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Coyotes start with clean slate under Tocchet

Ekman-Larsson's return to form key to getting back to playoffs with new coach

by Craig Morgan / NHL.com Correspondent

The Arizona Coyotes will need improvement in all areas if they hope to end a five-season Stanley Cup Playoff drought.

The Coyotes finished 27th in the NHL in goals per game (2.33), 28th in goals-against per game (3.15), 26th on the power play (16.2 percent) and 27th on the penalty kill (77.3 percent) last season.

Injuries were a factor. Forward Brad Richardson missed 66 games with a broken right tibia and fibula, forward Max Domi missed 23 games with a broken right hand, and defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson played with a broken thumb and had his least productive full NHL season (39 points) since 2011-12.

New coach Rick Tocchet promised a clean slate for his players when they took the ice for training camp. That means there will be opportunity for some players, although most of the roster is set after forward Anthony Duclair signed a one-year contract reportedly worth $1.2 million Sept. 3.

Here is a look at the five keys for the Coyotes, the inside scoop on their roster questions and projected lines for the 2017-18 season: 

 

5 KEYS  

1. Adapting to Tocchet's system 

Tocchet, a two-time Stanley Cup winner as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins, is preaching a style predicated on pace and freedom. He will impose some structure, but he wants his young players, particularly the skilled ones, to play their game without looking over their shoulder. 

2. Ekman-Larsson's return to form 

Ekman-Larsson was a Coyotes-worst minus-25 last season. He broke his left thumb Nov. 29 against the San Jose Sharks but kept playing. Late in the season, the Coyotes revealed the bigger reason for his struggles: His mother, Annika, died two weeks before Ekman-Larsson took a leave of absence to be with his family and missed the final three games of the season. She had cancer for 10 years. Ekman-Larsson said she took a turn for the worse before last season began. "It's obviously hard to stay focused on hockey when you go through something like this," he said. "It will always be there, but at the same time, it kind of feels good to put that behind you and know she's not in pain anymore. … I'll be ready to play." The Coyotes believe Ekman-Larsson is in a better emotional state, and hope new defense partner Niklas Hjalmarsson, who played with Ekman-Larsson on Team Sweden at the World Cup of Hockey 2016, will allow him to play more with the puck. 

Video: Oliver Ekman-Larsson takes No. 45 on the list

3. More production from centers 

Arizona traded Martin Hanzal to the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 26, and he still finished second among Coyotes centers with 26 points (16 goals, 10 assists) in 51 games. General manager John Chayka said the Coyotes could not enter this season without addressing the issue, so they acquired Derek Stepan in a trade from the New York Rangers on June 23, hours before the 2017 NHL Draft began. Stepan had 55 points (17 goals, 38 assists) last season and has had at least 51 points each of the past five full NHL seasons. With a season of NHL experience for Christian Dvorak (15 goals, 33 points), Richardson healthy and Dylan Strome, the No. 3 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, making a roster push, Arizona is counting on improved play up the middle.  

4. Raanta must be ready 

Antti Raanta has never been a No. 1 NHL goaltender. But the Coyotes believe the 28-year-old is capable, so they acquired him in the trade that brought Stepan to Arizona. Raanta had a .922 save percentage in 30 games for the Rangers last season. He takes over for Mike Smith, who was traded to the Calgary Flames. 

5. Rebound by Duclair 

The 22-year-old scored 20 goals as a rookie in 2015-16. He dropped to five last season, which included a 16-game stint with Tucson of the American Hockey League. Duclair, who was a restricted free agent, believes he can thrive in Tocchet's system. "I just wanted to prove myself this year, that I can play at an elite level like I did my rookie season, and hopefully I'll have a better contract next summer," he said. 

Video: The guys preview the Coyotes' upcoming season

 

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Biggest lock  

Domi, who averaged 0.64 points per game each of his first two NHL seasons, will be the top-line left wing and a key contributor on the first-unit power play. Playing with Stepan, Domi's production should increase. 

Biggest battle 

The Coyotes have an abundance of left wings with Domi, Brendan Perlini, Clayton Keller, Jordan Martinook and Lawson Crouse. At least one of those players likely will shift to right wing, and Chayka said it could be Keller. Someone will be the odd man out unless they experiment with one of these players at right wing. 

Most intriguing addition 

There are plenty of candidates among Stepan, Hjalmarsson, Raanta and Strome. But Keller, who was selected by the Coyotes with the No. 7 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, could be a game-changer for Arizona in his first full NHL season. "Just the way Keller can pick up the puck and keep the pace," Tocchet said. "I mean, that's a skill. To have that at his age (19), there's not a lot of guys that have that." Keller had two assists in three games for the Coyotes after signing his first professional contract March 26 following his freshman season at Boston University.

Biggest potential surprise 

Christian Fischer had three goals in seven NHL games in 2016-17, but the Coyotes didn't want to use the first year of his entry-level contract, so he spent the majority of the season with Tucson. Fischer is a big (6-foot-2, 214 pounds), mobile forward with good hands. Chayka calls him a natural-born leader with a strong work ethic. He'll start in a bottom-six role but could play his way into more minutes. 

 

PROJECTED LINEUP 

Max Domi -- Derek Stepan -- Anthony Duclair

Lawson Crouse -- Christian Dvorak -- Clayton Keller

Jordan Martinook -- Brad Richardson -- Tobias Rieder

Brendan Perlini -- Dylan Strome -- Christian Fischer

Oliver Ekman-Larsson -- Niklas Hjalmarsson

Alex Goligoski -- Jason Demers

Kevin Connauton -- Luke Schenn

Adam Clendening

Antti Raanta

Louis Domingue

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