NEW YORK — The Coyotes weren’t far away from having a great road trip. They won their first three games, they were tied with the red-hot New Jersey Devils halfway through a game on Saturday, and on the back end of a back-to-back, they outshot the New York Rangers 17-3 in the first period at Madison Square Garden.
They just couldn’t solve goalie Igor Shesterkin and the Rangers eventually found their legs after a pair of Coyotes turnovers to record a 4-1 win on Sunday. That left the Coyotes at a good 3-2 on this now completed five-game segment of their NHL-record tying 14-game trip.
“I think we got much better,” coach André Tourigny said of the trip. “Look at our play at 5 on 5. When we started the season, we were a team that was giving up 45 shots a night. Now we’re a team that is way more stingy. We were a team that had a tough time to put 20 on net on the other side early in the season. Now we hit 30 or are around 30. We have more volume and more O-zone possession. We’re getting better as a team.”
Winning is not the plan, of course. The Coyotes are supposed to be tanking for generational talent Connor Bedard, or at least the two consolation prizes right after him in the 2023 NHL Draft: Adam Fantilli and Matvei Michkov. But the players and coaches aren’t really interested in management’s and ownership’s plan. They are not paid to tank and they are tired of the narratives that have dogged this franchise the past two seasons.
“We’ve heard stuff going back to last year,” forward Travis Boyd said after a win against the Islanders at UBS Arena on Thursday. “But that doesn’t really affect our group. Whether you want to call it a rebuild, whether you want to call it whatever, we want to win every game still and when we play the right way we can do that and I think that’s what you’re seeing right now. You’re seeing a team that’s willing to go to battle for each other; willing to go play the right way for 60 minutes. Some people might be shocked by it but we’ve got a lot of belief and we’ve got a lot of pride in our room.”
Boyd admitted that the team also has a chip on its shoulder due to all of the outside criticism and perceptions.
“Maybe that’s helping us thrive a little bit, too,” he said. “Outside noise is one thing but inside our locker room we believe in our group.”
Tourigny isn’t sure if the shade that others throw at the Coyotes is a motivating factor, but he likes his team’s approach.
“What I like is the outside noise is not a distraction,” he said. “People will say whatever they want. I was outside of this market for the first 25 years of the organization or so and I know what people were saying. Now I’m in it and I’m not even listening to it. They don’t know. There’s stuff that’s circulating that’s not even true so for me, it’s not important.
“What’s important is what’s going on inside our organization, inside our team, inside our dressing room. I know how much the guys care and how much pride they have to play for the organization. As long as we’re bleeding Yotes, that’s what’s important.”
The Coyotes returned to the Valley after Sunday’s game and will get two days at home before heading to Las Vegas to resume this trip. Here are five takeaways from this portion of the trip.
Clayton Keller’s pace
Given Clayton Keller’s current points pace, it’s easy to forget that he is coming off a completely broken femur suffered March 30 against San Jose. That’s less than eight months ago.
“I knew it would take some time to really feel good,” Keller said. “I had training camp but I didn’t have reps in the [preseason] games and it’s tough; a long time off and jumping right back into it, playing a lot of minutes. I think it’s just only gotten better every game, just conditioning and playing at the same time. Every game just seems to get better and I get my timing and my pace back.”
Entering a game on Sunday against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, Keller had 16 points in 14 games, which was tied for 35th in the NHL. He has points in all three games while playing without his usual running mate, Nick Schmaltz, but it wasn’t until recently that he has looked more dynamic and has started to attack the net like he did last season when he posted a career-high 28 goals and 63 points in 67 games. That more aggressive style was evident on a power-play goal that he scored on Saturday against the Devils to tie the game midway through the second period.
“I wasn’t playing great at the start, which I kind of knew was gonna happen,” he said. “I knew I would take some time just to get pace, timing, linemates, just all that added into it. But I think after I watched some video early on in the year, just kind of what made me successful last year, I think that really helped and the coaching staff did a great job with giving me days off when I needed them.”
After Sunday’s game at MSG in which he had a goal, Keller is on pace for 88 points this season. There’s a lot of time left but that would be a single-season record for the Coyotes, who have only had four players and eight instances in which a player even topped 70 points. Keith Tkachuk is the only Coyote to top 80.
“There’s always another level and I always want to produce and have the puck on my stick,” Keller said. “I’m trying to work with linemates and watching a lot of video and doing everything we can to have the puck more and be in more possession in the O-zone, give-and-gos, things like that. It’s a work in progress and I’m still trying to get better every day.”
Outdoor game in cards for Coyotes?
When the Carolina Hurricanes face the Washington Capitals in an NHL Stadium Series game at North Carolina State University’s Carter-Finley Stadium on Feb. 18, they will become the 28th of the NHL’s 32 teams to have participated in an outdoor, regular-season game.
The four teams that have not? The Columbus Blue Jackets, the Florida Panthers, the two-year-old Seattle Kraken and the Coyotes.
“The fact that the team is one of four that hasn’t played in an outdoor game has been noticed,” NHL Chief Content Officer Steve Mayer. “We want to spread the wealth. You can see the pattern. Four or five years ago, there were eight on that list so we’re checking them off.”
Mayer pushed back against the notion that the NHL has conducted too many outdoor games so the novelty and interest is wearing off.
“The beauty of these games is that, in the local market, it’s crazy,” he said. “Is the world talking about us doing a game in Carolina? No, they’re not, but are we gonna kill it in Carolina? Oh my god, we sold out in half a second. Everybody there is talking about it. It’s a big deal.
“If we went to Arizona, it would be unbelievable. People would flock to it. There’s still this huge interest within the communities. People love this stuff but that’s also why it’s good to spread these around. When we went to Nashville last year for the first outdoor game there, it was awesome.”
The two Valley venues likely in consideration for a Coyotes outdoor game if Arizona hosts are Sun Devil Stadium, which is the Valley’s most iconic stadium, and Chase Field, home of the Diamondbacks. Sun Devil Stadium makes a lot of sense, given its history and the litany of major events that it has hosted. It also makes sense because it sits in Tempe where the Coyotes want to build their new arena. The team has already fostered a relationship with Arizona State University, which has allowed them to play the next three or four seasons at brand new Mullett Arena.
Mayer didn’t set a date for when the Coyotes might host or play in an outdoor game, but he said that it’s reasonable to think that it would happen within the next five years. That would pair well with the Coyotes’ projected timeline for emerging from this rebuild. Team president and CEO Xavier Gutierrez has also floated the idea of hosting a game in Mexico; an idea that deputy commissioner Bill Daly previously said that he supports when the time is right.
Dauphin’s latest Coyotes debut
When Clayton Keller scored to tie a game against the Devils midway through the second period at Prudential Center on Saturday, there was a legitimate possibility that Laurent Dauphin’s recent call-up would amount to little more than an all-expenses-paid trip to New York State.
Dauphin wasn’t with the team in Washington for the first game of this five-game segment. He joined the Coyotes in Buffalo, but coach André Tourigny wasn’t about to alter his lines after a win in DC, and when the Coyotes also won in Buffalo, Dauphin had to wait again. Then the Coyotes beat the Islanders at UBS Arena.
“They were winning so with superstition, you don’t want to change the lineup,” Dauphin said. “I understood. It was not easy, but at the same time I kind of watched the games and prepared myself.”
Dauphin got his chance when the Devils rallied for a win and Tourigny wanted some fresh legs for the second game of a back-to-back. Dauphin logged 8:28 of ice time and won 80 percent of his faceoffs.
“He has a lot of energy and his battle level was competitive,” Tourigny said. “For sure it was not an easy situation for him. He did not play for many days and now he’s jumping in at MSG in an important game. I think he was really good.”
Dauphin’s role now is the same as it was when he first broke into the league with the Coyotes under coach Dave Tippett.
“He’s the perfect fourth-line center,” Tippett said at the time. “He plays a complete game, he’s responsible, he’s smart, he skates well and he can chip in with some offense.”
The Coyotes selected Dauphin in the second round of the 2013 NHL Draft (No. 39). He debuted with them two seasons later, playing a total of 32 games in two seasons. On June 23, 2017 (draft day), the Coyotes traded Dauphin and Connor Murphy to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Niklas Hjalmarsson. Less than a year later, Chicago traded him back to the Coyotes with Richard Paník, in exchange for Anthony Duclair and Adam Clendening.
Dauphin began the 2018–19 season as an alternate captain with the Tucson Roadrunners. He had 20 points in 34 games for the Roadrunners and made one appearance with the Coyotes on Jan. 10, 2019 against the Canucks, before the Coyotes traded him and Adam Helewka to the Nashville Predators for Emil Pettersson on Feb. 8, 2019.
“It’s a little bit weird,” he said. “I never thought I would come back a third time, but it’s new management, kind of a new team, not even the same arena anymore. But it’s fun to know the city and a couple of guys from the past; the trainers and staff so it’s new but old in a good way.”
In eight games this season in Tucson, Dauphin has eight points. His preference is, of course, to remain in the NHL, but he is the kind of veteran presence that AGM John Ferguson was looking for to stabilize the Roadrunners and start building a winning tradition in the AHL that could eventually transfer to the NHL. Dauphin understands all of that, and in some ways, he is the perfect player to bounce between leagues and perhaps sit for multiple games. He’s a veteran who knows what is expected and doesn’t need development, yet is only 27 years old and has lot of game left.
“I’m making more plays offensively and being more confident,” he said. “Having almost a full year last year with the Canadiens was nice, too, for knowing that I can play in this league. I’m bigger, physically, too.
“When I first came into the league I was trying not to make mistakes and just play good defensively, but I realized at some point you need to play both ways and make plays as well. So it’s kind of what I tried to do last year and it worked and it made me stick around.”
Chychrun, Schmaltz will return soon; Kassian won’t
GM Bill Armstrong said that defenseman Jakob Chychrun and forward Nick Schmaltz will both return to the lineup on Nov. 21 when the Coyotes open a four-game segment of this 14-game trip in Nashville.
Schmaltz sustained a rib injury in the first period of the first game of the season on Oct. 13 at Pittsburgh. He was slated to miss anywhere from six to eight weeks. This will put him slightly ahead of that timeline (5½ weeks).
Chychrun hasn’t played an NHL game since March 12 at Boston. He had offseason surgery to remove a bone spur from his ankle. He also had surgery on the same wrist on which he had a prior procedure the summer before. Recently, he had a setback in his rehab from wrist surgery but that is now behind him.
Chychrun has been the topic of rampant trade speculation but sources within and outside the organization have said that he will need to play before any team is going to fork over the type of assets that Armstrong is asking for in a trade.
When Chychrun returns, the Coyotes will have to make a roster decision with one of their defensemen if everybody else is still healthy by then. Defenseman Conor Timmins is also on a conditioning stint in Tucson. That stint could end around the same time as Chychrun’s return.
JJ Moser is the only defenseman on the roster who is waivers exempt but he isn’t going anywhere. He has been one of the team’s top two defenseman this season. Dysin Mayo and Patrik Nemeth may be the two most likely candidates for reassignment if they clear waivers (a near certainty with Nemeth, who carries a $2.5-million cap hit this season).
In other injury news, Zack Kassian (lower body) will be out until late November or early December.
Little rest for weary Coyotes
The Coyotes may be finished with this five-game segment of the trip, but much more travel lies ahead. There are nine more games on this trip, broken up into three segments.
- They will leave the Valley on Wednesday for a game Thursday in Vegas, and then return home.
- They will come again after the four-game segment (with games against the Predators, Hurricanes, Red Wings and Wild) that ends on Nov. 27 in Minnesota, before departing on Nov. 30 for a four-game segment of games against the Kings, Canucks, Flames and Oilers.
The team wasn’t due to arrive back in the Valley until about 3:30 a.m. on Monday, rendering that day off less than ideal and likely throwing off their body clocks and sleep cycles after traveling from the Eastern time zone.
“We had two days off in the last five days, Tourigny said. “We know how important it is. [Monday], we’ll have another day off. Rest is a weapon, but you need to be able to execute as well.
“Your trainer wants to have more recovery days. Your skills coach wants to have more time to work with the players. Our fitness guy wants more time to work with the players. Our coaches want more practice time. If someone knows how to do that you let me know. I will pay a lot of money to have that recipe. That’s the NHL. You have 50 things to do and you have 24 bucks so you need to figure out how to make that happen.”
Top photo via Getty Images