As we currently approach the end of the 2020-21 NHL season and prepare for the start of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Arizona Coyotes will be watching from home this year. After finishing with a mark of 24-26-6 for 54 points, they will not be making a return to the playoffs for a second straight season.
What started as a positive beginning to the season, filled with things like a thrilling seven-game series against the St. Louis Blues and two impressive back-to-back comebacks against the Anaheim Ducks, quickly turned and went downhill. Injuries to Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper left the team to turn to taxi squad goalie Adin Hill to carry the workload, and mostly invisible leadership from captain Oliver-Ekman Larsson led to the team falling short and facing a crucial offseason.
What Went Wrong?
The two biggest areas the Coyotes lack is scoring and defending. In 56 games this season, the team averaged 2.68 goals per game, which saw them fall behind early in games and never catch back up. The team also struggled heavily on the defensive side of the puck, averaging 3.11 goals against per game. Both of these areas are of concern if the team wants to compete next season when they join the Central Division.
Another area the team was plagued by this season was staying healthy. Goalies Raanta and Kuemper couldn’t avoid the injury bug this season, and both spent time on injured reserve (IR). Forward Tyler Pitlick also couldn’t stay off IR, only playing 38 games this season. Niklas Hjalmarsson also missed some time this season with an injury.
Leadership was also a concern this season. It was no secret that, at times, captain Ekman-Larsson failed to look like an effective leader. Players like Lawson Crouse, Christian Fischer, or John Hayden seemed to be stepping forward when their teammates were on the receiving end of a bad hit. Head coach Rick Tocchet’s leadership was questionable at times and has since led to him and the team mutually agreeing to part ways.
What Went Right?
Despite the team having plenty of areas of concern and many questions to face this offseason, there were some bright spots this season. Hill proved this season that he’s ready to take over the Coyotes crease if the team does not wish to bring back Kuemper or Raanta.
Defensemen Jakob Chychrun showcased why he’s one of the top upcoming defensemen in the league and is only going to get better, leading all defensemen this season in scoring with 18 goals, all the while solidifying his spot as a Norris Trophy candidate. Phil Kessel had himself a bounce-back season after a poor, injury-prone 2019-20 season, scoring 20 goals and adding 23 assists.
The Coyotes also have the benefit of the doubt, knowing that the future looks bright. Rookies Michael Bunting, Victor Söderström, and Jan Jeník all showcased their potential this season. Bunting racked up 10 goals in 21 games while playing top lines minutes, showing his grittiness and ability to play in front of the net. Rookie defenseman Söderström and forward Jeník both showcased their skill and potential in just six games combined, with each scoring their first career NHL goals on May 7 against the San Jose Sharks.
With the Coyotes officially eliminated from playoff contention, attention now turns to the offseason and who will be traded, signed, or let go. The team needs to fill in the necessary pieces if they want to be competitive next season. The search for a new head coach that can hopefully turn the team around is underway. Fans will have to accept that guys like Kuemper and Ekman-Larsson might be moved this offseason. Hjalmarsson also might look at going back home to Sweden, per reports.
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Things have to change, though, for the team that is trying to avoid another rebuild. The offense, for example, was sub-par at best. The Coyotes are going to have to look at adding a big-name guy who can put the puck in the net more often if they want to be able to hang in games against the big teams like the Colorado Avalanche. The defense also was sloppy near the end of the season, which saw the team go 8-12-1 in the final two months.
General manager Bill Armstrong has moves and decisions to make this offseason. He decided to remain quiet at the deadline, citing that the team deserved to finish the season out together after a string of good play, a decision that backfired in his face. Guys like Alex Goligoski and Conor Garland will be looking for contract extensions this offseason, while Armstrong will have to decide who he’s going to protect in the expansion draft.
One thing is for certain, though. The Coyotes right now are not a competitive enough team to fight for a playoff spot next season in the Central Division with the likes of Colorado, Winnipeg, Nashville, St. Louis, and Minnesota. Fan-favorite players might be moved this offseason, but if Arizona wants to avoid another rebuild and get serious about being a legitimate threat and potential playoff/Stanley Cup contender, moves have to be made now. The younger guys are going to get bigger roles and new faces have to be brought in. It’s going to be a crazy offseason, though, Coyotes fans, so buckle up and get ready for the ride.
Mr. Evans is originally from Greenville, SC but currently resides in Charleston, SC. Mr. Evans has been involved in hockey for the past 16 years now, following the Arizona Coyotes and St. Louis Blues. During his free time, Mr. Evans enjoys spending time with his family and girlfriend as well as being up in the mountains or taking pictures. Prior to joining The Hockey Writers, Mr. Evans has been covering the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays for The Puck Authority during the current hockey season. You can find Mr. Evans on Twitter at @HaynesPEvans.