Up until the past seven games, the Coyotes had exceeded most external expectations. They were as close to a playoff spot as they were to the NHL basement. Their middle core was showing further signs of progress. Goaltender Karel Vejmelka was among the league leaders in goals saved above expected. They were beating elite teams and they were winning with shocking regularity at Mullett Arena.
The chances of landing Connor Bedard at the 2023 NHL Draft — or even Adam Fantilli or Leo Carlsson — seemed remote.
When the Coyotes hit the midpoint of the 2022-23 season in their 41st game, a 5-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators in Tempe on Thursday, the view was more of an expected one. Arizona had lost an NHL-high seven straight games in regulation, it was 29th in the NHL standings in both points and points percentage, and the roster-altering March 3 trade deadline was coming into focus.
That doesn’t mean that this season has been a continuation of what we saw last season. Both coaches and players have been emphatic about the growth that this team has experienced.
“It’s tough to say because we’re in this slump right now and obviously that plays with your emotions,” forward Christian Fischer said. “From last year to this year, it’s night and day as a team and staying in games. We have a chance to win. I know it’s clichéd to say, but I don’t know if that might have been the case last year.
“I don’t care what our outlook is as a team or what the outside noise is. I know that every guy in this room thinks that we could have won every game, even the ones that we’re losing recently. There’s belief in here. We care.”
You could make the argument that this season’s team has faced far more challenges than the 2021-22 team. The Coyotes lost their home arena when their relationship with the City of Glendale ended. They were the butt of jokes when they announced that they would be playing in a 5,000-seat college arena. Their practice set-up at the Ice Den Scottsdale forces players and staff to shuttle between two buildings. GM Bill Armstrong assembled a roster that many analysts labeled as one of the worst of the salary-cap era, and the Coyotes had to play 20 of their first 24 games on the road when the annex that houses the team spaces at Mullett Arena was not ready until early December.
“We had challenges, we had distractions, we had a negative vibe around the team and we turned it around to be a positive vibe when we arrived here in Mullett,” coach André Tourigny said. “I think the players showed a lot of character.”
There isn’t much time to dissect the Coyotes at the halfway mark of the season. Their schedule — we’ll get to that below — doesn’t permit it. So here are 10 takeaways from the Coyotes as they make the turn for the back 41.
1. The Armstrong mold
It’s no secret that Bill Armstrong likes size and heft on his teams. The 2022-23 Coyotes are proof. Sixteen players on the current roster stand 6-1 or taller and 13 of them top 200 pounds.
You can bet that size will continue to matter in the players that the Coyotes draft or sign, particularly on the blue line, but it’s not just size that Armstrong wants to define his teams; it’s the style of play.
“When we’re playing the right way we are really hard to play against,” center Travis Boyd said. “We work really hard every night. I think that’s one of our strongest qualities as a team.
“On most nights, we do a really good job defending and that kind of goes with being hard to play against. When we bring our energy level or we bring our work ethic, we’re a really resilient team, really hard to play against, because we’re usually in your face all night.”
One player who embodies that style is defenseman Josh Brown. Once viewed as a cast-off, Brown has cemented a regular role in the Coyotes’ lineup.
“I knew I had more to offer,” he said. “This summer, I knew I didn’t want to come in and just be an extra guy. I wanted to try and fight for that five, six spot and it has really just worked out so far with the team.
“I’m a defensive, physical D-man. I like to kill penalties and stick up for my teammates. When the time comes, I can bring that physical role and a bit of an edge to my game. I think I can make some better plays with the puck so there’s always things to work on, but as far as bringing an edge and trying to be physical and bring an in-your-face kind of style, I think so far, it’s been pretty good.”
2. Road kill
Your view of the Coyotes’ road struggles probably depends on your goals for the season. If you’re an always-win fan, you are frustrated. If you’re in tank mode, you are content to let it ride.
The Coyotes’ 6-17-3 road record is the fourth worst in the NHL, but most of those six wins came early in the season. Arizona has lost eight straight road games in regulation, 12 straight road games overall (0-10-2) and 16 of its past 17 (1-13-3).
The good news for the Coyotes? When they hit the All-Star break on Jan. 28, they will only have 11 road games left over the final three months of the season.
3. Jakob Chychrun has taken another step
Steve Peters and I detailed on Thursday how the Coyotes’ defenseman has recaptured the form that made him a Norris Trophy candidate in 2020-21. Talk to Chychrun and he’ll tell you that he has taken a step past that season when he led all NHL defensemen in goals with 18 in 56 games (a 26-goal, 60-point pace).
“I’m in really good shape and I feel like I’m just gonna keep getting better as my body just gets more acclimated,” he said. “I think I’m better than that season two years ago. I think I have even more to offer than I did that season.”
The elephant in the room is the potential trade of a guy once considered untouchable. It could happen by the March 3 trade deadline. It could happen at the NHL Draft in Nashville. It may not happen at all if GM Bill Armstrong doesn’t get his asking price because Chychrun is under contract for two more seasons.
Whatever happens, I don’t get the sense that either side is in a hurry to force a deal now. Armstrong has praised Chychrun’s professionalism and play all season. So has Coyotes coach André Tourigny.
For his part, Chychrun is having fun playing hockey again after a forgettable 2021-22 season. He doesn’t seem like he’s in a hurry to force anybody’s hand.
“Last year was just a frustrating year,” he said. “I didn’t do too much reflecting on that. I just wanted to move forward and have a fresh start and I think it’s been a really good start to the year for me personally and we’ve been playing really good hockey other than this stretch of the last few games.”
4. Vej hits a rough patch
Karel Vejmelka’s Superman cape looks a bit tattered. For a good stretch of the season, the Coyotes’ starting goalie was among the top five in goals saved above expected, one of the best indicators of a goalie’s performance outside of the team in front of him.
In January, he is 0-5 with a 4.53 goals against average and a .876 save percentage.
The Coyotes had hoped that Connor Ingram might help shoulder some of the load as Scott Wedgewood did last season, but his stats (3.92 GAA, .886 SP, minus-4.3) are among the worst in the NHL. As a result, Vejmelka is fourth in time on ice (1,848:14), tied for sixth in games (31) and starts (30).
It may just be a bad patch for Vejmelka, but it’s no coincidence that his slide is running parallel with the team’s slide. He was the biggest reason for their better-than-average results through December.
Other than a pair of upcoming back-to-back sets, he may not get much rest before the All-Star break when the Coyotes hit the 50-game mark of the season.
5. Clayton Keller’s point-per-game pursuit
Given the way that the All-Star rosters are constructed with a forward-heavy approach, you had a feeling that Clayton Keller would be playing in his third NHL midseason event. It’s not like he hasn’t earned it.
At the 41-game mark, Keller is second on the team in goals (14) and leads the team in points (37). Keller has picked up right where he left off last season when he had 63 points in 67 games before a gruesome leg injury ended his season.
It’s all the more impressive that Keller has been able to maintain this pace, given the fact that he had to rehab most of the summer and lost out on valuable training time.
There are still areas of his defensive game that need polishing and, like the team, he has been in a bit of a slump in January (he has no points in four of the seven games this month, including Thursday when he received a game misconduct midway through the first period), but Keller has silenced one line of critique. His contract was once viewed as an albatross on this team. Nobody is saying that anymore.
6. Lawson Crouse is no flash in the pan
I have noted before that the five-year, $21.5 million contract that Crouse signed this summer raised eyebrows with some national analysts. It was the classic case of data analysis without the benefit of in-person evidence.
National media don’t know what a consummate professional Crouse is. They don’t know how driven he is. They don’t know that he has a greater role and greater opportunity under coach André Tourigny. They don’t understand why he’d win a fan vote for team captain.
Crouse’s career-high 20 goals and 34 points were no fluke last season. He is on pace to eclipse both marks with 15 goals and 23 points this season. He is also aiming to become just the eighth player (11 instances) in Coyotes history to reach the 30-goal mark.
“When we talked in the summer, that 30-goal mark was my goal and I’m still sticking to that; I believe in it,” he said. “I think that’s probably been the biggest thing for me is just that mental belief that if you put your mind to something you can accomplish it and that thinking eventually leads to confidence with the puck.
“Obviously, scoring and getting assists helps out a lot with your confidence, but confidence isn’t always easy to come by. Mentally, you have to do whatever you can to at least believe in yourself to give you a little bit of a head start.”
Crouse had been in his own slump with no points in five January games before scoring on Thursday. Losing linemate Matias Maccelli to an injury has had an impact. Maccelli had quietly worked his way into consideration for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. He probably deserves his own takeaway in this story. Without him, Crouse is trying to find other ways to contribute, including becoming more of a playmaker.
“That’s an area that I’ve been continuing to grow confidence in,” he said. “Everyone loves to score goals, but the games aren’t all about that. Obviously, you have to do other things with the puck and I’m really striving to help my teammates generate offense. I realized that’s still something that I need to continue to get better at.”
7. Coyotes trade bait update
Seven weeks remain until the NHL’s March 3 trade deadline. It’s not quite crunch time, but by the All-Star break at the end of this month, you can bet that teams will be doing an earnest assessment of their playoff potential and their roster needs.
By now, everybody knows that Chychrun and defense partner Shayne Gostisbehere are the leading candidates to be dealt for high-level assets, with players on expiring contracts such as Nick Bjugstad, Nick Ritchie and Christian Fischer all possibly getting a look, and goaltender Karel Vejmelka a dark-horse candidate. Bjugstad might even fetch a late second-round pick as a third-line center with size, excellent defensive abilities, some scoring ability and a glue-like personality in the dressing room.
Here’s another name to consider: I have received a couple calls recently from NHL folks asking about defenseman Josh Brown’s season. As noted above, Brown has brought a physical presence to the blue line and better than expected play. When the season began, he was slotted as an extra defenseman but he has earned a regular role, appearing in 37 of the team’s 41 games.
Brown is under contract through 2023-24 with a cap hit of $1.25 million. Teams are always looking for defensive depth for the war of attrition that is the postseason so it’s fair to wonder about Brown and maybe even Troy Stecher ($1.25 million cap hit), who will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
8. This ridiculous Coyotes schedule
The particulars change from season to season, but when the new schedule arrives each June, you can bet that the Coyotes have received the short end of the stick.
Former coaches Rick Tocchet and Dave Tippett used to complain about the limited off days between travel to and from the East Coast to Arizona (too often one day), among other things. Neither of them experienced what Tourigny is experiencing this season.
Aside from playing 20 of the first 24 games on the road, which the Coyotes somehow weathered, Arizona never gets to settle in for a lengthy homestand because it shares an arena with Arizona State. The Sun Devils always get scheduling priority.
The current 15-games-in-26-days gauntlet is an extreme example. The condensed schedule is difficult enough, but Arizona had to hop on a plane today to head to Minnesota and Winnipeg for two back-to-back games before returning home again for two games. It then heads back on the road to Dallas for one game, returns home for three and goes back on the road for one game in Anaheim before the All-Star break.
“It’s a tough schedule,” Tourigny said. “You know me. I don’t like excuses, but that’s a tough go. We’re flying [today] and playing back to back, crossing the [Canadian] border and all of that. It won’t get any easier.”
I have written before about the need for Coyotes ownership to advocate for better schedules, but it’s hard for the Coyotes to advocate right now. The NHL has already bent over backward to allow them to play in a college arena while accommodating a very tricky set of available dates. Next season, they won’t face a stretch of 20 road dates in 24 games like they did this year because the annex is ready, but until the Coyotes move into their permanent arena, their complaints will largely fall on deaf ears.
9. Coyotes character veterans
A couple of weeks ago, I got a chuckle out of Armstrong when I posed this question: “Have you ever considered just adding some assholes in the offseason to help you lose?”
The question was posed during another win against the Maple Leafs that pushed the Coyotes to 13-16-5; 11 points ahead of the last-place Chicago Blackhawks.
Armstrong understands the importance of this season’s draft to his team’s future. He knows that the top three players are elite, even if he also believes that the players in the 4-8 range are very good. At the same time, he understands the importance of building a proper culture so that when the Coyotes emerge from this rebuild, they will play, act and think the right way.
For the second straight season, the Coyotes GM brought in the right mix of veterans to help forge that culture. Middle core players such as Lawson Crouse, Christian Fischer and Clayton Keller have taken a greater leadership role, as have holdovers Shayne Gostisbehere and Travis Boyd, but incoming veterans such as Josh Brown, Troy Stecher, Patrik Nemeth and universally liked Nick Bjugstad have created a bond in the dressing room that is not hyperbole.
“I’ve always wanted to be a good teammate and be genuine around the locker room and have a good time and smile,” Bjugstad said. “The season can get long. You have to find ways to grow with your teammates. Obviously, there’s hard conversations to be had, but I’m kind of the guy in the room that tries to keep it light.”
As a media member, you can’t always be in the dressing room, but the sense is that the Coyotes genuinely like each other, and that they are genuinely having fun.
10. Coyotes tank back on track
Two weeks ago, the Coyotes had climbed to 27th in the NHL standings in points and points percentage. They were 11 points ahead of the last place Chicago Blackhawks, nine ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets and seven ahead of the Anaheim Ducks.
It looked like all that offseason maneuvering would be for naught — that the Coyotes would pick somewhere in the 4-8 range of the 2023 NHL Draft and miss the chance to draft Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli or Leo Carlsson.
At the midpoint, the Coyotes are now just five points ahead of the Blackhawks and Blue Jackets, and just three ahead of the Ducks.
While the San José Sharks, Montréal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks are also in the mix, the Coyotes are in a much better position than they were when my old colleague and friend Mark Lazerus tweeted this take for which I will now chirp him.
I wouldn't sweat the tank implications of this game. Honestly, Arizona isn't even in Chicago's league (largely because of Vejmelka). I really can't see a scenario in which the Blackhawks don't finish last. Not with 21 games post-deadline. They've won twice since Nov. 14. Twice!— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) January 7, 2023
The Blackhawks have won three straight games without Patrick Kane and the Coyotes have a murderous schedule leading up to the All-Star break. You never can predict what will happen in this crazy league. So if you’re in the tank crowd, keep hope alive and keep running those simulations on tankathon.com.
Top photo of the Coyotes via Getty Images: Jack McBain celebrates a goal against Toronto.
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