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Addition of Kessel has Coyotes eyeing the playoffs

September 23, 2019
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Arizona Coyotes center Nick Schmaltz (8) scores a goal against Anaheim Ducks goaltender Kevin Boyle, right, during the shootout in a preseason NHL hockey game Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. The Coyotes won 4-3. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
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Arizona Coyotes center Nick Schmaltz (8) scores a goal against Anaheim Ducks goaltender Kevin Boyle, right, during the shootout in a preseason NHL hockey game Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. The Coyotes won 4-3. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The Arizona Coyotes have for years sought someone who could boost their biggest weakness, scoring.

Numerous players have arrived in the desert expecting to fill that void and, though some have had moderate success, the Coyotes never could find a true difference-maker.

Phil Kessel could be that player.

The Coyotes made one of the biggest splashes of the offseason by trading for Kessel, hoping the productive winger could be the answer to their long-running scoring woes and get them back into the playoffs.

“Phil’s a guy that’s been playing the big games and he’s played on the big stage,” Coyotes general manager John Chayka said. “A big part of us acquiring him was knowing we’re getting that guy and those big moments. He’s had a lot of success. We’re trying to embrace those expectations and some of that buzz.”

The Coyotes made a late playoff push last season, finishing four points out of the last spot in the Western Conference despite a string of injuries.

With the addition of Kessel, two seasoned goalies and a talented mix of veteran and young players, the expectations in the desert are the franchise’s first postseason since reaching the 2012 Western Conference Finals.

“We want to take the next step,” captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson said. “Yeah, we had a pretty good year last year. But I think we all know that we need to be better and take the next step. How do we do that? It’s hard work.”

Arizona appears to have the pieces in place.

The Coyotes signed productive young forward Clayton Keller to an eight-year contract extension this offseason, locking up the 21-year-old through the 2027-28 season.

Ekman-Larsson is still one of the NHL’s best offensive defensemen, Brad Richardson tied for the scoring lead with 19 goals in his 14th season and crafty Nick Schmaltz, acquired last season in a trade with Chicago, is healthy.

The Coyotes also have a nice problem in trying to decide between two quality goalies.

Antti Raanta suffered his second straight season-ending injury last season, but Darcy Kuemper was good in his place, finishing with a 2.33 goals-against average and 27 wins. No matter who’s in goal, Arizona should have a chance to win every night.

The Coyotes also will be playing their third season under coach Rick Tocchet, so they know his system and what to expect.

“I feel like we have a group that has something to prove,” Chayka said. “Guys have some chips on their shoulders.”

WHO’S HERE: RW Phil Kessel, C Carl Soderberg.

WHO’S NOT: C Alex Galchenyuk, D Kevin Connauton, C Nick Cousins, RW Richard Panik.

KEY PLAYERS: Kessel has scored at least 30 goals six times during his 13-year NHL career and had 27 goals with 55 assists in Pittsburgh last season. He should give the Coyotes a scoring boost and another veteran presence with two Stanley Cup titles under his belt. Keller was a finalist for the Calder Trophy as a rookie and suffered a sophomore slump of sorts last season, but still led the team with 47 points. The Coyotes also are expecting a big contribution from Nick Schmaltz, who had 14 points in 17 games last season with Arizona before suffering a season-ending injury.

OUTLOOK: The Coyotes have been one of the NHL’s best defensive teams since Dave Tippett’s tenure as coach and now may have the scoring to go with it. Kessel provides an immediate scoring jolt and Arizona has multiple players who can put the puck in the net. Keller, Ekman-Larsson, Vinnie Hinostroza, Derek Stepan and Brad Richardson all scored at least 14 goals last season. Arizona will have to figure out a rotation between Raanta and Kuemper, but will have a quality goalie in net every night regardless of who’s between the pipes.

PREDICTION: The Coyotes overcame a slew of injuries last season to finish 39-35-8, their best record since 2012. They ended up with 86 points, four behind Colorado for the final Western Conference playoff spot. Barring another bad-luck year with injuries, Arizona should again make a postseason push this season.

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