Arizona Coyotes 2020-21 NHL season preview

The 2020-21 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to preview all 31 teams. Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at how the offseason affected each team, the most interesting people in the organization, and the best- and worst-case scenarios. Today, we preview the Arizona Coyotes.

Arizona Coyotes 2019-20 Rewind

Record: 33-29-8 (74 points); fifth in the Pacific Division; 11th in the Western Conference.

Leading scorers: Conor Garland (22 goals) and Nick Schmaltz (45 points).

For the first time since their surprising run to the 2012 Western Conference Final, the Arizona Coyotes made the playoffs in 2019-20. At least, technically. (OK, also, they were the Phoenix Coyotes at that time. If you want to get technical about something else.)

The Coyotes weren’t exactly world-beaters entering the pandemic pause. Actually, the real world gave the Coyotes a pretty significant beating. The team saw its ownership go through an ugly divorce with now-former GM John Chayka, and the front office embarrassments continued during the offseason.

Beating the Nashville Predators during the Qualifying Round broke the Arizona Coyotes’ playoff drought in an unspectacular way. And they advanced largely off the back of absolutely stupendous performances by Darcy Kuemper. But for a team going through what the Coyotes have experienced (largely from self-inflicted wounds, yet still) … they’ll take whatever victories they can get.

Once they faced a focused, dangerous Avalanche team, the Coyotes couldn’t get many of those victories.

Perhaps the best news is that some of the toughest times might be behind the Coyotes. Sure, they don’t have their first-rounder for the 2021 NHL Draft, yet they took their lumps from Chayka’s strange gaffe during this past draft. (And then, again, made it worse with even more self-inflicted wounds.)

With a lot less incentive to tank, the Coyotes must be creative. In the long run, maybe they’ll be glad they couldn’t trade Oliver Ekman-Larsson. (If nothing else, landing an asset for Derek Stepan ranks as solid work.)

This franchise is no stranger to times looking grim. As of this writing, it’s looking that way. That said, the team itself is as scrappy as the animal they’re named after. Maybe this is the season they finally track down that elusive roadrunner called success?

Additions

Derick Brassard (free agency), Johan Larsson (free agency), Drake Caggiula (free agency), John Hayden (free agency), Tyler Pitlick (free agency).

Subtractions

Taylor Hall (free agency), Derek Stepan (trade), Carl Soderberg (free agency), Vinnie Hinostroza (free agency), Michael Grabner (free agency), Brad Richardson (free agency).

3 Most Interesting Arizona Coyotes

Arizona Coyotes 2020-21 NHL season preview Kuemper Raanta
(Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

• Bill Armstrong

Who was truly responsible for drafting Mitchell Miller? That’s a murky question, one muddied by Armstrong not being allowed to participate in the 2020 NHL Draft for the Coyotes.

Either way, that error added insult to the injury of already lacking so much in that draft.

Frankly, John Chayka left Bill Armstrong with a live hand grenade of a situation. Considering the Coyotes’ perennial financial challenges, managing such a relatively expensive team won’t be easy. Especially considering the lack of high-level draft assets.

The only good part is that Bill Armstrong and his staff would have a lot to brag about if the Arizona Coyotes get through this and eventually build a winner. I’d rank the Coyotes as one of the toughest jobs in sports, so it’s a “be careful what you wish for” situation for Armstrong, who’s living the dream of becoming an NHL GM. Can he win the game on its highest difficulty setting?

• Darcy Kuemper – Antti Raanta

For all that went wrong for the Arizona Coyotes in 2019-20 (and the past few years), they’ve unearthed some absolutely tremendous goalies. To be fair, the coaching staff and players deserve some credit for a commitment to defense. (As usual, goalie success vs. stingy defense can devolve into a chicken-and-the-egg debate. Although a lot of numbers still point to brilliant goaltending.)

When Kuemper suffered an injury, it seemed like the Coyotes’ wobbly playoff chances would fall flat. Instead, Antti Raanta proved why he was expected to be the team’s No. 1 goalie before injuries derailed his promising career.

Once the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs rolled around, Kuemper resumed his brilliant play.

So, on paper, the Coyotes could boast one of the best goalie duos in the NHL.

That said, there’s an argument for selling high. Kuemper’s 30, and teams may covet having a goalie of his caliber for just $4.5M in cap space for the next two seasons. Meanwhile, Raanta’s entering a contract year at 31 with a $4.25M AAV.

Factoring in their age and short contracts, the Coyotes might be best served moving on from one or both. Then again, those two give Arizona its best chance to compete, and the Coyotes don’t have a ton of tanking motivation without their first-rounder.

Those situations make Bill Armstrong that much more interesting to watch. Frankly, those aren’t easy calls.

• Oliver Ekman-Larsson

OEL said he didn’t really want to leave the Arizona Coyotes. And maybe that’s true. If reports were accurate, Ekman-Larsson didn’t exactly give the Coyotes a ton of options to make a trade.

Whether OEL changed locales or stayed put, a lot of eyes were going to be on him. To an extent, that comes with the territory when you’re an $8.25M defenseman.

But OEL’s even more interesting to watch because of how far his fortunes fell. Not that long ago, Ekman-Larsson was a defenseman the Coyotes couldn’t afford to lose. There were even OEL – Auston Matthews trade rumors. His perception’s fallen hard since then. In November, The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn ranked Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s contract as the fifth-worst in the NHL (sub required).

At 29, OEL’s young enough to shake those criticisms, yet it’s far from a guarantee.

Best-Case Scenario

Look, this team has suffered a long time. Diehard fans likely see that lottery picks aren’t guaranteed after things didn’t work out with the likes of Dylan Strome (heck, go back to Kyle Turris). It’s not always pretty, but teams can make deep playoff runs off of hot goaltending and timely scoring. Maybe the Coyotes can ride a Kuemper – Raanta partnership to the point that someone other than Dave Tippett thinks about Mike Smith‘s best days? (Bonus points if they evoke the Sharks trading Doug Murray and Ryane Clowe, yet making the playoffs anyway.)

Worst-Case Scenario

Woof. It’s dangerous to depend on goalie as much as the Coyotes have in recent years. This team didn’t add a ton in the offseason, and lost a lot when you consider the departures of Taylor Hall and Derek Stepan. This team could easily be very bad, and then not even get the silver lining of imagining a draft lottery win. If that isn’t enough, the pandemic could create even more money issues than usual. (It’s not totally clear how much these disruptions already hurt franchises like the Arizona Coyotes.) The worst-case scenarios are pretty scary for this team.

Pointsbet – Arizona Coyotes Stanley Cup odds

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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