The hits just keep coming for the Arizona Coyotes.
With a five-game winning streak in tow, the Coyotes have risen to the point that they’re legitimate contenders for a West wild-card spot, but they’re going to need to go through much – if not all – of that playoff push without key center Derek Stepan.
Stepan’s expected to miss four-to-six weeks with a lower-body injury, according to Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet.
Arizona’s final regular-season game takes place on April 6, so perhaps there’s room for Stepan to return for the later stages of that push (especially considering how often hockey players tend to beat recovery windows), but there’s also the possibility that he would only get to play again if the Coyotes make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Stepan, 28, was injured during a seemingly innocuous play during Thursday’s eventual 5-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks.
Stepan isn’t the only noteworthy Coyotes player who’s out, and many of them might miss the rest of the season. Antti Raanta, Michael Grabner, and Jason Demers have been out for months, while Nick Schmaltz has already been ruled out through this season.
As The Athletic’s Craig Morgan notes, the Coyotes now appear very weak at center, with a group anchored by Brad Richardson, Christian Dvorak, Nick Cousins, and Mario Kempe (although this might be a situation where Alex Galchenyuk gets another look down the middle).
With a modest 32 points in 64 games, Stepan might not strike you as a crucial part of the Coyotes, yet he ranks fourth in scoring.
He’s also a versatile player. Stepan comfortably averages the most ice time per game of any Arizona forward (19:17), and only trails Richardson (2:41) for shorthanded ice-time per game among Coyotes forwards with 2:03 per night. Stepan saw a four-game point streak (two goals, three assists) end during Thursday’s games, and had been heating up in general with eight points in his past nine games.
The Coyotes will have to hope they can continue to gain points by committee, and that Darcy Kuemper can continue his hot recent play after going 8-3-1 with a strong .923 save percentage in February.
This would be a big challenge with the team at full-strength, but would be especially impressive if the Coyotes can keep this going with Stepan added to a significant, troubling list of injured players.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.