It’s been just a few days since the Arizona Coyotes’ season ended after falling just short of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Boasting the league’s second-longest playoff drought, the team was eliminated from playoff contention April 4 during their penultimate game of the regular season.
The Colorado Avalanche grabbed the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, finishing four points ahead of the Coyotes.
Coyotes General Manager John Chayka described the mood as “bittersweet” having fallen just short of the playoffs but was also proud of the team for overcoming adversity all season.
“I’m proud of the guys. The season they had, the progress they made, these guys worked hard every single night and they really established an identity and a culture,” Chayka said. “This was the first year that felt like there was a real team environment and everyone was pulled in the same direction. That’s the start of something you can build a foundation off of.”
The margins in the National Hockey League are razor thin and that’s the source of disappointment for Chayka.
“If you get your four points, you have a chance to play for the Stanley Cup and that’s what really getting into the playoffs mean. That’s why we do the work and why these guys work hard all summer to prepare for the season and get a chance,” Chayka said. “There’s been eight seeds that have won before. I think this team would have been a good playoff team had they been able to get in, but that’s just the next step for us.”
The Coyotes battled injuries all season, finishing third in the NHL in man games lost to injury and leading the NHL in points lost in the standings due to injuries, according to mangameslost.com.
With all the injuries, the Coyotes struggled to score goals, finishing tied for third worst, averaging 2.55 goals per game despite finishing tied for fifth in goals allowed per game (2.68 goals) and tied for the best penalty kill at 85 percent.
Chayka believes an increase in scoring is the next step the Coyotes need to take to get over the hump.
“We need to score more goals. Any time someone’s going through and trying to diagnose what you need to do to take the next step, that’s not the complicated part,” Chayka said. “What we need to really understand and work through is how do we score more goals? How do we create more offense while maintaining that fundamental foundation with being a good, stingy defensive team?”
Chayka will look at external options but believes there’s potential within the current group for growth who can perform better offensively.
Arizona finished the season as the only team in the league to not have a 20-goal scorer, as Alex Galchenyuk and Brad Richardson finished with a team-high 19 goals. Center Derek Stepan, who finished the season playing on a torn MCL, is disappointed that they missed the playoffs but was proud of the team’s work ethic.
“This group came in and worked hard every single day. That’s something you can hang your hat on. I think it’s a real silver lining,” Stepan said. “The energy this group brought, the work ethic, how we played as a team … each time we won, it was a team win. We were getting production from pretty much every guy.
“I believe if you miss the playoffs, it’s a disappointing year and I firmly still feel that way. This group feels that way. We’re disappointed we weren’t able to get in. We have to keep building.”
A big reason for the Coyotes staying in the playoff hunt was the play of goalie Darcy Kuemper.
Kuemper was unhappy with his game and sat down with Tocchet and goaltending coach Corey Schwab to discuss ways to improve his game.
After that meeting, Kuemper was among the best goalies in the league. Since January 1, Kuemper sported a goals against average of 2.05.
After making a career-high 55 starts, including a run of 21 consecutive starts, Kuemper was ready to reflect on his season.
“It’s definitely something to build off of. It was a lot of fun getting out there and playing consistently,” Kuemper said. “It’s a lot more fun than sitting on the bench, so I just want to keep building off of it and keep improving. As well as the season might have went, we still came up just a little bit short, so I think we all have to have big summers and push each other to get over the hump.”
Head coach Rick Tocchet said there was a feeling of dejection among the team for missing the playoffs but he believes the team is moving in the right direction.
“For me, it was another level that we brought ourselves to. We squeezed a lot from some players and that’s the one thing I’m proud of. Overall, the team bought in what we were preaching which is another positive,” Tocchet said. “We have a lot of pushing to do this summer, but overall I’m really proud of the players. I’ve got to really give them a lot of credit. They really showed me a lot and I’m proud of them and I’m more excited than ever to come back next year.”