GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Arizona Coyotes followed up their most disappointing season in the desert with even more bad luck, stuck on the outside looking in while the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres scooped up the two "can't miss" prospects at the 2015 NHL Draft.
But general manager Don Maloney rebounded from missing out on Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel with a very active few weeks of trades and free agent acquisitions. They are also very pleased with the No. 3 pick, forward Dylan Strome, although another year in juniors is the likely scenario.
Center Antoine Vermette and defenseman Zbynek Michalek have returned after brief stays with the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues respectively. No immediate game-changers were added, but the Coyotes are banking that a combination of new veterans and some promising players will return them to competitive status in what is primed to be a tough Western Conference.
Generating offense has traditionally been elusive for the Coyotes, and last season was no different. Only the Sabres had fewer goals than the 165 scored by Arizona, and its inability to match up with the top two lines of most teams was evident.
Maloney traded Sam Gagner and Lauri Korpikoski for more responsible depth players in Boyd Gordon from the Oilers and defenseman Nicklas Grossmann from the Philadelphia Flyers. To replace the skill positions, the Coyotes are hoping that 2013 first-round pick Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, acquired from the New York Rangers in the Keith Yandle trade in March, will play key roles.
Maloney has brought Domi along carefully and the move to keep him in juniors last season appeared to pay off when he blossomed with London in the Ontario Hockey League (32 goals, 102 points). He and Duclair shined on the same line while leading Team Canada to gold in the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Mikkel Boedker returns with a one-year contract after having his spleen removed in January; Martin Hanzal returns after back surgery ended his season in February. Captain Shane Doan, who is within range of becoming the franchise's all-time leader in goals, assists and points in his 20th season, is likely to be paired with newcomer Brad Richardson on the third line.
The wild card could be speedy Tobias Rieder, one of the few pleasant surprises last season with 13 goals.
"His fitness testing was excellent this year, and now he knows he can play at this level," coach Dave Tippett said. "You know you have a good young player when you can play him with anyone, and when all the veterans want to play with him."
The dependable Gordon will center an energy line likely to include veterans Kyle Chipchura and Joe Vitale. But Tippett said he won't hesitate to make room if prospects such as Brenden Perlini, Christian Dvorak, Henrik Samuelsson or Lucas Lessio have a solid training camp.
"I like our depth at center ice right now. It's excellent," Tippett said. "Now it's a matter of how we sprinkle in the wingers who play best with them."
One of the big questions heading into last season was whether the Coyotes had the size and strength to protect their net and slow down elite scorers.
It didn't take long to find out the answer; gone are Keith Yandle, David Schlemko, Chris Summers and Brandon Gormley from the Coyotes, who made an effort to rebuild with an eye toward defending.
The Coyotes acquired Klas Dahlbeck from Chicago for Vermette and added Grossmann, who played for Tippett with the Dallas Stars, in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers for Gagner.
"[Grossmann is] a great presence around the net, on the penalty kill and in the locker room," Tippett said. "He will be a stabilizing force that we were missing. He's also the perfect mentor for a young guy like Dahlbeck, who's out of the same mold."
Michael Stone likely will remain partners with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who set a franchise record for defensemen with 23 goals last season. Ekman-Larsson's former partner Michalek could play with either Connor Murphy or Dahlbeck.
Stefan Elliott, acquired from Colorado for Gormley, could challenge for a spot and Tippett is very impressed with the play of 21-year-old Dakota Mermis, who went undrafted in the summer but was signed as a free agent.
Doan is unhappy about losing Yandle and the Coyotes might be a player with his skills short of an ideal defense group. But they will be the kind that Tippett prefers to work with.
"We're a big, heavy group now. Oliver is by far the smallest guy," Tippett said. "The size we have and the way we're going to play is much more to my liking and what you need to have a competitive team."
The bigger defense is designed to help Mike Smith, who struggled following an injury-plagued season in 2013-14. Smith won 14 of 62 games, allowed a career-worst 3.16 goals a game and needed a hot final month to push his save percentage above 90 percent.
Arizona traded Devan Dubnyk to the Minnesota Wild at midseason, a signal to Smith that he was still their guy. The Coyotes remain committed to Smith, 33, emotionally and financially (he has another four years on a contract averaging $6 million a season) and are hoping that a strong final month means the player who led the Coyotes to the Western Conference Final in 2012 can regain his form.
Smith lost goalie coach and confidant Sean Burke during the offseason, but the Coyotes hired young goalie guru Jon Elkin, who has worked with Smith since he was 12 years old, to provide the next-best comfort zone.
"Smitty has to be better and we have to play better in front of him," Tippett said. "I think the team we have in front of them will give our goaltenders a better chance to be successful, but we need the kind of goalie we know Smitty can be too."
Smith will have a different backup for the fourth straight season. Anders Lindback played 26 games between Dallas and the Buffalo Sabres and will be the No.2 goalie. But Smith wants to and will play as often as he can.
For a team that lost 50 games in regulation, the Coyotes excelled on the power play. Arizona ranked 29th in goals, yet had the seventh-best power play in the NHL at 20 percent, which shows how hard things were at even strength.
The quarterbacking of Yandle and the playmaking ability of Gagner will be missed, but Stone did a good job stepping up late in the season and possesses a blistering shot and Domi and Duclair will get their chance to show their scoring touches with the man advantage.
The penalty kill was a different story. Arizona's 76.7 kill percentage was the second-worst in the League and a big reason why players like Gordon, Grossmann and Richardson were acquired. If the Coyotes can't outscore teams at even strength, their special teams have to be just that.
"We all know what a guy like Gordon can be on the penalty kill and Grossmann is the same kind of player down low," Tippett said. "We have been a good team on the kill and we have to get back to that. Too many teams had (big power-play games) against us and had us chasing the game."
Tippett is signed to a long-term contract and has the unequivocal support of Maloney and the ownership group. But the frustrating season ate at Tippett personally and had him questioning whether he wanted to endure another rebuilding project with little hope of a postseason run.
"You just don't go through a season like last year without trying to fix a lot of things," Tippett said. "We added solid veteran players who understand the game and we have more young players in our system than we've ever had push for jobs than ever before. It was important to me we showed that kind of progress and I think we have."
Mikkel Boedker - Antoine Vermette - Steve Downie
Martin Hanzal - Max Domi - Anthony Duclair
Tobias Rieder - Brad Richardson - Shane Doan
Kyle Chipchura – Boyd Gordon - Joe Vitale
Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Michael Stone
Nicklas Grossmann - Connor Murphy
Zbynek Michalek - Klas Dahlbeck
Coming and Going
2014-15 record: 24-50-8 (56 points)
2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Did not qualify
Key additions: D Stefan Elliott, C Boyd Gordon, D Nicklas Grossmann, G Anders Lindback, D Zbynek Michalek, C Brad Richardson, F John Scott, C Antoine Vermette.
Key subtractions: F Mark Arcobello, BJ Crombeen, F Martin Erat, D Brandon Gormley, F Lauri Korpikoski, D John Moore, F David Moss.
Author: Jerry Brown | NHL.com Correspondent