The Arizona Coyotes are improving.
Sure, the team isn’t going to compete for a playoff spot. This level of excitement in desert is actually still years away. Even so, it’s easy to see why the Coyotes seem to be leaps-and-bounds ahead of their cellar-dwelling counterparts, as their 5-2 win on Monday over the Montreal Canadiens illustrated.
Related: Arizona Coyotes Name André Tourigny Head Coach
Karel Vejmelka (25-year-old rookie goalie) is a major contributor to this. His SV% of.910 has been unmatched. The Coyotes were still in gamesThis season. His first career shutout, a 46-save gem over the Winnipeg Jets on Nov. 29, is a prime example of that, and “Veggie” has quickly earned his way into Arizona hockey lore.
There are other factors that play a role and the team appears more at ease over its last 10 matches than it did all season. The difference starts at the very top: Head coach André Tourigny and his coaching staff.
Players Settling in to Tourigny’s Style of Play
The Coyotes aren’t the fastest team, but they lead the league with an average 12.6 penalty minutes per games. Even so, the team’s outlet passes seem crisper, their communication seems stronger, and that’s added up to consistent performance lately. Only 14 goals were scored in Arizona’s first 11 games this season. The Yotes now have 12 goals from their last four games. That includes a 5-0 loss at Colorado Avalanche.
The most important difference? You need to look no further than Tourigny and his assistant coaches Phil Housley and Cory Stillman’s system since their arrival and the way the team is responding.
“It took a bit at the start to get used to the new systems, and stuff like that, but I think the last 20 games or so you can really see our team starting to play better and settle into our system better,” forward Nick Schmaltz said after the team’s win over the Canadiens earlier this week. “Sometimes, with a new coach, you’re thinking ‘Oh my god, am I in the right place,’ or whatever, but I think once we stopped thinking and started playing, you can see we’re playing a lot better.”
Schmaltz is an example of this. This 25-year-old did not perform to his expectations, scoring only 10 points in 19 games. Before missing nearly two years with an upper body injury, he only had one point. But, things have been improving and he now has four points in his last five matches.
The club is now 38 games in, and the team has clearly bought into the system. They are also continuing to grow as a group, both on and off the ice. It is important to remember that the majority of the roster was recruited from outside the league this offseason. This club finally seems like it is forming a cohesive unit on the ice, much like the bond it shares off it.
Duhamel quickly deflected any credit from the coaching staff and instead focused on the team.
“We won’t take the credit — it’s more the players, themselves, with the great leadership,” he said. “They’re never satisfied, obviously they are all proud, and they want to be better.”
Clayton Keller, the forward, has been a true leader this season, particularly in its recent 5-3-2 stretch. Clayton Keller, 23, leads the team in goals (14) as well as points (30) and has scored 13 points in 11 of his previous games.
The front office has taken note, as general manager Bill Armstrong recently indicated that Keller is almost certainly going to be part of the team’s long-term future. (From: Neutral Zone: GM Bill Armstrong says Clayton Keller is key piece in Coyotes’ future, gophnx.com, Jan. 16, 2022).
You’d better believe teammates have taken notice of Keller’s All-Star exampleThey will, even if it means he gets a little bit of razzing.
“He had a little bit of a slow start, like the team, and then he leads the play, he carries on, he goes in the corner, he wins his battles, even though he’s only just five — well I don’t even know how tall he is — but he’s pretty small,” forward Antoine Roussel said. ” [He] shows up every game, and that’s the kind of commitment we want from this team.
“When you see guys doing that every night, it just gets to the next guy, and to the next guy, and so on, and all of a sudden you have 20 guys working in the same direction.”
The Coyotes Can’t Hear Any Outside Noise
Monday’s win against Montreal was understandably referred to as the lottery bowl, among other names, indicating the matchup between the NHL’s two worst teams could have implications in the upcoming 2022 NHL Entry Draft lottery. That’s certainly true, but frankly, the Coyotes don’t care to hear that opinion.
There’s a long-term goal at stake, after all.
“Obviously we’re both (including Montreal) not in the position we want to be in as teams, but we still want to bring it every night, and you know, set the bar high and make sure we’re not taking any nights off just because of our positioning,” Schmaltz said. “It may not be this year that we’re successful in the standings, but you want to play the right way every night, and keep building that as an organization.”
As Keller has shown, that’s exactly what the team is doing, and it’s starting to show up a bit more in the box score. Good thing, too, because other teams around the league have taken notice, even if the wins aren’t coming at a blistering pace.
“We want to be proud of ourselves every day, and that’s something that we control,” Duhamel said. “People that travel around us say that we have a positive vibe around the team, which is very flattering, and we’re happy to hear that because whatever the situation is you are in, it’s a privilege to be here, and the team can fight.
“That’s the part we’re controlling, and we want to fight every day, and get better every day, and that positiveness brings good energy.”
Talent waiting in the wings
The team’s two-game winning streak was fun to watch, but the reality is the road will continue to be rocky over the next few seasons. Arizona fans have Dylan Guenther, who will be playing for the Coyotes next season, to look forward to. Add to that the plethora of picks Armstrong has for the 2022 entry draft, three in the first round and five in the second round — and it’s clear the foundation is being laid right before our eyes.
Coyotes fans could have lots to cheer about if they continue to buy in to the team in just a few more seasons.
Iowa State alumnus and diehard hockey fan. Contributor to The Hockey Writers for Arizona Coyotes and Detroit Red Wings.