The Arizona Coyotes feel they're ready to be in the race to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs after falling short the past six seasons.
"That is the next step," Coyotes general manager John Chayka said. "The mindset shifts now."
It's a massive change from a season ago, when uncertainty about coaching, leadership, youth and direction hung like a dark cloud over the desert during monsoon season.
Under new coach Rick Tocchet, Arizona lost its first 11 games (0-10-1) and was 2-15-3 after 20. The Coyotes were 9-27-5 on Jan. 1 and 12-32-9 after losing to the Winnipeg Jets on Feb. 6.
"It was ugly," Tocchet said.
It got prettier, which is what's fueling the optimism now.
The Coyotes were 17-9-3 in their last 29 games, including 7-5-1 against teams that made the playoffs.
"We started to build our core and our foundation," forward Derek Stepan said.
They made enough progress to convince defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson to sign an eight-year contract extension July 1. To Chayka, that validated what the Coyotes have been doing to build themselves into a playoff contender.
"It's a huge step for our organization," Chayka said, "a huge moment."
Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson signed a two-year extension July 1, and goalie Antti Raanta earlier gave up the chance to become an unrestricted free agent by signing a three-year contract April 6.
The Coyotes acquired center Alex Galchenyuk in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens for forward Max Domi on June 15, and forward Vinnie Hinostroza and defenseman Jordan Oesterle in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks that included forward Marian Hossa on July 12.
Center Brad Richardson and defenseman Kevin Connauton each re-signed with a two-year contract, and free agent forward Michael Grabner signed a three-year contract July 1.
Galchenyuk scored an NHL career-high 30 goals and 56 points in 2015-16 and had 51 points (19 goals, 32 assists) last season but never established himself as a full-time center for Montreal. He'll get a chance to do it in Arizona.
"The conversations I've had with him, I've noticed his enthusiasm level is off the roof," Tocchet said. "The first time I talked to him I joked with him that it was like fake, that he was acting, but he's not acting. He's excited. He point-blank asked if he could play center and I want to give him that opportunity."
Stepan, Christian Dvorak and Richardson are expected to be Arizona's other three centers, but rookie Dylan Strome, the No. 3 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, could take one of those spots.
Strome had 53 points (22 goals, 31 assists) in 50 games with Tucson of the American Hockey League last season and had eight points (three goals, five assists) in the Coyotes' last 10 games.
"He turned the corner last year and I want to see him get away from the corner now," Tocchet said. "I want to see him get a straightaway and separate himself."
Arizona was third in the NHL with 106 goals allowed from Jan. 1 to the end of last season. A lot of that had to do with Raanta, who led the NHL with a .942 save percentage and 1.84 goals-against average (among goalies with at least 20 games) in that stretch.
"He took it to a different level," Tocchet said. "We've got some solid goaltending. You have to have it or you've got no chance."