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Coyotes Excited to Start New Season

Arizona enters 2017-18 after major off-season makeover

by Dave Vest @davest4yotes / Coyotes Sr. Director of News Content

GLENDALE -- The new-look Coyotes departed Arizona on Wednesday afternoon for Anaheim to start the 2017-18 campaign on Thursday night.

Arizona is a team that has emerged from an extreme makeover from last season, what with a new coaching staff and player personnel; eleven of the 23 players on the roster for the first game vs. the Ducks weren't on Arizona's Opening Night roster just a year ago.

"I'm excited to see how this group does," General Manager John Chayka said before the team's flight. "We've put this group together and now it's up to them to go out and play the games and give us some feedback as to where they're at."

Chayka liked the progress he saw from the team over its 17-day training camp. The competition for jobs created some difficult personnel decisions for him and Rick Tocchet, who will enter his first season as head coach of the Coyotes with a 53-69-26 record as an NHL head coach.

"It was good because we haven't had to make too many tough decisions for a while here," Chayka said. "We have some guys who played well enough in camp to probably be on the roster, but it's just a numbers game. We had to make cuts, so we had to send some guys down to the AHL who should be up here with us."

Before departing for Anaheim, the Coyotes announced a five-member leadership group that features Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Niklas Hjalmarsson as permanent alternate captains. Derek Stepan, Brad Richardson and Alex Goligoski will rotate as the third alternate captain on a game-by-game basis. In other words, there will be nobody wearing a 'C' to start the season.

"I think it's great," Ekman-Larsson said. "All of them are great leaders. You don't need a 'C' to be a leader and I think it's good that we have a leader group. I'm super excited about that. I've been wearing an 'A' for a couple years now and I feel good about it. I know what I have to do and I know that I'm a guy that has to lead this team. Having Hjalmarsson leading with me is great. He knows what it takes to win and he's going to help us out a lot in the dressing room."

Video: OEL: 'Don't Need a C to be a Leader'

Hjalmarsson, who won the Stanley Cup three times while playing for the Chicago Blackhawks, is pleased to join Ekman-Larsson, a fellow Swede, in such a key role.

"It's a huge honor," Hjalmarsson said. "I'm really proud over it. I never thought about being an assistant captain in the NHL when I was a young kid back home growing up. It's a big responsibility and something that I'm not going to take lightly. I'm going to try to lead by example."

Video: Hjalmarsson on Alternate Captaincy

The Coyotes will be looking to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2012. It will be a challenging task for a predominantly young team, especially considering Arizona will play eight of its first 13 games on the road, including five in the Eastern time zone over an eight-day span to close October.

"We have some challenges with travel early on, but that's OK," Chayka said. "We're going to go through it and hopefully we have some good stretches at the right time and have success. We can't worry about the schedule. Every team has 41 road games. We can only control what we can control." 

The Coyotes are hoping to have goalie Antti Raanta in net for the opener at Anaheim, but Tocchet said that decision has yet to be made. Raanta is the starter on the depth chart, but he has been nursing a lower-body injury and played just two periods in the preseason. Louis Domingue is the backup.

"We would have liked Antti to have played more in the preseason but he didn't," Chayka said. "He's done a good job in practice lately and his body is feeling good now, which is the main thing. He's been in this league for a long time now so he'll be all right when the puck drops."

Three rookie forwards, all with a few NHL games from last season on their resumes, are on the roster. They are Clayton Keller (three games), Dylan Strome (seven games) and Christian Fischer (seven games).

Tocchet has advised them not to overthink Opening Night.

"You can't think the game too much," Tocchet said. "I've played the game, and when you start playing the game in your head at 9:30 in the morning by the game time you're exhausted. I've been there before. The biggest thing for the young guys is just to have fun, and when the puck's dropped just be ready to play."

All eyes likely will be focused on Keller, the early favorite, according to multiple hockey publications, to win this season's Calder Trophy as the League's top rookie.

Keller has noticed those predictions and has shrugged them off.

"You definitely see it with social media nowadays," said Keller, who led the Coyotes in preseason scoring with eight points. "I just try not to pay attention to it and continue to come to the rink every day with my head down and work as hard as I can."

Chayka has read the lofty predictions for Keller as well.

"I don't really pay a lot of attention to that and I hope he doesn't either," Chayka said. "If you start looking at that stuff you're going to lose sight of the goal and that is to help the team win night in and night out and be a productive player … He's an extremely intelligent player who has a great mind for the game. When he gets the puck on his stick he makes high-end, creative plays that result in scoring chances. He had a good camp, but the real deal starts Thursday. We expect him to be an impact player."

Video: Tocchet on Yotes' Leadership Group

 

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