André Tourigny faced myriad challenges in his first year as an NHL coach. Year two behind the Coyotes bench will only add to his trials.
The Arizona roster has been remade again, robbing the team of much of its previous leadership group, and this season’s roster is built for yet another season of languishing at the bottom of the standings.
On top of that, the Coyotes will play in a 5,000-seat (less for NHL games) college arena, their practice facility is a makeshift amalgam of spaces, the team won’t play a single home game in the preseason and it will play 20 of its first 24 regular-season games on the road.
None of this phases Tourigny.
“I’m not a guy who worries about what I can not control,” he said. “I’m way more worried about making it clear how we want to play in the D-zone and how we want to tweak what we want to do in the neutral zone. Those are things we control as coaches, and that’s the stuff we should focus on, not what the arena will look like, or what the traveling will look like.
“Who cares? I just want to make sure that every player feels comfortable inside our organization, and make sure that I build that relationship with the players. I’m way more focused on that than what the arena will look like in Tulsa.”
The outcome of this Coyotes season is predictable, but there are many storylines to sort out in training camp, which begins today with physicals and ramps up with the first on-ice session on Thursday at the Ice Den Scottsdale.
Here are 10 questions as camp begins.
1. Are the team areas at the Ice Den Scottsdale complete?
Not yet. When I attended a rookie practice at the Ice Den just before the Rookie Faceoff tournament began in San Jose last week, the locker room and training/equipment areas were still under construction and as of Tuesday, they were not complete.
The Coyotes have not allowed media into the off-site training area across the parking lot from the arena in the same complex, but it appears that those areas will be ready for camp. There is no finite completion date for the in-arena areas, so it appears that the team will open camp in some of the arena’s other dressing rooms until construction is complete. It’s not ideal, but nothing about this temporary situation is.
2. What role will newly signed center Barrett Hayton have this season?
Last season, Tourigny bristled at criticism that Hayton wasn’t producing enough points. The Coyotes coach wanted analysts to note that Hayton was facing some of the toughest center matchups in the NHL on a nightly basis and he was holding his own defensively and in the tougher-to-analyze details away from the puck.
Toward the end of the season, the Coyotes dropped Hayton into a more favorable role for a 21-year-old. He played third-line center and responded with eight goals and 18 points over the final three months (34 games) of the season.
Tourigny hasn’t decided where Hayton will slot this year. Travis Boyd found chemistry between Nick Schmaltz and Clayton Keller last season and GM Bill Armstrong believes that newly acquired veteran Nick Bjugstad performs better when he plays up in the lineup. That could mean a reprisal of Hayton’s late-season role, but camp will provide a clearer picture.
“He’s a really good pro,” Tourigny said. “He’s a guy who studies the game to get better every day. The guy is really passionate. I look at him right now and he’s looking super thin, he’s looking really, really sharp so I’m looking forward to seeing him on the ice. But at the same time, last year he was 21 years old so I assume he’s not 27 this year. It’s one step at a time. It will be a challenge again this year playing in a really tough conference. I don’t expect Hayts to be a point-per-game guy this year. I just expect him to make a step in the right direction and keep establishing his game and being a reliable player.”
When he spoke at Coyotes Media Day on Wednesday, Hayton admitted that getting leaner was an offseason goal.
“I was able to kind of find a pocket where I’m fast and I can be efficient and I think that’s a big thing,” he said. “Carrying that speed, quickness, having that top-end speed and also having that muscle endurance.”
“The word I use is I feel more athletic on the ice, [I’m] on top of the ice more [and] also having my maximum amount of energy and being able to hold that at a high level for a long time.”
3. How will the Coyotes manage the Jakob Chychrun situation?
Jakob Chychrun trade rumors may have finished a close second to arena stories on the list of Coyotes offseason storylines. But just as GM Bill Armstrong predicted at the draft in Montréal in June, Chychrun is still a Coyote. The question now is how the team will manage the situation with their talented 24-year-old defenseman, who made his displeasure with the ongoing rebuild crystal clear on break-up day last spring?
Chychrun spoke at Coyotes Media Day media on Wednesday, providing a clearer picture of his current feelings.
“The way things kind of played out, which hasn’t really been talked about much, last year the team had approached me a couple times, one before the season, one early on in the season and we just had discussions on where I was at mentally and where the team was at; the trajectory of the team,” Chychrun said. “The team basically communicated to me, knowing the type of competitor and person that I am, they indicated that if this rebuild was going to be something that was hard or difficult on me that [if] I wanted to be in a different situation and get moved on, that they were going to be willing to do that and make that happen for me. Throughout the start of last season, I had a lot of reflection time and some really, really emotional, hard reflections with my loved ones and family and we ultimately decided to take them up on that offer and try to get moved on to a better situation.
“Like we talked about at the end of last season, my desire [is] to win in this league and careers are so short. The time flies by. I’m going into my seventh year here in Arizona; seventh year in the NHL. I don’t want these years to keep going by and be 10, 12 years into the league and not had a real good chance or shot at, not only the playoffs but winning a Stanley Cup. You ask anybody who plays a sport at the highest level, they’re all going to tell you they play it to win. That’s really my mentality and where I’m at. I think the team understands that. I think it’s kind of a mutual position for me to get moved on to a situation with a chance to win and a team that’s fighting for the Stanley Cup and for them here to be able to get assets. I understand how rebuilds work. I think it could be mutually beneficial.”
Chychrun was the second-to-last person to speak at media day so it is unclear how the team will react to his statement. As for camp, fans will not get to see Chychrun on the ice for a bit. He is still rehabbing after offseason wrist surgery (he had another on the same wrist the previous summer) and he also revealed that he had a bone spur removed from his ankle, an injury related to the one that he said bothered him last year and kept him out at the end of the season. While he is able to handle pucks, he is not cleared to shoot as the wrist heals.
“We’re still kind of playing it, I guess week by week, seeing how I continue to progress,” he said. “Things are feeling really good. I’m in a really good place mentally, Physically, I feel like I’m in phenomenal shape and just ready to keep ramping up. I definitely won’t be out there with the guys at the start of camp and not sure about preseason yet either.”
When asked how he would manage the Chychrun situation before media day, here’s what coach André Tourigny said.
“I’m looking forward to seeing him practice with us and as far as I’m concerned, I have a really good relationship with Chych, so I’m looking forward to having a chance to work with him and talk to him,” Tourigny said. “I won’t treat him any differently than any other player.”
4. What will Andrew Ladd decide?
That will be sorted out after Ladd undergoes physicals and testing on Wednesday.
At the end of the 2021-22 season in which he accomplished many of his goals, Ladd, 36, said that he was uncertain of his plans for his final season under contract due to yet more wear on his oft-injured body.
“When you get to my age you have to see how you feel,” he said. “The last two or three weeks was a big grind just to get through those games, and a third surgery on [the same] knee (he missed six weeks) is not good, but it is what it is.
“I don’t know what I want to do yet. It’s easy to make quick, emotional decisions. I think it’s better just to take some time, let everything settle and then make a decision from there.”
If Ladd plays any professional games in 2022-23 while under his current contract, or if he retires before the season, the Coyotes will lose the conditional 2023 third-round pick that they acquired from the New York Islanders last summer in the trade. If he goes on IR, that will open up another roster spot.
5. What’s the deal with the goalies?
Good question. It’s hard to envision the Coyotes going into the season with Karel Vejmelka and either Jon Gillies or Chris Gibson as the backup. Tourigny made it plain that the team fared much better on the ice and psychologically last season when it had a competent tandem of Vejmelka and Scott Wedgewood. Conversely, Carter Hutton’s struggles took their toll on the entire team, creating an untenable situation.
The view inside the organization is that Ivan Prosvetov needs a full season in the AHL with Tucson, particularly because he did not perform all that well with the Roadrunners last season. While he may get call-ups from time to time due to injuries, he needs to prove something this season in what will be a contract year, and I do not think that the organization feels that David Tendeck is ready for a regular NHL role either.
The Coyotes have had their eyes on other goalies this offseason, but the situation wasn’t right for a variety of reasons. One player whom sources say that they targeted was free agent Charlie Lindgren, whom the Washington Capitals signed to a three-year, $3.3 million contract to back up Darcy Kuemper.
Here’s how GM Bill Armstrong addressed the goaltending situation when I asked him about it recently.
“We’re still active in that market and we’ll see how that works and what’s available,” said Armstrong, who will watch the waiver wire and other team’s camps for opportunities. “One thing with our (training) camp is that it’s the same as last year. There’s a ton of opportunity. There were kids sitting in the same chairs that some guys are sitting in right now. There is opportunity in this organization. Make no mistake about it. Come in and try and earn your job. It starts here.”
6. Will we see/hear from Bryan Little?
It’s unlikely. Little and his $5,291,667 cap hit are likely to remain on injured reserve all season, and all of next season after which his contract expires.
Little, 34, sustained a terrifying injury after taking this shot to the ear off the stick of teammate Nikolaj Ehlers nearly three years ago.
“I remember it pretty well, actually,” Little told the Winnipeg Sun. “It was one of those normal games, and it changed in the blink of an eye. I was skating behind the net, and felt the puck hit me right in the ear. And I knew right away that it wasn’t good… when I first tried to get up I just felt really off-balance and saw the blood right away, so I knew something bad had happened.”
Little hasn’t played a game since then and he likely won’t ever play again. When I asked his agent, Paul Capizzano, if he anticipated Little conducting any media interviews this season, his answer was quick: “No.”
I think Little intends to lay low. Hopefully, any residual effects of the injury will pass and he will have a high quality of life after his contract expires.
7. What are the roster battles?
If you look at the forward group, there appear to be nine roster spots locked up with Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz, Lawson Crouse, Barrett Hayton, Christian Fischer, Nick Ritchie, Nick Bjugstad, Zack Kassian and Travis Boyd. Liam O’Brien, who just signed a two-year extension in March, would make 10, and if Ladd decides to play, that’s 11.
It’s unlikely that the Coyotes will keep more than 13 forwards on the NHL roster. That means that the likes of Alex Chiasson (PTO), Jack McBain, Nathan Smith, Michael Carcone, Laurent Dauphin, Matias Maccelli, Jan Jeník, Miloš Kelemen and Ben McCartney could be fighting for three or four roster spots.
On defense, Shayne Gostisbehere, Conor Timmins, Jakob Chychrun, JJ Moser and Troy Stecher all appear to be locks. Josh Brown, Dysin Mayo, Patrick Nemeth, Cam Dineen, Victor Söderström and Vladislav Kolyachonok could be fighting for the final two spots.
8. Will coach André Tourigny name a captain this season?
No. Tourigny expects to go with a leadership group of players who will wear the A as alternate captains, perhaps even a rotating cast like last season.
Tourigny feels that there is enough pressure on the younger players. He doesn’t want any of them worrying about the added responsibility that the C carries. He wants them to focus on development and let the leadership mantle sort itself out over the next season or two.
“We have a lot of good veterans who left last year and that will add more pressure on our young leaders so we’ll need a group to handle all that pressure and let them settle and get better every day in that role,” Tourigny said. “Time will manage everything but right now we believe in the pieces we have, we believe in the younger leaders we have, but I don’t want to have added pressure on one of them. I think it’s up to all of them to take the bull by the horn and to lead the team.”
9. Will Dylan Guenther or any of the top prospects make the team?
Guenther may be the only one of the players drafted in the past two years (other than JJ Moser) who has a chance to make the team. The dilemma that the Coyotes must weigh is whether this environment is best for Guenther’s development. He is not ready to play top-six minutes and face the elite matchups which that role creates across the NHL. He cannot play fourth-line either because that would be a waste of his skill. If Guenther plays anywhere, it would be on the third line.
The Coyotes could always decide to give Guenther a nine-game trial before sending him back to Edmonton of the WHL without burning the first year of his entry-level contract, but if you look at the current roster, he is on the outside looking in so he will have to impress in camp.
The other truth about Guenther is that he needs to mature physically. My guess is that he will end up back in the WHL where the Coyotes hope that he can work on the other aspects of his game, beef up and build confidence. If all goes well, he could also play in the Memorial Cup; an opportunity that he missed last season due to an injury in the WHL finals.
The Coyotes are going to lose a lot this season. Why subject Guenther to that, or put him in situations where it will be difficult to succeed; situations where he might not even be in the lineup every night?
10. How will André Tourigny manage the roster with all seven preseason games on the road?
The Coyotes play seven preseason games in seven different cities over 15 days. They play in Wichita, Kansas; Tucson; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Anaheim; Las Vegas, Vancouver and Boise, Idaho.
That’s a lot of travel to manage in a short period of time without wearing out a roster.
“I would like all our veteran to play at least four preseason games so we will build the roster for the rest of the players for the other games,” Tourigny said. “We have a frame, but by experience, I know that every year it changes with performance. As an example, Liam O’Brien last year was probably planned for less games than he had, but when he arrived at camp he was really good and then he earned another game and another game and finally he made the team.
“Hopefully that will happen again this year with other players, but we we want to make sure we’re careful in the first four games to not wear down any veterans. And then on the last stretch, we should be heavy on veterans which is not rocket science; that’s expected.”
Training camp roster
Forwards: Nick Bjugstad, Travis Boyd, Michael Carcone, Alex Chiasson, Adam Cracknell, Lawson Crouse, Laurent Dauphin, Jean-Sebastien Dea, Christian Fischer, Conor Geekie, Dylan Guenther, Barrett Hayton, Bokondji Imama, Jan Jeník, Zack Kassian, Miloš Kelemen, Clayton Keller, Liam Kirk, Andrew Ladd, Julian Lutz, Matias Maccelli, Jack McBain, Ben McCartney, Ryan McGregor, Liam O’Brien, Nick Ritchie, Nick Schmaltz, Nathan Smith, Colin Theisen, Reece Vitelli.
Defensemen: Josh Brown, Jakob Chychrun, Cam Crotty, Cam Dineen, Shayne Gostisbehere, Lukáš Klok, Ronald Knot, Vladislav Kolyachonok, Noah Laaouan, Jeremy Langlois, Dysin Mayo, J.J. Moser, Patrik Nemeth, Victor Söderström, Troy Stecher, Maksymilian Szuber, Conor Timmins.
Goaltenders: Christopher Gibson, Jon Gillies, Ivan Prosvetov, David Tendeck, Anson Thornton, Karel Vejmelka.