March 22, 2018
General manager John Chayka's take on the Arizona Coyotes' late-season surge is that it is sustainable energy.
"What we see is a group that has beliefs, and real hope for what we can accomplish here," Chayka told USA TODAY Sports.
The upgraded optimism in Arizona stems from an 11-3-2 run over the past five weeks, which represents the team's best 16-game run in five years. In that period, the 23-35-11 Coyotes have posted three shutouts and given up two or fewer goals eight times.
The Nashville Predators, who visit on Thursday, are the only Western Conference team with more points during the last month.
The Coyotes don't believe this is a case of wait-until-next-year promise arriving several months early. They see this run of success as what they could have done at the beginning of the season had they not been beset by a myriad of problems. They haven't just become a hot team. They are finding their game.
"We had to suffer a bit in order to prosper," Chayka said.
The disappointing season, which started with a 0-10-1 record and has them as the 30th-ranked team, can be attributed to several factors. Adjusting to new coach Rick Tocchet. New veterans adapting to a new team. Younger players learning the NHL game. Starting goalie Antti Raanta suffering an injury. Key young defenseman Jakob Chychrun recovering from surgery.
Since New Year's, the Coyotes are 14-8-6.
"We have an extremely young group and there was a lot of learning that was going on at the start of the season," Coyotes center Derek Stepan said. "We didn't understand how detailed and structured you have to be and what it takes to win."
Rookie Clayton Keller, 19, is a key figure in the late-season surge, posting five goals and nine assists in the past 16 games. He's +12 during that stretch, an indication of how much tighter defensively the team has been. Overall, he has 19 goals, 50 points and a -10 rating.
Chayka said Tocchet has learned to expect late-night texts from Keller with videos and thoughts about what he needs to do to have a greater impact. It's clear that his development is crucial to the team's future success.
"He's been real strong for us," Stepan said. "He's got some real elite talent."
Stepan also has two goals and 12 points during the last 16 games. Christian Dvorak, 22, has five goals in his past 11 games.
Stronger goaltending has aided the Coyotes down the stretch, although Raanta is injured again. Chayka acquired goalie Darcy Kuemper, 27, from the Los Angeles Kings before the trade deadline because he wanted to improve the team's depth. Chayka sees Kuemper as another potential Devan Dubnyk, a goalie who reaches his potential after receiving the right opportunity with a new team. Kuemper had a 27-save shutout in his last outing. But he will be tested Thursday night when the Nashvile Predators come to town.
"We are playing with a lot more confidence," Stepan said.
Stepan said this stronger play definitely was born out of the team's early struggles.
"There was a huge adjustment," Stepan said. "Not only did we have a new coach to adjust to, regarding what he wants, and his lingo, and his system, but we also had new assistant coaches and a lot of new faces and a lot of young guys. And now what's showing now is that we are learning from the bumps we took."
Chayka had added veterans Stepan, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jason Demers last summer with the hope they could help the younger players, but their own adjustment wasn't seamless.
"Our guys have come together," Chayka said. "Our young guys have learned what it takes to win, and our veterans have stabilized the room. All of those things took time."
COURTESY: Kevin Allen - USA Today