The obstacles of struggling to score goals and staying healthy didn’t force the Arizona Coyotes to wither and eye the NHL draft lottery last season. Instead, it was a “next man up” mentality that head coach Rick Tocchet continued to bark out to his players that put the team deep into the race for one of the Western Conference wild card spots.
The effects of losing a different teammate seemingly every week to another injury could have led to a team fading away, but the Coyotes’ close proximity to the wild card race was a key factor in not letting the situation take a toll on the roster.
“It’s a big kudos to our coaching staff and our general manager and our leadership group and our young guys to stick with the process, even though we had new bodies coming in almost every day,” Coyotes forward Derek Stepan told NBC Sports during last week’s NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago.
The Coyotes finished with 386 man-games to injury or illness last season, third-highest in the NHL. But their goaltending, led by Darcy Kuemper, who filled in for the injured Antti Raanta, was a big bright spot, as was their penalty kill, which tied for league best at 85%. The area of goal scoring, however, needed some help. Their 131 even strength goals were worst in the league, per Natural Stat Trick. To help solve that problem Alex Galchenyuk was traded to Pittsburgh for Phil Kessel, who is currently 43 goals away from 400 in his career.
It’s the confidence built up after overcoming last season’s hurdles and the addition a top offensive star in Kessel that has Stepan believing the playoffs can be a reality next spring.
“I certainly don’t see why we wouldn’t expect that,” Stepan said. “We were close last year. I think Chayka did a really good job of adding pieces to help us on the offensive side of the puck. It comes with that work ethic that we had at the end of last year, we kind of built that identity. I’m going into [the season] expecting to be in the playoffs this year.”
Stepan, who wasn’t sure yet if Tocchet would start him on a line with Kessel, added that the trade “re-energized” the Coyotes roster and with some internal improvements what held them back last season won’t stand in their way in 2019-20.
As far as integrating Kessel’s unique personality into what he described as a tight-knit dressing room, the veteran Stepan is eager to add the sniper to the group.
“I’m OK with him being a different cat,” Stepan said. “We’ve got a lot of dogs on our team. We could use a cat.”