Despite missing playoffs again, optimism abounds on Coyotes 'exit day' in Glendale

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(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)

“I think we’re going to be back in the playoffs soon,” said a comfortable and confident Oliver Ekman-Larsson Monday morning as the defenseman and his teammates cleaned out their lockers at Gila River Arena.

Returning to the postseason in 2019 seems to be the prevailing organizational expectation now after the Coyotes' failure -- for the sixth time in a row -- to earn a playoff berth.

It’s going to be a critical off-season for a team that finally could be back on the path to NHL relevance.

[SPECIAL SECTION: Coyotes hockey on]

For the players, individual summer plans vary. 

Ekman-Larsson will head home to Sweden before competing in the World Championships. Goalie Antti Raanta will return to Finland but has plans to return to Glendale in May to work with the Coyotes medical staff. Derek Stepan is embarking on a summer where, for the time in a couple of years, his wife won’t be pregnant; they’re planning a trip to Napa Valley.

For general manager John Chayka and head coach Rick Tocchet, the summer plan is simple – identify where this roster needs to improve and identify who out there is available via by trade or free agency.

“I think it’s pretty well accepted that we’re probably the most-improved team in the league,” said Chayka, who acknowledged that forward is the position that requires the most attention this off-season. “There’s a lot of reasons for optimism. I think it’s exciting and one of the most talented groups we’ve had.”

The numbers back up Chayka’s claim about improvement. After a horrendous start to the season, the Coyotes flipped the script after the flip of the calendar. The Coyotes racked up a 20-14-7 record after the first of the year.

[RELATED: Arizona Coyotes' Goalie Antti Raanta leading team surge]

“I think we made a lot of progress,” said Tocchet. “When I got here, the mandate was to get these young guys to improve. I think as an organization we did that."

[RELATED: Coyotes hire Rick Tocchet as head coach]

“The first half of the year, at times I wasn’t sure if we were going to get out of it alive,” said Stepan. “But our coaching staff did a great job coaching and our leadership group stepped up. It’s something we can build on for sure.”

Tocchet and Chayka are aware that talent upgrade will always be critical and instrumental in a team’s progression to playoff contender, but Tocchet is a firm believer in culture, and if players don’t buy in or don’t prioritize supreme physical condition, they won’t be here.

“It’s hard to be a playoff team,” said Tocchet. “What as an individual are you willing to do? Are you a culture guy? Are you a buy-in guy? Do you want to turn this culture around? I’m not trying to be negative but you have to be in the best shape of your life or there will be consequences.”

With goalie Raanta in the fold with a new three-year contract, the Coyotes turn their attention this summer to locking in all-star Ekman-Larsson to a new long-term deal. It appears both sides are willing.

[READ MORE: Coyotes sign goaltender Antti Raanta to 3-year deal]

“I would like to figure something out,” said Ekman-Larsson. “I’ve said it so many times. This is where I want to be.”

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