Mike Smith (Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Arizona Coyotes head into the 2015-16 season with a better shot at the first overall pick at the draft than they do a spot in the playoffs. Young guns Max Domi and Anthony Duclair should be fun to watch, but Arizona will need a bounce back year from Mike Smith to have any hope at clawing out of the NHL’s basement.
2014-15 Record: 24-50-8 (56 Pts.)
THN’s Prediction: 7th, Pacific Division
What To Expect: With one of the NHL’s top prospect pools, the Coyotes believe they have a bright future and a chance to bloom into a perennial contender. But, presently, Arizona’s roster is months removed from a demolition that saw core veterans dealt for picks and prospects. The result is a talent-thin lineup with little chance to compete in the ferocious Western Conference. Off the ice, as usual, there is intrigue. The city tried to renege on its 15-year, $225-million arena management agreement with the team before the two parties agreed to a resolution in late July.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Arizona’s lone star, led the club with 43 points last year. The Coyotes scored the second-fewest goals, so it will take breakthrough seasons from a handful of forwards to make the offense respectable. Roster spots await two 20-year-olds in Max Domi and Anthony Duclair. Both will have the opportunity to be top-nine forwards, given the dearth of talent up front. Antoine Vermette returns via free agency after being dealt to the Blackhawks last year. He’ll be a top-two pivot along with Martin Hanzal. Both are dependable two-way centers with limited offense. The historically defense-minded Coyotes plummeted to 28th in goals against last season. General manager Don Maloney traded for Nicklas Grossmann and signed former Coyote Zbynek Michalek to solidify the group. Promising youngsters Michael Stone and Connor Murphy continue to apprentice under Ekman-Larsson. Goaltender Mike Smith was dreadful last season, so even marginal improvement will earn the Yotes a few extra points. The well-travelled Anders Lindback will back up Smith. The power play suffered when Keith Yandle was dealt. Domi is a potential fit on the top unit. Boyd Gordon and Brad Richardson were added this summer to boost the PK. This season is the beginning of a slow build as top prospects trickel in. With Arizona product Auston Matthews headlining next year’s draft, the Coyotes will be in the mix to nab him.
Best-Case Scenario: If Domi and Duclair are instant fits, that’s a great sign for the future of the Coyotes. They need some offensive stars in their top-six and both could be the answer in Arizona. The Coyotes should be looking for strong individual performances because, as a team, there isn’t much hope for a playoff spot in 2015-16.
Worst-Case Scenario: Improving defensively is a must for the Coyotes. The stable of defensemen hasn’t improved greatly, but the minor additions of Grosmann, Stefan Elliott and Klas Dahlbeck should help. But truthfully, Arizona might be best to finish in 30th this season and have a great shot at landing Matthews at the draft. He would be an instant star for the Coyotes.
Who To Watch: Smith’s play between the pipes in 2014-15 was atrocious. He had the worst season of his career, bar none. He lost 42 games, has a goals-against average of 3.16 and his .904 save percentage was the worst number he has posted since coming to the Coyotes in 2011-12. He also failed to record a shutout for the first time in his career — that’s including his 22-game stint with Tampa Bay in 2007-08. The Coyotes showed some confidence in Smith by hanging on to him over Devan Dubnyk, who went on to lead the Minnesota Wild to the post-season and finished third in Vezina Trophy voting. Now, Arizona wants to be repaid for the good faith in Smith’s ability. If he doesn’t have a bounce back season, the Coyotes are going to need to find a way to shore up their goaltending and defense before they end up wasting valuable seasons in the careers of their top prospects.
What The Numbers Say (by Dom Luszczyszyn):
Click here for more detail on these predictions. The Coyotes will probably be the worst team in the league this year and it won’t be very close either. The Coyotes are going to ice a roster that is eight points worse than any other one in the league which leaves them with a roughly 1-in-100 chance of making the post-season this year. Even Arizona’s likely best case scenario is lower than the next best team’s projected total. Considering who’s up for grabs at this year’s draft, that’s likely not a bad thing as the Coyotes have the best shot at landing the first overall pick. Arizona’s largest void is at forward where they have no top-tier talent. Domi or Duclair could breakout with a big role, but it’s unlikely they have a huge impact this season based on comparable players. Vermette and Doan can’t be counted as top dogs anymore while Boedker and Hanzal are closer to middle six players than top line talent. It’s easy to see why this is the worst forward group in the league. The goaltending situation should be just as costly. Smith had a terrible 2014-15 and that’ll probably be the story again this season. Lindback has been just as bad as a backup over the past three seasons and brings the goaltending even further down. Together, they give the Coyotes the worst goaltending duo in the league at a cost of almost two wins.
The lone saving grace for the Coyotes is Ekman-Larsson, who is the only player on the team who’ll contribute a win or more above replacement. Without him, the Coyotes would be trotting out the 29th best d-corps in the league, only ahead of Buffalo. It’s just bad news all across the roster for the Coyotes, but it might all be worth it in June. For now, it’s likely going to be a disaster on ice.
THN is rolling out its 2015-16 Team Previews daily, in reverse alphabetical order, until the start of the season. Check out our ‘Previews’ section to see other team breakdowns.