The Arizona Coyotes had a slow start to their season, but things kept turning around just long enough to keep one strong undercurrent flowing through the year: frustration.
There was frustration that the team’s goaltending couldn’t settle down. There was frustration that each night saw at least twenty minutes of play that just completely fell apart at the seams. There was frustration that shooting percentages were so low, that the once-formidable power play was no longer working, and that the offensive stars couldn’t stay healthy.
By the time a rebuild was inevitable, two of the team’s top six forwards had been shut down for the season and one more was a mess of nerves over his inevitable trade out. The trade deadline left the team so alien from how it looked in October that fans joked about having no idea who was even on the ice. The guessing game of ‘which player is that number’ could be played during practically every on-ice shift.
For the period leading up to — and then, arguably, the period directly after — the trade deadline, the Arizona Coyotes were probably the worst team in the NHL. They looked like clear contenders for a top two pick — but as the seasons gets closer to finishing, it’s becoming apparent that the roster has finally gotten over the worst of their growing pains.
There’s still a lack of offense and consistency in net that probably needs to get addressed before the team can kid themselves about any playoff appearances, but what the team does have to offer is surprisingly impressive — and that’s not even looking at the players still developing in the major juniors or the minors.
This isn’t even a conversation without Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The 23-year-old defenseman was named the new alternate captain after Keith Yandle got dealt to the New York Rangers in early March, and since then he’s effortlessly taken control of the team’s offensive production on the blue line.
In his last five games, Ekman-Larsson has five goals and three assists; he’s moved into sole possession of the lead for goals scored by defensemen, and sits only two goals back of the franchise record for goals scored by a defenseman in all time Coyotes history. Arizona’s 4-3 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night was the first time OEL had taken fewer than five shots since his current scoring tear started; overall, he’s taken 242 SOG this season (second in all NHL defensemen behind only Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson), and he’s averaging top ice minutes in all situations. For all intents and purposes, he’s developing into an elite talent — and still a few months shy of his twenty-fourth birthday, he’s liable to get even better.
It’s not just Ekman-Larsson, though. The team has been quietly putting out positive stats in the last handful of weeks, as each of the young players on board have pushed to showcase their strengths on the same night rather than one at a time.
Rookie Tobias Rieder is still somewhat of an unknown around the NHL, but he likely won’t be for long. The 22-year old native of Landshut, Germany has quietly developed into a strong two-way talent for Arizona despite the dismal season he and his teammates have had. He’s produced twelve goals and seven assists in his first sixty-four games of NHL play, but the three shorthanded goals he’s managed to net are what’s really going to start catching the eyes of front office brass around the league. His 165 SOG are fourth among all active NHL rookies (not counting the SOG taken by any of the players Thursday night), which put him ahead of Johnny Gaudreau, Aaron Ekblad, and Victor Rask. He’s also sixth among rookie forwards in hits, with 111 — needless to say, he’s developing a significant presence in all situations, something that will prove invaluable as the team moves on from center Antoine Vermette.
On defense, there’s been a standout as well — since getting dealt to the Arizona Coyotes in the Yandle trade, blue liner John Moore has nearly equaled his offensive output with the Rangers for the entire first half of the season. The one goal and five assists he brought with him from the first thirty-eight games of play this year have been supplemented by another goal and three assists in the twelve games since he arrived in Arizona. The lack of a bottleneck on the Coyotes’ depth chart has allowed Moore to find his game without fear of getting scratched the next night; as a result, he’s playing the way many thought he would when the Columbus Blue Jackets selected him 21st overall in 2009.
It’s not just a few standout stars that are doing their jobs well, though.
Depth forwards Craig Cunningham and Tye McGinn were picked up on waivers at the trade deadline, and since arriving they’ve both managed to solidify the team’s defensive presence enough to allow the offensive stars an opportunity to take more shots on the opposition’s net. Klas Dahlbeck, who was dealt to Arizona in the trade that sent Vermette to the Chicago Blackhawks, has helped ease some of the pressure Ekman-Larsson has felt to clear the team’s zone on his own. Dahlbeck hasn’t been a particularly strong offensive contributor, but he’s managed to find a home on the team’s penalty kill and eat up ice time without much wear and tear.
Then, of course, there’s team enigma Mark Arcobello.
Claimed off waivers by Arizona in mid-February, Arcobello was initially only acquired to help the team fill roster spots at center over the back half of the season. Undersized and undrafted, the Connecticut native wasn’t considered anything particularly special — he was a good, useful depth player, but didn’t offer much to the Coyotes that gave him any real ‘staying power’.
Since joining the team, though, he’s contributed seven goals and five assists — and as a fast, high-shooting forward able to play center or wing, providing twelve points in only twenty games was a dream come true for the offensively stagnant Coyotes. He now has an impressive fifteen goals and twelve assists in seventy games, spanning four teams and being deployed in all situations. He’s a relatively harmless -3 — and most importantly, he seems to have brought some life back to his former Edmonton teammate Sam Gagner, who has begun to pick up production once again. The two have combined for ten goals and twelve assists since being reunited on the Coyotes — not bad, and only seeming to get better.
There’s a lot of pressure on teams to ‘tank’, or assemble rosters that are guaranteed to only be competitive enough to stay afloat in the league, with two generational talents up for grabs in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft this summer. Coaches hate it, and players hate it even more, but fans are filled with a desire to see their teams sink low enough to bottom out and bring home a shiny new prize.
The Coyotes may have the best of both worlds, though. With Ekman-Larsson at the helm — and the impressive work ethic of the talent he’s surrounded with — the team is looking good enough to be competitive within a season or two, but the rough patches they went through earlier (the aforementioned ‘growing pains’ around the trade deadline) sunk them low enough in the standings that even with a perfect record heading down the final stretch of games, the Coyotes are mathematically unable to climb higher than 26th overall. The players projected to go third and fourth overall are elite talents themselves — in any other draft class, they would likely be the undisputed first overall picks — so even with a fantastic run to finish out the year, the Coyotes are guaranteed a top talent in Florida this June.
It hasn’t always been this way, but the Coyotes may be a team to envy before too long.