How the banged-up Coyotes have stayed in the playoff hunt

The Arizona Coyotes began the season with Josh Archibald, Jakob Chychrun, Christian Dvorak and Alex Galchenyuk sidelined with injuries. Then the first hiccup: Starting goalie Antti Raanta‘s lower-body ailment kept acting up. Defenseman Jason Demers would go on to miss 47 games, and winger Michael Grabner would miss 41. Even the new players Arizona acquired in trades couldn’t stay healthy: Vinnie Hinostroza missed 10 games before Nick Schmaltz injured a knee on Jan. 2, the latter player done for the season.

The situation got so bad on one night in February that the AHL team in Tucson, plucked for call-ups, could dress only 17 players.

By the time Arizona visited Chicago on Monday (without top-six center Derek Stepan, out four to six weeks with an injured knee), the Coyotes had a total of 330 man games lost, the most in the league.

“No, I’ve never seen anything like this, nothing even close to this,” Hinostroza says. “Even with other teams. Every time you see someone go down holding their knee — there’s been so many knee injuries — it’s like, not again.

“It’s insane,” says defenseman Jordan Oesterle.

“It’s actually crazy,” says captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

“This is a first for me in my hockey career, and I hope this is the last too,” says winger Christian Fischer. “It’s been wild — I don’t know how else to explain it.”

Says coach Rick Tocchet: “I’ve been involved in the NHL for 30-something years now. I’ve seen some devastating injuries, some people come from the minors and play great for a team because of injuries. I’ve seen a lot of stuff. But I’ve never seen the magnitude of this.”

And GM John Chayka: “I’ve never seen anything like it. Nothing in hockey, in sport, in life.”

Yet somehow, with 12 games remaining, the Coyotes are in the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference. Each of the dozen remaining games needs to be played with playoff intensity, and Fischer says the Coyotes are “playing desperate.” On the line, somewhat inexplicably: the team’s first postseason berth since 2012.

“We want the chance to make the playoffs and compete for the Stanley Cup,” Chayka says. “But I think our team is having fun. There’s no pressure on us. We’ve gone through a lot of injuries. We’ve come a long way to get here, and now it’s just about enjoying it and competing hard.”

So how are they doing it? Let’s begin with the coach, who, if not for Barry Trotz’s miracle work with the New York Islanders and Jon Cooper’s juggernaut Tampa Bay Lightning, would be the runaway pick for Coach of the Year. Tocchet, 54, is the longtime NHL winger in his second year behind Arizona’s bench after serving as an assistant in Pittsburgh. Tocchet also admits that two months ago “it could have gone sideways on us.”

“But every time we came in, we worried about that day,” Tocchet says. “That really helped me as a coach: just worry about today. Because when you think big picture — ‘Oh, man, we don’t have any centermen … Oh, who’s going to play center? Oh, this guy’s out … our starting goaltender is out’ — It overwhelms you as a coach. We just took it day by day. That really helped me, personally, to deal with it mentally.”

The team has a first-year captain in Ekman-Larsson. The Swedish defenseman got the “C” in September, two months after spurning what could have been a lucrative free-agent pay day to sign an eight-year extension in Arizona. Ekman-Larsson says he wanted to make sure he would still play his game, but he felt a bit overwhelmed by the added responsibilities off the ice: communicating with the coach on a day-to-day basis about schedule tweaks, practice habits, everything.

“A lot of stuff you have to think about off the ice,” Ekman-Larsson says. “Things like that you don’t appreciate when you have Shane Doan here, and now that he’s not here, you appreciate even more.”

Ekman-Larsson says he’s lucky the retired Doan is still in Arizona, and still around the rink quite a bit to pick his brain.

“I think he was a little nervous when he got the captaincy,” Tocchet says. “Because he had to figure out how to be this big captain.”

Tocchet says the two had “a couple of talks about it,” and Doan gave one piece of advice: “Just be yourself.” Tocchet says he began to see a notice in his captain by November; Ekman-Larsson seemed more comfortable in the role.

Losing Raanta (the 29-year-old has played just 12 games this season) was a blow. The Coyotes acquired him in summer 2017 to be the No. 1 goaltender, but his tenure in Arizona has been plagued by a series of unfortunate events. After having to move out of his first house due to a scorpion infestation (really), Raanta played only 47 games in his first season as a No. 1, and he had to adjust his training and eating habits midseason — and made it a point of emphasis this offseason — to prove he could carry a full season’s workload.

This season brought more setbacks, particularly on the injury front. Raanta has begun skating by himself, and Chayka says “there’s a chance” he could be back if the Coyotes make the playoffs.

“The next step is getting him back to practice,” Chayka says. “Getting his timing back, getting the reps in.”

The team has since been buoyed by backup Darcy Kuemper. After a rough eight-game stretch in November (2-4-2, .898 save percentage) the 28-year-old asked for a meeting with Tocchet. Kuemper said then, “If the team is going to win, I’m going to need to play better.” Since then, he has 18 wins in 32 games with a .920 save percentage.

As for the rest of the team? They’ve bought in to the “next man up” mentality in a big way. The Coyotes don’t have any 20-goal scorers. Their leading scorer is Clayton Keller with 44 (and he’s one of three players to suit up in every game this season).

“No one wants to be a superstar,” Hinostroza says. “Everyone knows that if we’re going to outscore teams, we need to outwork teams with our defense. It’s something, if you watch our team, we’ve really bought into the last few months.”

It seems fitting that the leading goal scorer is 34-year-old journeyman Brad Richardson, who is now at a career-high 16 goals in his 14th season. “He’s had a hell of a year,” says Fischer. “He’s a guy that doesn’t get too much credit. Where he plays in the lineup for most of his career, he’s been that shutdown fourth-liner. But we all see him in practice and the way he plays over the past three, four years, and he has a really hard shot and works hard. It’s cool to see him have success because he really doesn’t get a lot of credit, doing the dirty job, shutting down other teams’ top lines.”

It’s been a bit of awkward optics for the Coyotes after they traded away a pair of first-round picks who are thriving with their new teams: Max Domi leads the Montreal Canadiens in scoring, and Dylan Strome is nearly a point-per-game player in his 45 games with the Chicago Blackhawks. Did the Coyotes give up too soon?

“The term ‘give up’? That’s not how I would term it,” Chayka says. “I think we were looking for specific needs for our team, and specific goals we had to grow this group. Obviously Alex Galchenyuk [acquired for Domi] is a dynamic goal scorer that has been a game-breaker for us; he’s single-handedly won us some games down the stretch. [Nick] Schmaltz came in [as part of the Strome deal] and brought speed to the middle of the ice and playmaking, so we view it as a value play. Whether [Strome and Domi] do well or don’t do well doesn’t get back to our team when they’re on the ice. I like Dylan and Max, and to see them do well is a good thing.”

Chayka is focused on the group he has now, the group that, despite adversity, is ahead of schedule. He says he was active working the phones before the trade deadline, despite not making any significant moves. Because after all, thanks to timing, the team was already getting an infusion of talent with Demers, Grabner, Dvorak and Richardson all returning from injury.

“We’re long-term thinkers here,” Chayka says. “We’re trying to improve this group, and if we felt there was something that helped us at this point — with the bigger picture in mind of building a great team — we were looking to do some things. We worked extremely hard and had a lot of conversation. We got close on a number of things, but, ultimately, nothing fit. We were OK on that on the basis of … the status quo of our team is a really good team.”

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