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Coyotes see positive future despite disappointing present

Missed Stanley Cup Playoffs for seventh straight season, but progression of core raises hopes

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

LAS VEGAS -- The Arizona Coyotes have missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the seventh straight season. Only the Buffalo Sabres' eight-season drought is longer. But consider this:

Despite losing 377 man-games to injuries, the Coyotes were in the race until the last minute of the second period of their second-to-last game.

Not until the Colorado Avalanche ended regulation tied 2-2 with the Winnipeg Jets at Pepsi Center on Thursday was Arizona eliminated; the Coyotes had a 3-1 lead against the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena at the time. The Avalanche went on to win 3-2 in overtime; the Coyotes went on to win 4-1.

The Coyotes (39-34-8) have won 10 more games and gotten 16 more points in the standings than they did last season with one game left, against the Jets at Gila River Arena on Saturday (10 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN360, CITY, SNW, FS-A PLUS, NHL.TV).

"It stings," general manager John Chayka said. "But I'm a big believer you learn more from your failures than you do your successes.

"But at the same time, I don't consider this a failure. I think it's a ton of progress. I'm proud of this group. I have a lot of respect for this group. They did a lot of great things this year.

"We're not finished. We're just getting started. That's how I view it. Got a lot of things to build off of, so just keep building."

Video: ARI@VGK: Stepan scores after nifty move on Fleury

The injuries have been ridiculous. Goalie Antti Raanta has missed 65 games with a lower-body injury, forward Christian Dvorak 62 (upper-body injury), defenseman Jason Demers 46 (lower-body injury), forward Nick Schmaltz 42 (lower-body injury), forward Michael Grabner 41 (upper-body injury), and so on.

"I've never seen something quite like this," said center Derek Stepan, who missed 10 games in March because of a lower-body injury.

Yet since Jan. 6, the Coyotes have gone 22-13-5. Their 49 points in that span rank eighth in the NHL. They have gone 10-2-1 in their past 13 home games, energizing Gila River Arena.

"So proud of the guys," defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson said. "I mean, with what we have been through with injuries and everything and to still be around there when it's two games left, it says a lot about this team. Bright future ahead of us.

"But now we know what it takes to win in this League. And obviously we're not there right now, but hopefully it's something that we can build off and come back next year."

Goalie Darcy Kuemper was a huge reason the Coyotes were in the race. Since Jan. 6, he has gone 22-9-5 with a 2.06 goals-against average, a .933 save percentage and five shutouts. During that span, he's third in save percentage, fourth in GAA, tied for second in shutouts and third in wins.

For the season the Coyotes rank fifth in the NHL defensively (2.67 goals-against per game) and first in penalty killing (85.3 percent).

But they're 29th offensively (2.56 goals per game) and   26th on the power play (16.1 percent). No one has reached 20 goals or 50 points.

"As a group we defend extremely hard," Stepan said. "That's not an issue. We've got to find ways to score goals, and we've got to continue to work on your skills. There's a good chunk of hockey where we were playing well, but we were losing because we couldn't score goals."

Video: MIN@ARI: Galchenyuk cleans up rebound on the doorstep

There is potential though. Forward Alex Galchenyuk, who has 18 goals in 71 games, scored 30 for the Montreal Canadiens in 2015-16. Forward Clayton Keller, who has 14 goals in 81 games, scored 23 last season. Grabner, who has nine goals in 40 games, has scored at least 20 goals four times and as many as 34. Dvorak, who has two goals in 19 games, had 15 each of the previous two seasons.

"We've got guys who have done it before," Chayka said. "We've got guys that I know that there's that latent ability in them. …

"If there's an opportunity to add to this group we'll look to do that. But having said that, for the last two years that's what I've been doing. I've been making a lot of transactions. I think we've got to look at this group now and develop it as well."

Bottom line: The Coyotes have improved. They have to keep improving.

"[Coach Rick Tocchet and his staff] did a phenomenal job, obviously," Chayka said. "We developed a mindset. We developed an attitude, a culture. We took big steps in those regards.

"I think there's a lot of rebuilding teams that would like to have our year this year, and we're in a good spot."

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