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31 in 31

Inside look at Arizona Coyotes

Kessel arrival fuels optimism playoff drought can end

by Adam Kimelman @NHLAdamK / NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

31 in 31: Arizona Coyotes

31 in 31: Arizona Coyotes 2019-20 season preview

NHL.com senior writer Dan Rosen and NHL Network's Mike Johnson discuss the biggest questions facing the Arizona Coyotes for the 2019-20 season

  • 05:59 •

NHL.com is providing in-depth roster, prospect and fantasy analysis for each of its 31 teams throughout August. Today, the Arizona Coyotes.

Phil Kessel could be the missing piece for the Arizona Coyotes in their quest to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Coyotes finished four points behind the Colorado Avalanche for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Western Conference last season. Arizona scored 209 goals, tied for the third-fewest in the League, and its leading goal scorers were Brad Richardson and Alex Galchenyuk, each with 19.

 

[Coyotes 31 IN 31: 3 Questions | Top prospects | Fantasy breakdown | Behind the Numbers]

 

Kessel, who was acquired with defenseman prospect Dane Birks and a fourth-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins for Galchenyuk and defenseman prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph on June 29, has scored at least 20 goals in 11 straight seasons, including six seasons with at least 30 goals. The Coyotes haven't had a 30-goal scorer since Radim Vrbata scored 35 in 2011-12.

"I think Phil's one of the best scorers in the League in the past decade; the stats back that up," Arizona general manager John Chayka said. "We think we've got a lot of good young players that can score more, but to have a guy that's experienced, that we know going in that can score, he's been durable, he's been dependable in terms of putting up point production, that gives a lot of confidence to the entire group."

Kessel, who turns 32 on Oct. 2, said he is excited for a new start after four seasons and two Stanley Cup championships with the Penguins and is ready to embrace a leadership role as one of the Coyotes' veterans.

"I haven't really got to have that in my career," he said. "I think it's going to be great. I'm going to do whatever I can to help these guys win and help them improve. The young guys have questions or anything they want to talk about, I'm there to talk about it. Try to get our team better and them better."

Among those younger players is Nick Schmaltz, a 23-year-old who could center the top line. Schmaltz was acquired in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks on Nov. 25 for forwards Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini, and had 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 17 games before sustaining a season-ending knee injury Dec. 30.

"This is a huge year for Nick in the sense of what is Nick Schmaltz going to be," Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. "I think he can be one of the high-end guys in the NHL. I think he is a point-per-game guy, his rush talent with the puck is as good as anybody in the League. … Where Nick can go, the sky's the limit, no question, because he has that skill set to be able to do stuff I've seen other high-end players do that I've coached."

Video: Top 10 saves of 2018-19: Kuemper

Schmaltz could play center or wing. The Coyotes added to their depth through the middle when they acquired forward Carl Soderberg in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche on June 25 for defenseman Kevin Connauton and a third-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft. Soderberg scored an NHL career-high 23 goals last season.

He mostly has played center during his seven NHL seasons with the Avalanche and Boston Bruins, but at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds is strong enough to play on the wing. And with Schmaltz, Soderberg, Richardson, Derek Stepan, Christian Dvorak and possibly top prospect Barrett Hayton natural centers, someone will have to slide to the wing.

"Stepan and Richardson are pretty permanent centermen their whole careers, they're established in that area," Tocchet said. "The other guys can play the wing because of their speed, Soderberg because of his strength, the net-front presence type of guy. I believe those other guys can play the wing position and play it well for us if we have too many numbers up the middle."

The Coyotes were one of the top defensive teams in the NHL last season, allowing 220 goals, tied with the Stanley Cup-champion St. Louis Blues for fifth-fewest, and could be better this season with No. 1 goalie Antti Raanta healthy after a lower-body injury ended his season Nov. 27. Arizona also has goalie Darcy Kuemper, who ranked in the top six in the League last season in goals-against average (2.33) and save percentage (.925) among goalies to play at least 20 games.

With the offensive improvements and solid defense, the Coyotes are confident they can reach the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

"We've added Phil, we've added Carl, we'll see how the development of some of our other players do and our prospects coming up the pipeline," Chayka said. "We feel like we've got depth, a good, strong team through the middle of the ice. Now we've got guys who can put the puck in the net. Should be a good year for us."

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