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NHL.com's Reasons for Optimism, Questions Facing Coyotes

by Jerry Brown / Arizona Coyotes

EDITOR'S NOTE: NHL.com is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 30 teams throughout August. Today, the biggest reasons for optimism and the biggest questions facing the Arizona Coyotes.

The Arizona Coyotes were active during the offseason, trading for defenseman Alex Goligoski and Anthony DeAngelo, and signing defenseman Luke Schenn and forwards Jamie McGinn and Ryan White in free agency. They're hoping the new faces and the growth of young players, including Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, help them make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2012.

The Coyotes are looking for a top-four defenseman for the right side and a right wing with goal-scoring ability, and may not be done dealing. Arizona has stockpiled assets at the NHL and prospect levels to use in a trade.

Here are four reasons for optimism entering this season:

1. A little help arrives for Oliver Ekman-Larsson

The Coyotes allowed 244 goals last season (28th in the League), so their top priority was to retool the defense around Ekman-Larsson, whose 55 points (21 goals, 34 assists) were seventh among NHL defensemen.

Goligoski, 31, signed a five-year contract with Arizona on June 22, six days after he was acquired in a trade with the Dallas Stars. He'll likely be paired with Connor Murphy, who signed a six-year contract on July 28 after setting NHL career highs in goals (six), assists (11), points (17) and games played (78). Schenn, the No. 5 pick in the 2008 NHL Draft, signed a two-year contract on July 23.

Max Domi and Anthony Duclair. Photo by Norm Hall.

2. The maturation of the 'Killer Ds'

The Coyotes had their fingers crossed that Domi and Duclair were ready, and the rookies responded with a combined 38 goals and 96 points to give Arizona two young scorers to go with 39-year-old captain Shane Doan's 28-goal season.

Arizona wants to see Domi and Duclair take the next step in development. For Domi, that includes not only production but taking more of a leadership role. Each player also can help mentor the next wave of prospects on the way.

3. The even younger guns

With Domi and Duclair established, the Coyotes have room on the roster for more additions from their highly touted farm system.

Center Dylan Strome, the No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft, came close to making the Coyotes out of training camp last season and could find himself in a top-six role. Center Christian Dvorak, coming off a 121-point season and a Memorial Cup championship as captain for London of the Ontario Hockey League, also is expected to be NHL-ready after impressing in development camp.

Steve Sullivan. Photo by Norm Hall.

4. Greater organizational commitment to winning

With a shoestring scouting budget and little commitment to player development during their cost-cutting days, the Coyotes paid the price at the NHL level with a four-year playoff drought.

But a new commitment to scouting includes a retooled department headed by former NHL forward Steve Sullivan, who played 33 games for the Coyotes in 2012-13, with several strong drafts yielding talent and optimism.

Here are three key questions facing the Coyotes:

1. What improvements will be made on right wing?

The Coyotes appear set on the left side with Domi, McGinn, Jordan Martinook and Tobias Rieder, a restricted free agent who remains unsigned. But the right side isn't as clear.

Behind Duclair, who played the right side much of last season, the Coyotes have Doan entering his 21st NHL season and question marks from there.

White can play there if needed, but the Coyotes want a right wing with scoring ability. Arizona may have interest in bringing back 35-year-old unrestricted free agent Radim Vrbata, who had 137 goals and 288 points in 428 games over six seasons (2007-08, 2009-14) with the Coyotes. They also could make a trade to fill the need.

2. Will Mike Smith stay healthy and play at a high level?

Smith was 38-18-10 with a 2.21 goals-against average and .930 save percentage in 67 starts during the 2011-12 season, and helped the Coyotes reach the Western Conference Final. In four seasons since, Smith has won an average of 18 games and hasn't had a GAA better than 2.58 (in 2012-13).

Christian Dvorak. Photo by Norm Hall.

Now 34 and entering the fourth season of a six-year, $34 million contract, Smith remains the No. 1 goalie. Will the improvements around Smith allow him to regain form? Or are the Coyotes banking on a version of Smith that isn't coming back?

3. How will the center position shake out?

Antoine Vermette's contract was bought out by the Coyotes on Aug. 1, giving Strome and Dvorak each an opportunity to earn a roster spot. Martin Hanzal hasn't played more than 65 games since 2009-10 but when healthy is the best matchup option for big Pacific Division centers like Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks), Anze Kopitar (Los Angeles Kings) and Joe Thornton (San Jose Sharks).

Brad Richardson had a strong season on the third line but is best suited to stay there.

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