman Connor Murphy at the end of an early-December road trip, he made a seemingly counter-intuitive statement about the benching. “I think that’s the last time you’ll see Connor Murphy out of the lineup,” Tippett said. Since returning, the 2011 first-round pick has been a changed man. He has been a physical force with a nasty edge to his game while playing alongside Ekman-Larsson on the team’s top pairing. Murphy is notoriously hard on himself; a perfectionist who has worked hard to manage his expectations. Could his maturation provide the much-needed, top-pairing D-man on the right side?
7. A new deal for Boedker? Mikkel Boedker has been through the contract negotiation wringer not once, not twice but three times. When the Coyotes signed Boedker to a one-year deal last summer, his agent, Jarrett Bousquet, made it clear that his client would no longer be offering the Coyotes a hometown discount. The Coyotes can sign Boedker to a new deal beginning in January and Boedker has helped his negotiating power by maturing into a front-line player. He leads the team with 30 points (12 goals) and has four game-winning goals. Boedker’s speed and responsible, 200-foot play are exactly the direction the NHL is taking. It would be a P.R. disaster for the Coyotes to lose him this summer as an unrestricted free agent.
8. A putrid Pacific: The Coyotes will enter 2016 in playoff position. That says as much about this division’s struggles as it does about the Coyotes’ growth from last season’s 56-point nightmare. All the same, we are nearly halfway through the NHL schedule and the Coyotes are still very much in the postseason conversation. That might mean the Coyotes are…
9. Buyers, not sellers? We wouldn’t expect GM Don Maloney to add any rental pieces to this roster that are going to cost him top prospects, nor would we expect him to acquire pieces that are going to block the path of some of the franchise’s budding prospects. But Arizona could surely use another defenseman for its top two pairings and if someone wants to part with a center in his late 20s who could help for a couple years, that might bring a smile to Tippett’s face. The Coyotes have earned the right to supplement this roster.
10. The kids are coming: The Coyotes have a deep well of forward prospects on the way. Arizona is tied with the Philadelphia Flyers for the most prospects currently competing at the World Junior Championship (seven). If only a few of their prospects pan out from among Dylan Strome, Brendan Perlini, Christian Dvorak, Ryan MacInnis, Nick Merkley, Connor Garland, Christian Fischer, Max Letunov and Laurent Dauphin, the Coyotes should be vastly improved at forward for years to come.
11. The Coyotes’ impact on Valley hockey: Scottsdale product Auston Matthews is the presumed No. 1 pick in next year’s NHL Draft, Arizona State has a Division I hockey program and youth hockey is growing in Arizona like nowhere else in the nation. It takes a generation or more to embed hockey in a new market. We are nearing that flashpoint.
12. Stability: Andrew Barroway opted to retain his 51 percent ownership share in the team and he recently bought a 10,636 square foot, $7 million home in DC Ranch. Business must be good and that is probably a good thing for the organization. The IceArizona ownership group has clear and defined roles now, with Gary Drummond overseeing the hockey operations department and Anthony LeBlanc serving as the face and voice of the group. Has financial and ownership stability finally arrived for this previously floundering franchise?
13. A complete organization: In the past year or so, the Coyotes have beefed up their scouting department with the hiring of Tim Bernhardt and more European scouts, beefed up their player development staff by adding Steve Sullivan and Corey Schwab, and beefed up their analytics department with the addition of John Chayka. These are critical pieces to the success of an organization — pieces whose absence hampered the franchise in the past.
14. Draft picks: The Coyotes have their own first-round pick and the New York Rangers’ first-round pick (lottery protected), which came over in the Keith Yandle deal last year. It never hurts to add more centers, but the Coyotes have to start restocking their system with defensemen, too. They have the picks to do so.
15. Arena dreaming: The funding and partnership details are still sketchy, but the IceArizona ownership group is in talks with multiple groups on the idea of building a new arena closer to the city’s population and wealth base downtown or in the East Valley. Location has been cited ad nauseam as one factor in the Coyotes’ attendance struggles. Any of the proposed locations would remove that problem.
16. They’re still here: In spite of all the speculation, rumors and false reports — in spite of their continued strife with the City of Glendale and their desperate need for a new home — the Coyotes have remained committed to playing in Arizona. There are many rivers still to cross before this saga is settled but know this: The Coyotes had the chance to leave the Valley twice and they didn’t. Commitment to a market won’t fill the franchise’s other needs, but it’s a good place to start.
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