The Arizona Coyotes predictably laboured during the first season of their rebuilding project, finishing near the bottom of the NHL standings.
The focus of the second year will be about making progress, no matter how incremental.
“I told the team, the odds are stacked against us,” Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong said. “The media, the league think we’re going to take a step back and that’s not the case. We’ve got to take a step forward.”
Arizona overhauled its roster in coach André Tourigny’s first season, trading away most of its top players and all three goalies to stockpile future draft picks.
The Coyotes laboured on the ice, finishing with 57 points, second-worst in the NHL to Montreal’s 55.
Arizona made no significant additions to its roster this year, adding a few veterans who can add grit and experience to a young lineup.
The core of last year’s team is back, led by forwards Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz and Christian Fischer, defensemen Jakob Chychrun and Shayne Gostibehere, and goalie Karel Vejmelka.
None of the Coyotes’ three first-round draft picks will be ready to contribute right away, so it will be up to those core players to keep the Coyotes competitive.
It won’t be easy.
Because they’re sharing the new Mullett Arena with Arizona State’s hockey team, the Coyotes won’t play their first home game until Oct. 28 and 20 of their first 24 games are on the road
“If you look at the big picture, that will be a challenge,” Tourigny said. “The only thing you can control is today, and it’s always the way I approach it.”
The Coyotes were forced to search for a new home when the city of Glendale opted to not renew the annual lease for Gila River Arena, where they had played since 2003.
They found a temporary fix in what will be the league’s most unique home environment.
The Coyotes reached a deal to play the next three seasons at Arizona State’s Mullett Arena, which has a 5,000-seat capacity — by far the smallest in in the NHL.
“I think it’s going to be a great atmosphere,” Keller said. “Obviously, smaller building, but hopefully the fans are really engaged and, you know, it’s like a new chapter of hockey in Arizona.
Chychrun will be back for his seventh season manning the blue line in the desert.
It may not last long.
The Coyotes approached the 24-year-old about a possible trade to a playoff contender while the franchise goes through its rebuild.
After deliberating with his family, Chychrun decided to take the team up on its offer.
“It’s kind of a mutual position for me to get moved on to a situation with a chance to win and a team that’s fighting for the Stanley Cup and for them here to be able to get assets,” he said. “I understand how rebuilds work. I think it could be mutually beneficial.”
Chychrun has been one of Arizona’s anchors, a top-line defenseman who has become a leader in the locker room. He was not ready for the start of training camp while recovering from off-season wrist and ankle surgeries.
Keller is coming off the best of his six NHL seasons.
The 5-foot-10, 178-pound forward had a career-high 28 goals and added 35 assists last season before breaking his leg late in the season.
Keller has been cleared medically, but the team is being cautious with his return and he’s expecting to play in the season opener Oct. 13 at Pittsburgh.
“That’s been everything I’ve been working for this entire summer is to get back for that game, and I’ll be ready for it and treat it like any other game and have fun,” he said.
Vejmelka will start his second season as Arizona’s No. 1 goalie and may have an even heavier workload as the goalies in the team’s pipeline gain more experience.
The 26-year-old had some good moments last season despite an occasionally shaky defence in front of him, finishing second among NHL rookies with 52 games and 49 starts. He finished 13-32 with a 3.68 goals-against average.