COLUMBUS, Ohio — If you tuned into the season opener, still believing that a 5-1 preseason record meant something, the Coyotes sure served up an eye-opening clarification.
The Blue Jackets are going to be one of the NHL’s worst teams this season. Trade-deadline and offseason purges reduced the team to such rubble that even insiders are predicting a bottom-of-the-barrel season.
You never would have known it on Thursday at Nationwide Arena.
Columbus scored early, Columbus scored often, and the cannon blasts just kept coming. The Jackets’ 8-2 win represented the most goals they have scored in a season opener. The six-goal margin of victory was also their greatest in a season opener.
Not to be outdone, this was also the worst season-opening loss in Coyotes/Jets franchise history, besting a 6-1 loss by the Jets to Toronto on Oct. 6, 1981. The worst previous season-opening loss for the Coyotes in their 25-year Valley history was a 6-2 loss to Winnipeg on Oct. 9, 2014.
“I don’t think the score is a reflection of the game,” coach André Tourigny said. “We had breakdowns defensively. I think at some point, we got emotional a little bit and we got off our game.”
Tourigny is right that the Coyotes aren’t going to lose lopsided games like this all season. The imbalance between them and most of the NHL isn’t that great. They may even bounce back in Buffalo on Saturday against another one of the lottery hopefuls, but wow, what a way to kick off the season.
There were defensive breakdowns, there was poor puck management at the blue lines, there were missed chances. Even former Coyote Max Domi got in on the act. Arizona’s 2013 first-round pick wasn’t supposed to play this season until November or December, but in an early return from shoulder surgery, he had a goal and two primary assists against his former team.
And then there was Coyotes goaltender Carter Hutton.
Let’s get to those takeaways.
Hutton’s hard night
Hutton hadn’t played a game since a strong performance against the L.A. Kings in a preseason game on Oct. 5 — a stretch of nine days. He only played five periods in the preseason, but after that last game in L.A. Tourigny, goalie coach Corey Schwab and Hutton sat down and agreed that he had had enough work to prepare for the regular season.
It was hard to make that argument after Hutton’s performance in Columbus. He allowed eight goals on 26 shots for a .692 save percentage.
“We made it tough on him early and I think he got bad luck,” Tourigny said. “A few bad bounces, a few screens. It wasn’t the kind of game you want to give your goalie to get going a little bit. We had holes in our game and we paid for it. That’s not on Carter. You don’t lose 8-2 because of one guy.”
There’s no arguing that the Coyotes had a lot of defensive breakdowns, including on the first two goals, but Hutton allowed a Boone Jenner goal early in the second period on which he was completely out of position.
He then allowed a pair of soft goals to Oliver Bjorkstrand (deflection notwithstanding) and Jake Bean and the rout was on. Save for a breakaway stop on Max Domi, Hutton didn’t achieve anything notable in the game.
It was a mild surprise that Tourigny left him in net for all eight goals, but in the season opener, maybe he wanted him to play through it. It also wouldn’t be a surprise if Tourigny threw him right back out there on Saturday against the Sabres, his previous team, but tank or not, the Coyotes will need better goaltending than Hutton provided in the opener.
Kessel’s ironman streak continues
Despite missing all of the preseason, forward Phil Kessel was in the lineup on Thursday to extend his ironman streak to 901 games, the fifth longest in NHL history. He logged 16:19 of ice time, he recorded no shots and he was largely unnoticeable in the game.
It is no secret that Kessel wants to be traded. It has been a storyline since the summer, and the Coyotes are working feverishly to grant his wish. As long as Kessel brings effort on a nightly basis, it’s hard to envision Tourigny, a first-year NHL coach, making the decision to pull him from the lineup.
If effort or attitude become a problem, however, that’s where it will get interesting.
“Phil’s track record speaks for itself,” Tourigny said, noting that Kessel is behind his teammates due to the lack of preseason play. “He’s a productive player, good on the power play, he has good offensive instincts, he has speed and he can be heavy on pucks. That’s what I want to see from him.
“We’ll have to give him some slack. It’s a new system, it’s a new identity, it’s a new way to play. It’s a lot of new teammates but I want to see the effort and I will see the effort. I have no doubt. Since he started practicing with the team I have nothing (bad) to say about his effort and the way he got involved with everything.”
A is for alternate
Tourigny selected his leadership group for the season opener in Columbus. Andrew Ladd, Jay Beagle and Jakob Chychrun all wore As as alternate captains, but as Tourigny has hinted since his arrival, those letters are not set in stone.
“There’s no kind of set letters; those are the letters for now,” he said. “They displayed a lot of leadership during the camp and obviously (we also looked at) their track record in terms of Stanley Cup winners for Beags and Ladder and their work every day and the example on and off the ice.
“Chych as well has displayed good leadership since he arrived at camp. His presence and dedication during the summer training — all of it. That’s why we picked these guys but like I said before, we are really happy about the leadership in our group. We have a lot of guys who display leadership.”
Before he arrived in Arizona, Beagle was touted as a strong presence in the room and a go-to guy for media. When he took the podium on Thursday before the game, it was easy to see why.
“It’s always obviously a huge privilege,” Beagle said of wearing the A. “I do what I do. I try and lead by example and just be who I am; not someone that I’m not.”
I asked Beagle if wearing an A carries any added responsibility with the Coyotes, given all of the new faces and the rebuild that is taking place.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “To be honest with you, this is an unbelievable group. I had no clue coming into this year how it was going to go. Besides (Antoine Roussel, Andrew Ladd and Loui Eriksson), I didn’t know too many guys. We have an unbelievable group that has bought into Bear’s system right away and the way he wants us to play.
“To work as hard as we did in the preseason and to see the commitment level and how hard every player works, that’s just easy to jump onboard with and to be yourself. It started right when I got here, even before preseason started, just working out at EXOS and skating at the Ice Den. I saw the work ethic that this group has and it’s contagious.”
As for all of the new faces, Beagle said that “sometimes it’s a challenge, sometimes it’s good to have a fresh start.”
The plan for Hayton, Söderström
There were lots of eyes on the Coyotes’ prospects in training camp this fall, but no two prospects drew more interest than center Barrett Hayton and defenseman Victor Söderström, the team’s first-round picks from 2018 and 2019, respectively. Everybody knew that they were the two with the greatest chance of making the roster.
Hayton started out strong, but a lower-body injury derailed his camp and the Coyotes ultimately assigned him to the Tucson Roadrunners (AHL) in the team’s final list of roster cuts.
On the flip side, Söderström made the roster and has been playing alongside Ilya Lyubushkin on the third pair. I caught up with GM Bill Armstrong before the season opener to talk about both players’ situations.
“Barrett came in and he had a great camp,” Armstrong said. “I don’t know if there was someone who worked harder in the summer at improving himself and his game. He was 100 percent committed and you could see his effort from the get-go. Unfortunately, he ran into an injury issue that just didn’t allow him to compete for a job at this level.”
Armstrong said that the staff talked a lot about Hayton’s past two seasons, which were as disjointed as the development process can get. Between injuries, healthy scratches, the limitations of the CHL-AHL agreement and the limited number of games due to COVID-19, Hayton has bounced all over the globe trying to elevate his game.
“Our worries were the foundation of how many games he has actually played at this level,” Armstrong said. “He never really got going so we wanted to make sure that he got some games under his belt and got a good foundation of who he is as a player at the pro level.
“I know he’s going to be one of our best players down in Tucson and bring it every night. He’s going to force our hand at some point during the season to get called up.”
Armstrong does not want that call-up to be the first move in a yo-yo-like experience.
“Any time a prospect goes up and down, it’s really hard mentally to get over it,” he said. “When you’re just down there, out of sight, out of mind, just concentrating on your game, you’re fine but when you get pulled up it gets your mind going in different directions.
“We want to create a situation where when he does come up, he’s ready for the NHL and he’s going to have a really good chance to stay. It’s not going to be a one-game-and-back situation. Now, it’s not a perfect world. That might happen at some point with what else is going on with our club if we have injuries, but what we’re looking to do is create a situation where he can accumulate some games down there and feel good about himself.”
As for Söderström, Armstrong said he started out slowly in camp.
“Coach took some time to meet with him and set some expectations about how hard he wanted him to practice and play, and he really embraced it and stepped up his game,” Armstrong said. ”He came in and earned himself a job.
“Now, he’s got to continue to play that type of game on a consistent basis to stay up because there’s some people coming back from injury or looking to get into the lineup, but he’s shown really good signs so far.”
The two guys looking to take Söderström’s job are Kyle Capobianco, who is on injured reserve with a lower-body injury, and Vladislav Provolnev, who is currently the No. 7 defenseman.
“Provolnev is still learning to adjust to the North American-style game but it’s really impressive how fast he has adjusted,” Armstrong said. “If at some point, he can’t get a spot in the lineup he’ll have to go down and establish himself in the American league but right now he has done enough to earn himself at least a spot on our team and hopefully he’ll get in soon.
“I think Kyle’s past has done enough for him to earn a spot, but obviously he hasn’t gotten a lot of traction in the NHL. He has gotten all the accolades in the American league. It just hasn’t translated for him yet, but what I like about him is how hard he trained and how he has approached the season in a positive way, embracing our new coach.”
Capobianco is still listed as week to week so Söderström will have some time to play, but when Capobianco is ready, the Coyotes will have to decide if third-pair minutes are adequate for Söderström’s development in what has never been considered a developmental league.
That blasted cannon
I asked Tourigny before Thursday’s game if he had experienced the Columbus cannon that fires every time the Blue Jackets score.
“Too much,” he quipped.
It was an eerie foreshadowing.
I have never been particularly fond of the cannon. That probably stems from the fact that it always startles me as I am trying to recap the Coyotes mistake that led to a Jackets goal. It is shockingly loud despite the other arena noise, and it always seems to catch me off guard, as it did eight times on Thursday.
That said, it is a unique tradition in the league; an unmistakable part of Columbus games. As the Coyotes pursue an arena, I hope they are thinking about creating a tradition as distinct and as well known.
Traditionalists hate gimmicks like the cannon or Carolina’s many on-ice histrionics, but the problem with tradition is that it can cement you into stodgy old ways. When you’re stuck in that narrow mind set, you don’t try things like Vegas tried for its home opener against the Seattle Kraken.
Like it or not, Vegas pre-game and in-game entertainment is better than anything the so-called Original Six are staging. Vegas entertains its fans. Carolina entertains its fans. So does the cannon.
If everybody else is going to keep calling Arizona a non-traditional market, the Coyotes might as well embrace that label and try non-traditional things. Some of those will undoubtedly fall flat, but some could rise to the level of the cannon, or, in a perfect world, Vegas’ immense creativity.