Clayton Keller

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Coyotes will once again be patient with Dylan Strome

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The Arizona Coyotes figure to be one of the youngest teams in the league this season and could have more than six players on their roster under the age of 23.

One of those players could be 2015 No. 3 overall pick Dylan Strome, one of the centerpiece prospects of their current rebuild. But just as they have done the past two seasons the Coyotes figure to be extremely patient with their most prized prospect.

Strome received a brief seven-game look in Arizona at the start of the 2016-17 season where he recorded a single assist before going back to the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League where he absolutely annihilated the league for a third consecutive season, recording 75 points in just 35 games. In that sense, he has absolutely nothing left to prove at the junior level because he is clearly a step or two (and maybe more) above the rest of the league.

But the Coyotes still want to make sure he is able to play the sort of game they are looking for at the NHL level before he gets a permanent look in that role. They had no interest in trying to let him play a depth role this past season.

Here is general manager John Chayka talking about Strome’s development and what they are looking for, via Jerry Brown of NHL.com.

“We could have had Dylan here and had him play a depth role or play on the wing,” Chayka said. “He would have been fine doing that, but that’s not what we’re looking for out of him. We’re looking for him to be a 200-foot center who impacts the game in all areas. That’s a very difficult position to play and excel in at a young age. We’re trying to bring him along the right way and do the right thing for the right reason. We are looking for the same thing this year. It could happen for him as early as Game 1 of the preseason, where he grabs a spot and runs with it and away he goes. It’s my expectation that he will have a strong camp.”

First-year Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet has already talked about wanting a creative, skilled team, especially when it comes to the organizations young players, and Strome could potentially be a great — and perhaps even exciting — addition to that roster if he earns a spot.

Along with Strome the Coyotes also have young players Clayton Keller, Lawson Crouse, Max Domi, Brendan Perlini, Christian Dvoak and Anthony Duclair all at forward and all under the age of 23, while Nick Cousins, Jordan Martinook and Tobias Rieder are all 25 or younger. Injured defenseman Jakob Chychrun is also only 19.

The Coyotes have tried to complement that young core with some veterans additions this summer, including center Derek Stepan, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and new starting goaltender Antti Raanta.

Stepan feels ‘like a young guy,’ but will take leadership role with Coyotes

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The Arizona Coyotes have big plans for Derek Stepan — at least while prospects like Dylan Strome and Clayton Keller continue to develop — as the club’s No. 1 center next season.

He’ll begin training camp next month with a Coyotes team that has made some big moves this summer, but is still very young. How young? Stepan is 27 years old, with 515 career regular season games played, and he’s among the oldest forwards in Arizona.

Ten players on their roster are 24 years of age or younger, according to CapFriendly.

Given Stepan’s experience, especially on a playoff team in a big market like New York, is likely valued with an impressionable group of forwards, as well.

“I still feel like a young guy,” Stepan told NHL.com.

“But now I look at the lineup and I think there’s only going to be one guy that’s older than me up front (forward Jamie McGinn, 28), and maybe two or three guys on the back end (defensemen Zbynek Michalek, 34; Alex Goligoski, 32; Niklas Hjalmarsson, 30). It’s definitely a new experience, but something that certainly doesn’t worry me. I’ve been in a leadership role in New York and I’ll just transfer into a new one in Arizona. I couldn’t be more excited.”

The previous leader in their locker room, Shane Doan, was not brought back and is currently a free agent. It’s been reported that Oliver Ekman-Larsson will be named as the new Coyotes captain.

Tocchet wants Coyotes’ young players to be ‘creative’ and ‘calculated’

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Along with missing the playoffs in each of the past five seasons, the Arizona Coyotes have also been kind of a boring hockey team, at least as it relates to their offense. They have some exciting young players, and their long-term outlook is promising, but over the past three seasons they have ranked 27th, 24th and 29th in goals scored, and 28th, 29th and 23rd in shots on goal.

That, obviously, is a glaring lack of offense.

A lot of that comes from the fact it has been a rebuilding team that hasn’t had the pocket books to really go out and bring in impact talent, but some of it is also due to playing a tighter, more structured defensive system under coach Dave Tippett.

New coach Rick Tocchet seems to be looking to change some of that and bring a more up-tempo brand of hockey to the desert and give his young players a little more freedom.

Here is talking about what he wants from his team, via Sarah McLellan of AZcentral.

“I don’t want to take the stick out of guys’ hands,” he said. “We have some creative, young players here. So I want them to be creative. I don’t want them to think too much. I want them to play a lot of pressure, a lot of pressure on the opponent.”

“I’m not going to sell the farm,” he said. “It’s not going to be 3-on-1s all night. That’s not going to happen. But I think you have to be calculated, and the one thing with these young guys, they’re sponges. They want to learn. They want to learn how to practice. They want to learn how to play.”

Of course, most new coaches upon taking a new job say something similar to this. Nobody gets hired and on the first day says, “we are going to play a boring, dull, bland style of hockey.”

A lot of times it still comes down to the talent on the ice.

But in Arizona’s case a fresh approach and start might actually lead to a more exciting brand of hockey, and a little more freedom for their young players with the puck could be a boost not only for the entertainment value of the team, but also for the results on the ice. You obviously want young players to play smart, but you also don’t want them to be afraid of making a mistake.

Either way, it is going to be an exceptionally young team that could have as many as nine players on the roster this season age 23 or younger, assuming prospects like Dylan Strome and Clayton Keller play their way onto the team. That young core was given a lot of complementary pieces to work with this summer when general manager John Chayka acquired Derek Stepan, a top-six center, Niklas Hjalmarsson, one of the steadiest veteran defenders in the league, and Antti Raanta to take over the starting goaltending job.

Raanta is ready for the No. 1 job with Coyotes

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Antti Raanta has spent the past four seasons backing up two of the NHL’s best goalies in Corey Crawford (Chicago Blackhawks) and Henrik Lundqvist (New York Rangers). After handling those duties as well as just about any other backup in the league, not to mention performing better than a lot of the league’s starters, he is finally going to get an opportunity to get a No. 1 job with the Arizona Coyotes after the team acquired him, along with center Derek Stepan, in a blockbuster trade centered around the No. 7 overall pick.

It is a role that Raanta seems to be more than ready for.

He talked about that preparation, along with what he learned from playing behind Crawford and Lundqvist, with Dave Vest of the Coyotes’ official website.

“I have been privileged to play behind Corey Crawford in Chicago and Henrik Lundqvist in New York, and working with great goalie coaches in Chicago and New York,” Raanta said. “… It’s been kind of like a step-by-step process for me. Last year, I kind of felt that my game was finding the right way and my confidence level was going better and better all the time. I felt like I was giving the team the chance to win every night. There’s going to be other goalies and there’s going to be a battle for the No.1 spot (in Arizona), but I feel my game is going in the right direction … and I feel like I’m ready to take one more step and be playing more and get the No. 1 spot.”

He has certainly earned the opportunity to get a No. 1 spot.

Over the past three seasons his .924 save percentage ranks third (behind only the Montreal Canadiens’ Carey Price and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Matt Murray) among the 61 goalies that have appeared in at least 50 games during that stretch. His .931 even-strength save percentage is tied for fourth.

He even had a stretch last season where he was playing well enough to take a few starts away from Lundqvist. It’s probably not realistic to expect him to continue to maintain that sort of performance in a No. 1 role (bigger work load, not always getting the most favorable matchups, and all of those variables), but all he has done in the NHL is perform at a high level when given the opportunity.

Probably one of the best case scenarios for the Coyotes is that Raanta is able to duplicate what Cam Talbot has done since the Rangers traded him to the Edmonton Oilers two years ago. Talbot, Lundqvist’s backup before Raanta came along, was also 27 at the time he was traded and had performed extremely well in a limited backup role.

He has been an above average starter with the Oilers ever since.

The Coyotes have made some significant changes this offseason, parting ways with coach Dave Tippett, trading Smith, letting Shane Doan leave and bringing in Stepan, Raanta and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks. Those veterans join a young core being built around Max Domi, Dylan Strome, Clayton Keller, Jakob Chychrun and, of course, standout defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. It has been a rough few years for the Coyotes on the ice, but they have young talent to build around and added some outstanding veterans to that core this summer.

Coyotes expect Stepan to be ‘true number-one center’

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Derek Stepan is 27 years old and has played over 500 games in the NHL.

Though he has never registered more than 57 points in a single season, the Arizona Coyotes believe he’s the big piece they’ve been looking for.

“We are thrilled to acquire Derek,” said GM John Chayka after Friday’s trade with the Rangers. “Our organization has been searching for a true number-one center for over a decade and we are confident that he can be that for us.”

Chayka is absolutely right that the Coyotes haven’t had great centers for a while now. Antoine Vermette and Martin Hanzal were fine players for them, but Jeremy Roenick was their last elite center, and he’s been gone since 2001.

But is it fair to expect Stepan to be a true number one?

Well, the Rangers were reportedly concerned his game was on the decline. And at 27, his prime years are probably behind him.

Also consider the bar for number-one centers in the NHL. It’s Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Jonathan Toews, Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, Nicklas Backstrom, and a few others who rate higher than Stepan.

One could even make the argument that the Rangers never won the Stanley Cup with Stepan because they never had an elite number-one center while he was there. (No disrespect to Brad Richards, but his game was on the decline when he signed in New York.)

So, no, it’s not fair to expect Stepan to be a true number-one center, even if he’s deployed like one next season.

The real hope for a number-one center in Arizona is with Christian Dvorak, Dylan Strome, and Clayton Keller.

In the meantime, Stepan will have to do.