Coyotes discuss Mike Smith’s tough task: replacing Ilya Bryzgalov

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Few teams have leaned on their top goalies more than the Phoenix Coyotes did with Ilya Bryzgalov after they acquired him from the Anaheim Ducks. The Russian goalie was in the top 10 in shots faced and saves for four straight seasons, with the 2010-11 season providing his heaviest workload of all. (He ranked third in shots against [2,125] and saves [1,957].)

Some might give head coach Dave Tippett and general manager Don Maloney plenty of credit for guiding the Coyotes to two straight playoff berths amid franchise foibles – and they deserve much of it – but Bryzgalov was far and away the team’s most valuable player. He’ll face a different kind of pressure in Philadelphia, but Bryzgalov should be used to having a heavy burden on his shoulders, if nothing else.

With that workload in mind, we’ll find out an answer to a tough question for Tippett, Maloney and Coyotes goalie coach (and former NHL netminder) Sean Burke coming into next season: can they keep this overachieving run going without that star goalie? Burke admits it won’t be easy.

“Bryz is not exactly replaceable. We know that,” Burke, Phoenix’s goaltending coach, told NHL.com. “So for us, this offseason was about trying to search for the type of goaltending that gives the opportunity to win every night.”

The Coyotes brain trust committed to former Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Mike Smith being that man this off-season, giving him a two-year, $4 million contract. Burke, for one, thinks he might have what it takes.

“I think we get a guy that has a lot of upside, but he also has a fair amount of experience and a lot of confidence,” Burke said. “Basically, I think we’re getting the perfect guy at the perfect time.”

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Consistency hasn’t exactly defined Smith’s career — he’s posted season save percentages of .916 and .912 to go along with two of .899 and .893 — but Burke believes the Coyotes’ new netminder is ready to take his game to the next level.

“With age comes maturity,” Burke said of Smith, who is 29. “He just got married and just had a child. I think there comes a time when a lot of players are ready to take the next step and everything has to come together for you. I think he’s at that stage right now.”

Burke also pumps up Smith’s three games of playoff experience, but let’s face it: that bullet point stretches the boundaries of credibility a bit too much. That being said, Smith has at least two tangible assets going for him: he’s big and can move the puck very well. That second element might be a particular perk for Tippett, whose best coaching years in Dallas came when Marty Turco was at the height of his puck moving and goaltending powers.

Of course, Tippett coached Smith as a backup in Dallas too, so it’s reasonable to think that he was whispering in Maloney’s ear about Smith’s potential as a starter. Ultimately, the Coyotes are betting that Smith will play better than his career averages; a .906 save percentage and 2.71 GAA probably won’t cut it in the brutal Pacific Division. Especially if the low-scoring Coyotes cannot improve their average of 36.2 shots allowed per game from last season, the third worst total in the NHL.

As you can see, the deck might be stacked against Smith and the Coyotes franchise. Then  again, Phoenix have been beating the odds for two straight seasons, so who’s to say they cannot pull off another underdog act in 2011-12?

Huge step? Doctors may find a way to identify CTE in living NHL players

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Pro Football Talk’s Josh Alper and TSN’s Rick Westhead pass along what could be a breakthrough Boston University study  – or at least the early stages of a breakthrough – in how concussions/CTE are handled in sports.

The key: after only being able to study brains of deceased athletes, there’s a chance that living athletes with CTE might eventually be identified.

On face value, that’s great news for player health. Hockey, like other contact sports such as football, is no stranger to careers and lives being derailed by brain injuries.

Of course, the NHL and NHLPA would need to cooperate to make the most of potential progress. If you’ve watched hockey long enough, particularly postseason hockey, you know that certain protocols can stand as great concepts met with hesitant execution.

Westhead expounds on such thoughts, and some of his findings aren’t very pretty.

The league is embroiled in a class-action lawsuit regarding concussions, and its actions have been elusive enough that politicians have gone as far as to accuse Gary Bettman and the NHL of being “delusional” about the issue.

Don’t just put this on the league, though.

Players might be hesitant to take such tests if it means that they’ll miss playing time (or even see their careers end). It brings back memories of Peyton Manning willfully sandbagging his baseline concussion test. For better or worse, these guys want to play.

Not great, yet you can also understand the human element.

Of course, it’s crucial to realize that potential breakthroughs from this study could take quite some time to trickle into functional practices, even if leagues and players end up being more willing to comply than expected.

Overall, this is promising news. Hopefully such changes could help athletes during their careers and into retirement.

Sprong continues to impress, just not enough to make Penguins (yet)

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The Pittsburgh Penguins frequently give prospect Daniel Sprong rave reviews, yet it seems like they believe that he still needs some seasoning before making a dent at the NHL level.

Sprong and fellow intriguing forward Zach Aston-Reese headlined a group of 21 players the Penguins demoted to the AHL on Tuesday.

Here is the full list:

Forwards Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger, Jean-Sebastien Dea, Thomas Di Pauli, Adam Johnson, Sam Miletic, Dominik Simon, Colin Smith, Daniel Sprong, Christian Thomas, Freddie Tiffels and Garrett Wilson; defensemen Lukas Bengtsson, Frank Corrado, Kevin Czuczman, Ethan Prow, Chris Summers, Jarred Tinordi and Zach Trotman; and goalies Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry have all been returned to WBS.

Sprong, 20, was the 46th pick of the 2015 NHL Draft. He’s been generating solid numbers at the OHL, so it will be interesting to see how he converts that to AHL work. Sprong played 18 regular-season games for the Penguins back in 2015-16, notching two goals.

Sprong discussed that experience with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this summer.

“I played [in the NHL] at 18 for a reason,” Sprong said. “With the shoulder surgery last year, that was kind of a setback. But I’m excited for this year and hopefully I can start the season here.”

That won’t happen, but perhaps we’ll see Sprong in 2018-19 … or maybe sooner?

Aston-Reese, 23, already showed some promise in that regard; he scored eight games in a 10-game audition at the AHL level in 2016-17.

These moves narrow the Penguins’ training camp roster down to 26 players. They have until Oct. 3 to settle on 23.

Penguins, Kings among teams with notable waiver moves

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If an NHL team wants to add a big winger with two Stanley Cup rings,* they merely need to make a waiver claim.

TVA’s Renaud Lavoie tweeted out Tuesday’s list of waived players, with the Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins making some of the most interesting moves.

In the case of the Kings, they waived Jordan Nolan and former Penguins backup Jeff Zatkoff. Here’s the full list, via Lavoie:

There are some bullet points that can sell Nolan, but the 28-year-old’s production was quite limited at the NHL level. Nolan’s never scored 10 goals in a single season; in fact, he’s only reached 10 points once in his career (six goals and four assists in 64 regular-season contests back in 2013-14).

Overall, it wouldn’t be surprising if a team targeted Nolan as a depth guy, even if his ceiling is limited.

While the Penguins’ entries seem notable for sheer volume as much as anything else, Frank Corrado is another name that stands out.

Corrado was often the catalyst for debates about his playing time (or lack thereof) with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but it doesn’t seem like the defenseman is having much success catching on with the Penguins, either.

Zatkoff, meanwhile, fits in with quite a few other names on this list: possibly prominent in the AHL, only likely to get the occasional cup of coffee in the NHL, at this point.

* – Yes, it’s OK to think of Jaromir Jagr before that sentence ends.

Red Wings are ‘excited’ about Michael Rasmussen’s offensive upside

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The Detroit Red Wings missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years, but there appears to be something good that came from that.

Instead of drafting in the back half of the first round, the Wings were able to get a top 10 selection in last June’s NHL Entry Draft. With the ninth overall pick, they chose power forward Michael Rasmussen.

Rasmussen is listed at 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds. NHLers of that size are a rare breed. Add the fact that he’s gifted offensively, and it looks like the Red Wings may have a gem coming through the pipeline.

In his first three career preseason games, the 18-year-old has already picked up two goals. His play hasn’t gone unnoticed by the organization.

“I’m excited about him as a prospect,” head coach Jeff Blashill said, per MLive.com. “He’s big, he’s smooth, he’s got good hands, he’s got good offensive sense.”

With all big forwards, a lot of their success will be determined by their skating ability. In today’s NHL, it’s pretty clear that you need to be able to move if you’re going to have a long and productive career. But according to Blashill, skating isn’t a big issue with Rasmussen.

“I think he skates well. People have questioned that, but I don’t see that at all. I think he covers lots of ground in a hurry. I think he needs to move his feet a little bit more at times in the D-zone, but overall I’ve been happy with his play.”

No matter what he does between now and the end of training camp, it sounds like Rasmussen will be heading back to the WHL’s Tri-City Americans, where he’ll look to improve his numbers from last year (32 goals, 55 points in 50 games).